Watching sunrise over Honshu from where the Japan Sea feeds into the Tsugaru Strait was a surreal experience. My friends Steve Walker and Cameron Bellamy had just jumped into the water to start their attempt to cross one of the world’s most challenging channels to swim across. The Catalina Channel is like a second home to me and everything that I’d see today would be brand new. We knew and had planned for a strong current going through the middle of the channel, which the observer, Haruyuki Ishii, the honorable Chairman of the Tsugaru Strait Swimming Association, said that if the guys could make it past the middle channel, they were almost guaranteed success. Ishii-san himself had completed the swim in 30 hours in 1979 and his friend Mieko had done a triple crossing (!!!). I felt confident with having someone on the boat who was so well versed with navigating the strait from a swimmer’s perspective.
We had a mighty and bare bones international crew of Cam’s mother, Janita from Capetown (South Africa), Ian from Hong Kong, Bill from Hakodate (Japan), and myself (San Francisco). I was responsible for Steve while Ian and Janita took care of Cam. Bill provided communications support between Ishii-san, Sudo-san (boat captain) and the rest of us. We have a real I’d never crewed for Steve before and we’d gone over his feeds a couple of times beforehand. Both of them had completed 5 of the 7 “Oceans Seven Challenge” swims with the English Channel (England to France), North Channel (Ireland to Scotland), Molokai Channel (Oahu to Molokai), Catalina Channel (Catalina Island to Mainland), and the Straits of Gibraltar (Spain to Morrocco). Reaching the shores of Hokkaido today would leave them with only Cooks Strait in New Zealand left. Personally I have no desire to do this challenge as I have no desire to do the English Channel. Many of us do swims that “call” us and EC just isn’t doing it for me. I was interested in possibly the Molokai Channel until discussing the idea with Forrest Nelson, the President of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and very experienced with the Hawaii marathon swims, and he mentioned about the obvious difficulty of hitting Molokai (3 possible landing spots and if you miss the third one, you’ve missed the island and in open ocean) and tiger sharks (at which point I thought “I’m out!”). I would rather swim in a great white shark’s home waters (as evident by my 40th birthday party out at the Farallones that involved a fun swim around the boat) than a tiger shark’s home waters.
Sunrise over Honshu, Japan.
Steve and Cam had both given me their cell phones to update their Facebook pages and respond to anyone pinging them. I was busy juggling them and trying to eventually distribute any Facebook updates between their two accounts along with Steve’s wife Sue who was watching their tracker like a hawk! Steve and Cam are business partners so there was also an email thread with their staff that had to be updated along with a personal email group that Steve wanted me to send updates to. I had Steve’s feed list also along with his request of wanting a lot of data given to him during their swim related to their progress, speed, and conditions. I’ve never been so busy on a swim! Steve also warned me that he would go off the schedule based on his mood and at least I had a general idea of what he may do. Cam was happy to just go with everything he had on his list and ate and drank whatever Ian and Janita gave him.
The boys looked strong and confident in the water with long smooth strokes despite the water being a little choppy. Steve was ahead of Cam in general but they pod together very well. I was quickly getting sick of Steve’s ringtone as Sue was constantly texting me asking for updates and offering words of encouragement. I’d posted the link to the swim tracker to the South End Rowing Club’s Google Groups. Fellow South Ender, Kevin Buckholtz, posted the link to his employer SalesForce’s social group. Sue also works for SalesForce and didn’t know Kevin so was surprised to see the tracker link blasted out to the entire company. I told the boys that apparently all of SalesForce was tracking their swim! No pressure at all.
Cam getting into the water at the start of his Tsugaru Strait swim crossing attempt.
They charged through the middle of the channel in great spirits with not much chit chat time. Ishii-san was happy with their progress and the water temperatures were staying fairly constant around 16 – 17 C, water temperatures that are considered warm back in our San Francisco Bay. We watch a lot of container ships pass far in the distance but no other smaller boats. Steve and Cam seem in great spirits and focused on getting the job done. We don’t discuss anything that isn’t related to the swim during any of their feeds. Ishii-san had this great device like a mix between a horn and a whistle that you blow into that we use to help stop the guys for the feeds. Cam is more likely to miss any yelling or whistles when it’s feed time which I can relate to since I’m practically deaf while swimming, even without earplugs.
We head into late afternoon where the boys are almost completely out of the middle of the channel and heading into waters where the current is weaker, if non-existent. The winds have died down along with any surface waves. I’ve heard that swimming from light to dark has a horrible mental affect on swimmers as opposed to the more natural and positive condition of swimming from dark to light. My Catalina swim ended at 5:00-something in the afternoon in August 2015 so it was still bright light at that hour. We’re at the end of October though so the sun is starting to set at 4:00 p.m. I’m worried about them being able to finish the swim as they are out of the hardest part but still have a ways to go. Another swimmer had recently said that her Tsugaru Strait swim was harder than her North Channel swim which is contrary to popular belief that the North Channel was the hardest one of the Ocean’s Seven. Steve and Cam appear to be in good spirits though and their stroke rates are staying constant. I never imagine any outcome except for them reaching the shores of Hokkaido though and the celebration that we’ll have afterwards.
Steve and Cam in the middle of the Tsugaru Strait with a container ship in the background.
The sun sets over the Japan Sea and the wind picks up. The water temperature drops so quickly that even Ishii-san is shocked to see the water temperature is now 14 C. We turn the deck lights on as there is no other light out in the middle of the channel. Steve and Cam put their blinkies back on their goggles so we can see them in the dark. Steve and Cam are less talkative now and Steve is completely off of his feed plan even denying offerings that he had requested to be given just a half an hour before in the previous feed. They’re slowing down which can be expected. We get to feeds where Steve is hardly drinking any of his Gatorade/water blend. Steve asked for one of his caffeinated Gus during a feed and then couldn’t find it in the fish net even with a light shining right on it and his hand is right next to the packet. He gives up after the third try of trying to find it. I’m feeling like a bit of a failure of crew as we aren’t able to reverse the swimmers’ performance declining. Steve starts complaining about cramping and is getting pretty grumpy. He refuses to stop for one feed and instead swims in a circle while Cam feeds. They’re less than 6 KM from finishing the swim and Hokkaido seems so close even in the dark. We can clearly see the lights going along the road that snakes along Hokkaido’s coastline. Cam keeps swimming into the port side of the boat and we keep having to yell at him to swim parallel to the boat and farther away from it. Their progress is now just under 1 mile an hour but they are out of the current. My heart sinks as I sense that they’re starting to get hyopthermic due to the sharp temperature drop and the natural affect of being in water that much colder than you for that long. If they have it in themselves to crawl through these last few miles, they’ll finish the swim. Knowing how much time and energy into getting here, I want to see them finish! I’ve got a few DNFs (Did Not Finish) to my name and know how frustrating it is to come so close yet be so far from landing on that beach that you’ve envisioned for so long on reaching by your own power.
Sun setting over the Japan Sea.
Steve shouts out that he’s done and wants the ladder. He and Cam have been swimming now for just over 13 hours. Bill and I try to plead with him to just swim a little longer as we try to limp him to the finish. We’re a mere 4.5 KM from Hokkaido and they were making a beeline for it now. Feed to feed, 30 minutes to 30 minutes. This is a standard mental trick to break down a long swim to much smaller chunks as I don’t think any marathon swimmer is really looking forward to the gazillion hours that a swim is going to take to finish. Same as when riding up Old La Honda Road in Woodside or Mt Tam in the North Bay…one turn at a time and you’ll be at the top before you know it. Steve asks for the ladder again at the next feed and this time he isn’t taking any other outcome as an answer. We relunctantly get the ladder. Steve’s legs are so cramped that he can’t get up the ladder. Bill and Ian take Steve’s right side while I take his left side and we haul him up the ladder and over the side of the boat. Steve is shivering. We sit him down on the closest cooler and dry him off as quickly as possible. I hug his back to try and transfer heat to his back, which is one of the places we lose heat the fastest from (the other being the head). We get him into the boat’s cabin where Ishii-san is prepared with a foil thermal blanket. Steve instructs us to go back and take care of Cam.
Ian is busy outside trying to get Cam to keep going as now Cam wants to quit. I’ve only seen the expression on Cam’s face from when he finished his North Channel swim. I can tell that he’s completely exhausted and hit his wall. He’s begging for the ladder and is just mentally gone from any other thought. Ian asks him three times if Cam is sure that he wants to get out now which Cam affirms each time. As with Steve, Bill and Ian take Cam’s right side while I take his left side and we haul him into the boat. Cam is shivering uncontrollably and we do the same process of drying him off like we did with Steve. We escort him into the boat cabin and put him next to Steve. Cam slurs if he can rest his head on my lap which of course he can! Janita takes Cam’s feet in her lap to try and warm them up. I can’t imagine what it was like for a mother to watch her child be in this condition. Steve is better now and asks for his phone so he can talk to Sue. I’d already managed to slip in a text to Sue a few minutes before to let her know that her husband was safely back on the boat. The boat makes its long ride back to dock.
My biggest fear has always been that I’d have wasted my crew’s time and energy if I don’t finish a swim. I never felt like I wasted anything being there for a friend’s swim and always considered myself honoured to have been trusted to take care of a friend during their swim. I’ve been on other DNF swims but this one was different given the cost and time involved of us gathering in Japan for a swim. Marathon swims aren’t cheap and international ones are even more expensive. I was proud of every stroke that Steve and Cam did during their swim. They really gave it everything they had that day and made a heroic display of athleticism. While some consider it these swims a “conquering” challenge, it’s far from that. The strength of the swimmer has to match the conditions given with a little luck to make it across. Both Steve and Cam are very accomplished athletes and today just wasn’t their day to finish. They tackled a tough swim that most people don’t even dream about attempting even. I have the deepest respect for any swimmer who even tries a marathon swim as it’s a much larger commitment than just a single day. Marathon swimmers put several months into training and preparing for a swim and hope that Mother Nature cooperates on the target date. They swam really strong for several hours until they had nothing left to give and didn’t quit until they couldn’t physically swim any more.
There was no talk later from either of them saying that they could have made it and regretted not continuing to swim that day. No “coulda woulda shoulda” talk of what anyone could have done differently. We all did our best and it showed. Steve had tried the swim earlier this year and made it farther than he had the first time. He has more knowledge about the channel now. We talked briefly the next morning. He was ready to quit marathon swimming entirely and I told him to just give it a few months, regroup, and then figure out what to do. There was no reason to commit to a resignation right now. Cam has his own lessons that he can take into his next attempt. These DNFs are learning experiences and there’s never a person to fault for a DNF, whether the swimmer or crew. We have a saying of “this just wasn’t the day for it to happen” which is absolutely true. Different day and time and it may have happened or may not have. The unpredictability of open water swimming is the greatest challenge of it which is also what we’re drawn to the sport otherwise we’d have never moved out of the concrete pond. Pool swimmers can really only push themselves on speed as pool water will always be flat with a temperature of about 80 F. A pool distance is always going to be just that as there is no current. The ocean moves horizontally and vertically. Marathon swimmers strive for the greatest possible challenge in swimming and everyone who even starts one of these swims gets kudos from me for even trying. I know my own feelings of disappointment from a DNF where part of me never wanted to swim again and the real challenge is to overcome that feeling, brush it off, and let it make you stronger. A larger scale than my last Candlestick Point to Aquatic Park swim when the flood kicked in (AGAIN) before I got to the Opening and I thought to myself “OH HELL NO!” and booked it against the current up the breakwater and into the Opening to complete that swim on the second try.
Cameron Bellamy and Steve Walker before their Tsugaru Strait attempt in October 2017.
I never regretted answering Cam’s invite to crew for them. I always suspected that my crew was lying to make me feel better when they said that they didn’t feel like they wasted their time crewing for me on a DNF. As a fellow marathon swimmer, I finally fully learned from Steve and Cam’s swim that your crew is being honest when they say such things. My biggest takeaway was the realization of just how tight knit and supportive that the marathon swimming community is of each other. We never just say nice things to spare feelings and we all genuinely want to encourage and be there for each other. It’s a give and take that comes full circle without discussion. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the swimmers and crew for any of these swims. Everyone shows up and gives it their best effort which is all you can ask from anyone. Not every swim attempt is going to be successful and it really is more about the journey than the destination. I think those who were always successful on first attempts don’t get as much out of this sport than others who have had to overcome setbacks. If you always get what you want then where was the real challenge? Who is more interesting to talk to…the kid who grew up getting everything they ever wanted handed to them or the kid who had to work hard, overcome failures, and really earn it? I have no doubt that Steve and Cam finishing this swim on another attempt will mean more to them than if they had finished it on the first try.
Even if I knew their attempt would result in a DNF, I would do this all over again for them without question. I’d crew for any of the other swimmers who I’ve been on their DNF swims. They all had strong crews who did everything right and it just wasn’t the day for that swim to happen. No faults and no blames. No time wasted by anyone. I’m always just glad to be included in the swimmer’s journey to achieve a dream. That day in Japan I saw Steve and Cam push themselves to their limits and was glad to be to help catch them when they reached their maximum output that day. I already told them that if they want to try again that I would do it again in a heartbeat with no questions. I would love nothing more than to see the stars align and them successfully complete this swim in the future. I know they both have the aptitude to complete this swim and have no doubt that they would be successful if they try it again. Their success truly would be sweeter having gone through more effort than those who were successful on the first try. I know both of them have it in them to finally scratch the Tsugaru Strait off of their To Do list. As my friend Marilyn Grace’s motto goes..”how hungry are you for it?”
I hope that Steve and Cam are still hungry.
* Shizukana Ryu means “quiet dragon” in Japanese.