Florin Tomos, Matt Buckman On Crossing the Molokai Channel
Tomos is a lifelong open water swimmer who first crossed his local Lake Beliș as a child. Then as he progressed as a swimmer and coach, he kept on increasing in length, swimming 28 km across Lake Beliș in 2018.
Swimming in the open water is familiar to Florin, who has been doing this since childhood. In order to promote swimming, he created Lakes Seven which requires swimmers to swim across the longest 7 lakes in Romania. He explains, “Basically, it’s the Romanian version of Oceans Seven with crossings of Drăgan, Beliș, Izvorul Muntelui, Colibița, Vidrarul, Stânca Costești and Dunăre Porțile de Fier I.”
Tomos started on Papohaku Beach on Molokai at night. “The crossing was mostly at night with changing swimming conditions from quieter moments to big waves when I could not see the escort boat. There were times when the kayaker also disappeared from view for a few seconds and then he re-appeared at some distance from me, accentuating the state of the unknown.
Also, jellyfish didn’t leave big marks.
The difficult moment was before the finish at the last mile, more exactly 0.6 miles from shore, where the current had 2.2 knots. Time passed and I didn’t understand why I didn’t move. I thought the team didn’t tell me the real distance. I swam 2 hours 30 minutes to reach the shore.”
Matt Buckman was Tomos’ escort boat pilot.
Buckman explained his role, “I have done numerous Kaiwi Channel crossings throughout my life. No two have had the same weather conditions. To look at a weather prediction and say we are going on ‘that’ day only works sometimes.
However, more times than not, the weather changes. I have found it to be best to call it the day of, that way the prediction has a greater chance of becoming a report. A prediction looks into the future. A report is the present and is directly observed. Some people elect to go because their weather window is closing and the conditions are not quite ideal, or a storm might be tracking our way.
Many swimmers still make it and did not realize they could swim in good size seas and somewhat windy conditions. I have a limit and would not put my crew, boat, and swimmer in danger so sometimes I say no.
There are a lot of variables that make for a successful swim, many of which are out of the swimmer’s control. Some swimmers are blessed to have a feeder, a helper friend with experience, foresight, calm, rationale and humor.”
He described his equipment that he takes on each crossing, “I have a GPS to set our course, VHF radio, a 60-foot polypro line that is 1/8-inch thick for the feeding bottle, a ½-gallon bucket to get the feeds ready, a cooler with ice, a working marine toilet, two bunks to sleep on, bedding, pillows, blankets, good working Bluetooth stereo, a First Aid kit, and a complete toolbox.
The swimmer needs to provide their own goggles, their own swim cap, 25 red glow sticks, 2 red night cap lights, their own food, drink and other nutrition needed for them and their crew, a feeding bottle, red headlamps for their crew to work at night, Bonine seasickness medication for them and their crew, aspirin or pain medications if needed, and their own GPS tracker if they want their friends and family to follow their journey.
We can change up the routine or timing of the feeds if need be and I can speak the same ‘language’ as the swimmer. It can be a deterrent if the feeder, swimmer and Captain have a language barrier. My crew takes direction well from the Captain (me); and can also explain an extenuating circumstance to the Captain to get the Captain to change his mind on something. Everyone on the piloting team gets along well.
It is also important that the piloting team gets along well with the swimmer and his/her support team. The last thing the swimmer needs is friction between the crew or between the crew and the swimmer. You might have a coach, father, son, daughter, friend, whoever to come along as support. If they are not a seasoned boater, they often end up becoming a liability because they got seasick and become useless and sometimes get in the way.
As for the Captain and boat, there are many things to consider. Is the boat too big? Anything over 35 feet is kind of tricky to maneuver in medium seas and medium wind. Notice how I do not say high seas and high winds? You should not be out in high seas and high winds. Any boat under 25 feet is too small to accommodate everyone comfortably. The boat should also be capable of doing 25 knots fully loaded if need be (seas permitting) in case of a medical emergency.
Other factors to consider regarding the escort boats:
1. Will there be diesel or gas fumes coming from the boat that could get the crew sick?
2. Is there a comfortable place if you want to take a nap?
3. Is there shade?
4. What is the Captain’s experience level?
5. What is their reputation among other swimmers?
A few swimmers found boats and captains by asking around and got them on the cheap that ended up becoming long nightmare stories.”
Buckman described the weather in the middle of the Pacific, always a critical element in the success of a swim. “Weather is always subject to change, as are a lot of things as mentioned above. Many times, what is forecasted or predicted is not what actually happens. Most swimmers are not prepared for 15 knot winds and 4-6 foot seas, which is a typical weather pattern in Hawaii. We know the Kaiwi Channel is the longest channel of the Oceans Seven and sometimes the roughest. This is where the kayakers earn their keep.”
Kayakers are another critical element of a successful crossing. “The kayaker follows the pilot boat. Wind, swell and current sometimes go in different directions. To follow the pilot boat can be tricky. The pilot boat keeps a working distance to not interfere with the kayaker and swimmer, putting in a course correction when, not if, the current kicks in. The pilot boat always keeps a visual and whistle distance as well as voice on the kayaker and swimmer. At night, all the swimmer has on is a blinking red light on the back of their swimming cap. The kayaker has red glow sticks attached to the kayak, and a red head lamp that can go white if need be. It is a bit nerve wracking when it is overcast with little or no moon and the cap light malfunctions. The kayaker yells or whistles to the pilot boat and we shine a spotlight to make sure we do not lose them. I have had to tie a small red flashlight to a swimmer’s neck before because they did not have another (red) light, they went on to complete the swim.
If a swimmer has their own kayakers and they have kayaked before in seas, and they feel comfortable kayaking in the ocean, it is a possibility that I may allow them to be a part of the kayaking team. However, three out of the four times I have allowed it, they got seasick, became useless, and got in the way. In addition, we had to hear them moaning and groaning and puking, and the other kayaker had to do double duty, which can be extremely exhausting.
When a swimmer breathes on their right, the kayaker needs to stay on their right so the swimmer can see the kayaker when they breathe. However, when there are white caps, the kayak is sometimes tossed on or near them. In seas, feeding is a bit tricky; keeping my eye on the swimmer is paramount with both engines in reverse and keeping a safe distance so they can stay in the same place while they feed. It is almost always a mistake to use the feeding as a break. Feed and get back to it – especially when there is a good current. Staying idle can sweep you far off your course.
It also seems that if a swimmer is constantly asking how much further there is to go, it takes a toll on their mental prowess. The ones who don’t bother asking, ask only a few times how much further, or say they don’t want to know how much further are the ones who tend to succeed.”
Buckman also described his own team, “My team consists of 5 young men who have all been water rats since they were 8 years old. One of them is my son Manoa who is also a competent Captain. It is nice to have a break every now and then from driving the boat. Manoa was the Captain along with his other 20-year-old buddies who were on the crew earlier this year for Eric Schall when he was hit by a cookie cutter shark. They quickly got him onto the pilot boat, applied pressure to his abdomen where he got bit and punched it to the nearest boat ramp as they called 911. The EMT’s were standing by when they got in. Eric has since made a full recovery.
Two swims after that, I was the Captain and my son Manoa was on the kayak when another cookiecutter shark hit a swimmer. The swimmer jumped up on the kayak and laid down while Manoa put his feet in the water for balance so they wouldn’t tip. I was about 60 feet in front of them. I backed up swiftly and pulled the swimmer aboard. Manoa fell off the kayak in the transfer but remained very calm. We know that the cookie cutters are a parasite and an attack shark. They take one small bite (chunk) and speed back down to the depths so Manoa was not concerned. We put a tourniquet on the swimmer’s thigh above the wound, wrapped it in a towel, and blazed in with the EMT’s standing by at the boat ramp. We can only go as fast as the sea conditions allow us, otherwise the boat and the occupants would get beat up. The swimmer will make a full recovery.
One week later, the Romanian Florin Tomos had his window. I called it a bit early because the next day it was dead winds and 1-foot seas. There was also a tropical depression, borderline storm headed our way. So I made the call. We left Hawaii Kai at 1:30 pm and got to the west side of Molokai at 4 pm. Florin started at Papohaku Beach at 4:38 pm. At about 3:30 in the morning we saw a large boat in the distance coming our way.
We turned on our bright navigation or running lights, shone spotlights towards them and called them on the VHF radio. Nothing, they kept heading towards us. I was actually a little bit concerned, (remember, when the Captain is concerned, you probably should be too), but did not let anyone pick up on it. We continued calling the vessel over the VHF and shining the spotlight on them and we could see that they would pass about a 1/8th of a mile behind us. I was ready to pull the swimmer and kayaker out of the water and call it a day.
We had a small correction in for the current that was taking us south. When we got a few miles from Sandy Beach I felt we were not going to make it. Our new destination was Portlock Point, about two miles further but running with the current. I put in a heavy correction to make sure we would not miss it. We got 0.6 miles from the Point and we started going backwards…for 45 minutes.
I called a NOAA ship that had been hanging around for about 2 hours in the area to talk story. They said they were monitoring the current and their instruments were recording the current to be 2.2 miles per hour. I had Florin turn down towards Diamond Head.
I was not sure where I was going to have him finish, however, he started moving forward again even though he was starting to get tired. I called my girlfriend to come out on a small boat so I could look for a channel between the reef at an area called Niu Circle. I hopped on the small boat, let my son drive the big boat, and went scouting for the channel. I knew it was there somewhere as I used to surf and play in the area a lot as a youngster. I found a channel about 10 feet wide and 2 feet deep. We went back out and guided the kayaker and Florin towards the channel between the reef. There were waves breaking so it was a bit tricky. We maneuvered through the channel while Florin hit bottom twice, made it to a pier that had steps that Florin climbed, and stood on top of the pier with the high tide mark well below him and land behind him as he looked out towards the ocean he just successfully swam across. He made it.
There is so much more that goes into piloting a boat that a lot of people do not realize or understand. I would say there is about a 30-40% chance that you make it on your first attempt. I put a small correction to stay on the rum line (shortest distance from A to B) to correct for the current. However, if the current is so strong that our correction gives us a very low speed, I will re-adjust our course or correction so the current will not be as much of a hindrance and we can still head towards our destination.
The odds are much better that the current will change than tiring out mid-channel trying to stay on course. Where we actually make landfall may change depending on the current. There are several places to finish the swim along the south east side of Oahu: Sandy Beach, Portlock Point, Alan Davis Beach (Awawamalu), Makapuu Beach, and most recent, Niu Peninsula [indicated with red water drop on left].
When Kim Chambers swam the Kaiwi Channel, she was set on a Sandy Beach finish. We stayed in the same place about 3 miles off Sandy Beach for an hour and 15 minutes. I told her we were finishing at Portlock and she said no, Sandy’s. I said Portlock or I am putting you in the boat and the swim is over. She finished at Portlock 45 minutes later and expressed her gratitude.
This is an example of a judgment call by the Captain.
Sometimes you tough out the current, it changes and goes in your favor, or sometimes you get taken for a ride and do not finish. If you finish, the Captain gets no credit. If you fail, the Captain gets the blame. Hopefully the ocean is much more unpredictable than the Captain.
Why go at sunset? This just about guarantees a day time arrival, and when coming through waves, reef, and cliffs, it is nice to be able to see where you are going. You also do not get burned by the sun.
If you are considering a Molokai Kaiwi Channel swim, do as much research as you can, ask questions, prepare yourself mentally, physically, logistically, spiritually, have a competent crew, and have all your supplies in order. Do this and you increase your chances for a successful swim across the Kaiwi Channel, appropriately named The Channel of Bones.“
Tomos is shown finishing on Nui Peninsula in above video and approaching the shore of Oahu on left.
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