Oceans of fun
September 20, 2016
EAGLE COUNTY — Dr. Tom Hackett had never felt better.
Yeah, he was exhausted from swimming 28.5 miles across the Ka'iwi Channel from Molokai to Oahu, Hawaii, through the pitch black night. And sure, his arms and shoulders are still sore, and the jellyfish stings all over his body are still fresh, as are the welts from swimming into the electric shark shield. And, of course, he was still a little woozy a few days later from exhaustion and ingesting salt water.
And let's not forget that face. It's a little tired from grinning so much, because he has never felt better.
"I think having a big tough challenge really tends to focus your energies," Hackett said.
When we last visited Hackett, he had swum the English Channel, which is cold and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. The Ka'iwi Channel in Hawaii is a whole different deal.
"It made the English Channel seem small," Hackett said.
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If you're Hackett, this is your idea of an all-nighter.
Around dusk Sunday he greased up with his own concoction of lanolin, Vaseline, zinc oxide and sunscreen, which helps keep the cold at bay — at least for a while. He hung lights on his head because it's dark in the middle of the ocean at night. The Milky Way is amazing, he said smiling.
He does not wear a wetsuit. That would be cheating.
"Wearing a wetsuit on an open water swim is like letting a Tour de France rider put a motorcycle engine in his bike. It's considered cheating because they offer such a tremendous advantage with speed and buoyancy," Hackett said.
It was dark by 8 p.m. and pitch black by 9 p.m., which is about the time he began to enjoy bioluminescence. When his hand hit the water, it would glow as tiny ocean creatures lit up like fireflies.
"It was like that all the way across. It was mesmerizing," Hackett said. "It was just me, the kayak and my little firefly buddies."
Fourteen hours and 53 minutes later, he climbed out and collapsed on the shore, one of only about 30 people who've finished it. He had planned to smoke a victory cigar, but exhaustion and sea sickness made him rethink that idea.
"Nothing makes you realize the realize the enormity of the ocean like being in it in the middle of the night, wearing nothing but a thin Lycra bathing suit," Hackett said.
A couple times, within a few moments of each other, he saw a couple of those light trails deep below him, made by something that wasn't him. It reminded him that he was not at the top of that food chain. It also explains the shark shield.
"Although I never saw any of the big sharks that are out there, I saw something big, making that bioluminescence trail," Hackett said. "I'm convinced that thing kept me safe across that channel. Those are some of the most shark-infested waters anywhere."
Go forward, rarely straight
The Ka'iwi Channel would be 28.5 miles if you could swim it in a straight line, but you can't. The thing about the ocean is that it has currents and swells and stuff that makes you go where it wants, which is rarely a straight line. So it was closer to 30 miles, through a black night so dark he couldn't see his buddy Mike Alkaitis' kayak a few feet away. He could feel it, though, because Alkaitis was pulling the shark shield. A Shark Shield is a cable about 7 feet long that drags in the water and emits an electrical impulse. It actually attracts sharks to a certain point, then they get a nasty electrical bite that sends them swimming away.
"At least that's what you hope," Hackett said.
If you swim too close to it, it makes your teeth hurt. If you manage to swim into it — and remember it's dark in the Pacific at night — it leaves a welt on you that looks a little like the coiled rattler on the early American "Don't Tread On Me" flags. Hackett hit it a couple times.
"It was the best/worst feeling I've ever had. Every time I would hit that thing, it felt awful because of the electrical current, but you felt great because it was out there," Hackett said.
Because it's so dark, you'll also swim right into jellyfish, plankton and krill. Hackett says krill feel like someone poured cayenne pepper into a cut. Stings from the smaller jellyfish feel like you stuck your wet finger into a light socket, or a bee sting, and they zapped him all the way across. The big Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish wrap their tentacles around you for more of a total body sensation. That's like being stung by a bunch of wasps.
"The tentacles wrap around you. You have to peel them off and then your hands get stung," Hackett said.
He also has scars from chafing that he got from doing his stroke perfectly, thanks to some help from Rowdy Gaines and Jeff Lezak at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
As the sun came up Hackett was cruising along at a world record pace. Nature happens, though. The last few miles the tides changed and he covered about a quarter mile in an hour and a half.
"Those last couple hours were pretty rugged," Hackett said.
Hackett's wife, Kim, and their 13-year-old son, Logan, were there, with Alkaitis, a professional climber from Boulder and Hackett's long-time friend. He was along for Hackett's English Channel swim.
Hackett said he would not have made it if not for his family — his wife, Kim, and their three kids, ages 18, 16 and 13. Kim rode in the support boat, and Logan was in Hawaii with them to help arrange logistics and offer encouragement, which Hackett said he really needed.
"The physical and mental aspects only get you so far, then you have to tap into something deeper," Hackett said. "When negative energy starts to creep into you, it's like an anchor. Ultimately it's the people in your life that get you through tough times."
Every 30 or 40 minutes they'd shine bright lights on him, because it was time to stop to drink water and a straight carbohydrate drink. They'd throw it out to him on a buoy while he'd tread water.
It was not time to rest. He could not touch the boat.
The Pacific is no respecter of your best efforts. Sickness, currents, exhaustion and predators will shut you down. A woman was trying something similar recently and was chased out of the water by tiger sharks.
One of the things that will end your Ka'iwi quest is electrolyte imbalances, which you get from taking too much salt water into your system. It can be a challenge, because, you know — it's the ocean and you have to open your mouth to breathe. Sometimes a wave smacks you in the face.
Another thing is that salt water burns your mouth. All the skin in his mouth and throat were inflamed, which meant a cheeseburger at the diner Cheeseburger in Paradise on the way to the airport was out of the question.
The Ka'iwi Channel is one of the Ocean Seven, the seven most brutal open water swims on earth. That's something like the Seven Summits, but with creatures that consider you an appetizer.
Ka'iwi, by the way, means "Channel of Bones," and is one of the toughest of the Ocean Seven.
You have to account for trade winds that, hopefully, will be blowing in your favor. If they're not, you're not going to make it. The waves can run about 12 feet. If they're going in the right direction they'll help you. If not, they'll slap you down.
The window of opportunity is only open for a couple days for two or three two-week periods each year.
"You can control when you go with the moon, and you can hopefully go at a good time for trade winds, but you cannot control the weather," Hackett said.
About Dr. Tom Hackett
Hackett trains at the East Vail Racquet Club almost every day, between 5,000 and 10,000 meters a day. The pool opens at 6 a.m., and he's in surgery by 9 a.m. Weekends see him in Reudi Reservoir with his family. His family is water skiing while he swims along the shore for miles. He takes a couple weeks to swim in the ocean every year, and he grew up swimming with his sister in the Atlantic.
Hackett grew up in New Hampshire playing hockey and swimming, and spent six years in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as a ski patroller and emergency medical technician. He was at a meeting there one day, surrounded by physicians, and said he saw something in them he wanted to emulate.
He attended the University of Wyoming and Creighton University medical school. All he had to do, to have his entire medical school debt forgiven was to spend a few years as a doctor in Wyoming, which he would have been happy to do.
But then Dr. Richard Steadman called with an offer he couldn't refuse, so now he's a surgeon with Steadman Philippon Research Institute.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.