Posted by: First Mate | September 14, 2011

Maui Channel Swim disaster, how does this happen?

Yesterday I received and email from a friend and fellow swimmer who swam the Maui Channel Swim solo this year, she also acted as crew, spotter and coach for our team in the same swim last year under lousy conditions of 35-38 knot winds and large chop.  The email was a letter from the race director to all the 2011 participants reviewing the race and what happened to a 41 year old California swimmer, John Caughlin.  John lost his right arm above the elbow and suffered extensive injuries to his left hand including the loss of a portion of his hand, his thumb and index finger.  The text of the email is posted here on the daily news of Open Water Swimming. 

How does a swimmer get ‘sucked into’ the prop wash or run over by a boat in ‘safe zone’?  Or to be more specific, as a surgeon who blogs at Skeptical Scapel  wrote me on Twitter “how does a power boat get to where swimmers are racing?” Good question!  And why aren’t propeller guards required?  The safety of this race needs to be reviewed comprehensively, policies like the ones listed below from postings on Open Water Swimming  need to be implemented:

  1. Better coordination and knowledge of the boat captains and crew for swimmers and race directors – should be mandatory to have a least 2 crew for the escort boat  1) Always have a spotter on the swimmers and  2)Always have someone capable at the helm/radio.
  2. Mandatory meeting for boat captains. (This exists but isn’t enforced.)
  3. Boat safety checks – several boats did NOT have anchors and ropes, as evidenced by the boat stuck on the reef at the start. I am not sure why the boat at the finish did not anchor safely away. Make sure all radios are operational. 
  4. Staggered start with relays and individuals in two groups instead of one overwhelmingly large group. Establish limited entries.
  5. More safety boats. The three jetskis were great, but not enough for the scale of this race. There should also be a race boat out there to help pick up swimmers in an emergency, such as the sinking of boats that happened this year.
  6. Enforcing the safety area at the finish with an actual presence on the water, not just relying on the radio. More buoys could also be placed ahead of the ‘no go area’ to make it more obvious. (Need more volunteers.)
  7. An annual summary of incidents should be posted so that all can learn from the mistakes of the past.
  8. Consider mandatory propeller guards

The Maui Channel Swim runs from Club Lanai to Black Rock at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel on Maui across the Au Au channel.  It has been held the Saturday of Labor Day weekend since 1972.  Swimmers can chose the solo event 9.6 to 10 miles depending on currents, or the relay where six swimmers each swim a 30 minute leg followed by 10 minute sprints in the same order until the race is finished.  All swimmers have escort boats (hence power boats in a swimmers area). Boat captains act as navigators for the swimmers guiding them on the most appropriate path.  Last year there were four experienced life guards on jet skis, this year there were 3.

Each team has a swim captain who is responsible for attending the captain’s meeting and the boat captain is required to attend a boat captain’s meeting the evening prior to the race.  The logistics and safety details (radio, bouys, water safety personnel, start, etc) of the race are covered at these meetings.  In last years race, an escort boat from the team who finished second evidently escorted their swimmers all the way up to the beach, thus new safety procedures where instituted during last years race – teams and swimmers would be disqualified if a boat came to shore.  A safety zone with buoys was implemented for this years race.

What I have to emphasize is that this race, like many open water races, starts with total chaos.  Imagine 75 – 85 boats floating above a shallow reef off Lanai, while 55 teams of 6 swimmers and 20 solo swimmers warm up in the water.  No one is anchored due to the coral reef so boats are adrift and then running engines to find a decent location to spot their swimmer as the race starts.  As a boat owner and a swimmer, it is somewhat terrifying.  We handled the situation by having ‘spotters’ on all sides of the boat and going through our usual safety calls of ‘swimmer at the step’ or ‘swimmer 10 yards off your port bow’ while keeping the radio on channel 68 to communicate with other captains and the life guards. This year a boat went aground at the reef before the start and another boat sank in the first few miles of the race after also going aground at the start.  How does that happen?   Where are those reports?

Once swimmers find their escorts, the boats generally separate to a safe distance, although Kelly, our solo swimmer said she was almost run over at one point and at another, her boat captain attempted to leave her to pick up debris from the sunken boat.  If you have ever swum in 1000 feet of water 4 miles from land in rough seas with a few curious tiger sharks, the last thing you want is to see is your escort boat gunning it off for just a few minutes to pick up a floating cooler. What are the chances of them actually finding you again?  The end of this race has both a strong current pulling swimmers around Black Rock and an area where boats are turning and crossing each other to head back to Mala wharf in LaHaina.

Evidently, the boat that hit John Caughlin, was drifting into the safe zone and the captain had been radioed repeatedly warning him to avoid the area. When he returned to the helm he gunned the boat without observing the swimmer.  Open water swimming is an extreme sport, but this swimmer was 400 – 500 yards from shore.  The incident is being investigated, so what happens now – will things change?  More important – what kind of stuff leads up to this? What could have been improved in the process to have helped the follow up care for this swimmer? An ambulance on the scene as a precaution?

Let’s start with the misconception that swimmers have a beer between race legs and easily make the crossing without incident. Here is a testimony of a 2006 relay team.  Or that boat captains are all just like life guards concerned for the swimmers safety.  It costs between $500 and $700 to charter a boat, and that doesn’t guarantee that your captain, who is in charge won’t be smoking a joint and drinking a beer while driving the vessel 25 feet from you in the water.  The majority of boat captains are amazing, responsible and know the waters and currents better than anyone and provide excellent leadership and safety.  Swimmers just need to know who NOT to use.

Many swimmers suffer from jelly fish stings and in 2010 three teams dropped out due to 12-17  foot Tiger sharks checking out their swimmers.  In 2010, solo swimmer, John Gomersall was stung by box jellies in the first hour of his swim causing him to vomit throughout the race attracting a 10 – 12 foot Tiger shark who followed him for so long that his boat captain and 3 life guards on jet skis demanded that get in the boat and drop out.  He declined due the logic that if the shark wanted to feed, he would have done so already.  John Gomersall finished the race and walked up the beach after 7 hours 40 minutes and 54 seconds of serious determination.

As swimmers, we chose to put ourselves through this because it is beautiful, challenging and yes, fun.  You can’t complete something like this and not make changes in other parts of your life.  It drives my husband crazy that I continue to participate in these types of events and he swears he will no longer escort channel crossings by me or friends.  In an earlier post, What are the odds?, I mentioned the sad drowning of an excellent 47 year old open water swimmer, Dave Mackenzie, in a Father’s day race off Kailua.  Dave Mackenzie was in perfect health, perhaps he suffered a laryngospasm, an involuntary reflex where the larynx closes the throat. Which may have been triggered by a splash of water from a wave that hit his throat or vocal chords as he was trying to take a breath.

I don’t have the answers and hope that new safety procedures are considered and implemented for open water swimmers.  Swimmers generally watch out for each other and this was a horrible and preventable incident.  We all wish John a healthy recovery as he goes through multiple surgeries and rehabilitation.  Per the email from Ian and Coco (race directors): Cards and letters of encouragement can be sent in care of his sister, Jennifer Dorsey at: 1210 Green Orchard Place, Encinitas, CA 92024, U.S.A. For those who would like to offer other assistance, all support is welcome.



  1. I also swam in the 2011 Maui Channel event as a solo swimmer. My captian took me to the wrong starting point after reviewing the map details prior to race day and the morning of the race….. and he did not know where the finish line was located. He could not read! Yes he could not read nor had he ever had his boat in the water on that side of the island! The captain was assigned to me by the race director and although I swam to Maui I did not cross the official finish line. And on several occassions he came dangerously close to me in the water. Several times I had to stop and tell him to keep a safe distance. All that training, planning and money down the tube! The bottom line… excort boats need to be pre screened!

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