Swimming to Molokai

An ex-surfer and award-winning writer remains focused on the deep.

Light / Dark

Honolulu. Break of day. Again on this small beach. Ghost crabs, low tide, nearly spent waves. Ocean: living and breathing membrane shore to horizon. My church and office. Writer, alchemizing water into words.

So many years here. Time keeps passing. More heart trouble. My surf buddy, a doctor, asks, “Do you want to live until you’re 85?” Arguing, “If you don’t get a second opinion you might die anytime.” But to live another decade? If things get worse? When things get worse?

More than 30 years ago, in morning twilight at my church and office, I’d nod hello to a woman. She was “getting on in years” and “showing her age,” as people put it in my Boston childhood. They’d say, “She lived to a ripe old age.” Ripe, but as with fruit, suggesting a trend toward over-ripe. Or, back in the day, someone had “dropped dead.” Had a heart attack. “Keeled over.” Keeled! I was in my late twenties on an ocean-going sailing vessel before I saw the noun inside the verb. Visualized a hull, a capsized ship.

But about that frail elder before sunrise, “wrinkled as sea-sand and old as the sea,” as poet Edith Sitwell wrote. Very short. Stooped. Recently widowed. Given her struggles with the slippery stairs, down from the seawall and then back up after each brief swim, her several daily visits to this small beach seemed strongly motivated. Admirable and compulsive. As, two times a day/day after day/nearly every single day I’d—admirably; compulsively?—head out to surf, I wondered how often this woman had to enter the ocean.

How often? Just often enough to stay afloat, I concluded.

Afloat. Now, more than 30 years later, for me it’s not riding waves. Knees aching, no popping up off the board as I take the drop. Instead, a very slow swim out through the channel to the reefs. Then into open ocean, past surfers lifting and falling during the lulls, carving waves when the next set arrives.

First swim of the day, a second with the goatfish at sunset. Black bathing suit. Black neoprene cap for a shaved head, black 2mm long-sleeve wetsuit jacked: wind chill, blood gettin’ thinner. Goggles. No fins. No “Australian crawl” as we called it on frigid New England lakes when I was a skinny, shivering, blue-lipped child. No crawl, just a calm and steady breaststroke. Pull, glide, kick. Breathe in, breathe out. Breath autopilot set to, setting itself to, on.

Might this be what some positive spirits term “aquatic mindfulness meditation”? Concentration? Serenity? Bliss?

Nope. No dry-land therapies, please. No counting of breaths, no training of the mind. In the ocean, one mostly gives in—consents to surrender. Is the deep blue not indifferent, unsentimental, without memory?

On land, one mostly moves on the stable horizontal. Terra firma. On this mirrored surface, however, it’s inescapable that there’s much going on right below. A great deal of the unseen but often imminent.

Water can also break up anything structured, anything not in the moment. Regressing you to what Mircea Eliade called “the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence.”   

Sometimes, when I’ve returned to shore, shedding cap and goggles in the shallows, wetsuit jacket intimating commitment to strenuous immersion, someone asks how far I went. I could say, guesstimating, “A half hour or so outbound,” though I’ve never timed it. Wearing a watch in the water? No. Machine time versus dream time. It’s not that time doesn’t pass either way, but humans have lived most of the species’ existence without timepieces. Without time measured in pieces.

Nonetheless, it’s out toward the interface of sea and sky far enough to, but only so far as to—reflexively, inadvertently, prudently—remember to turn around. Though who’s doing the remembering, or, what part of what part of whom, is unclear.

At last, approaching the beach, taking a rest. On my back. Afloat. Looking up: moon, frigate bird, two fairy terns, planet. Occasional rainbow sign. Double rainbow. “Between the earth and sky, thought I heard my Savior cry,” goes the spiritual.

But how or why convey any of this to someone who asks only, “How far did you go?” As novelist Bernard Malamud responded to an interviewer’s interrogative, “What is the question asking?”

“How far did you go?”

I’m tempted to reply, sometimes do reply, “Molokai.”

If the askers don’t know much about where they are, they soberly nod, like mariners receiving their bearings. But if a fisherman, surfer, sailor, or waterman does the asking and I say Molokai? We laugh. From this coast to the island of Molokai is more than 30 miles. “Going to Molokai was tough,” I like to add, “but coming back was a nightmare.”

Channels: Growing up, I imbibed something about bounded bodies of water. Nantucket Sound, and, over there, the English Channel, Strait of Gibraltar. But not, back then, the Molokai Channel. Or its Hawaiian name, the Kaiwi Channel.

A brutal swim, Molokai to Oahu, though not impossible. For great water athletes with escort vessels carrying food, lubricants, and safety gear, it’s 12, 15, or 17 hours at the shortest crossing’s 26 miles. With, predictably, ferocious winds and currents, high surf, stinging jellyfish, tiger sharks, and, as sweetener, volcanic ash and vog to impair breathing.

As for swimming from Oahu to Molokai? Seems no one’s ever carried it off. Not even yours truly. Just a running joke. Like telling basketball-junkie friends who know better that, regrettably, I can no longer dunk. As if I ever could.

Thus my own private Molokai until not long ago, after open heart surgery at age 70. I pause to acknowledge my surprise at yet again writing this number. Seventy. 70. But I survived the operation, heart-lung bypass machine allowing my heart and lungs to be still for a few hours. Truly extracorporeal. Gifted surgeon professing himself not miniaturist but minimalist: small-as-possible incision in my chest facilitating recovery.

But then, several years later, total knee replacement. Brilliant techniques and technology, but strenuous rehab. Setbacks. Chronic pain, that euphemism. I was in bed, bedridden, rider of my bed. “Haggard rider,” I’d tell myself, remembering Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, a childhood favorite. Some play on words! I was majoring in self-pity, minoring in misery. 

If you live long enough, you learn there are lines you once read that stayed right with you. Set in a prison in Stalin’s gulag, the English translation of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle was published in 1968. In the novel, mathematician Nerzhin remembers a proverb: “You don’t drown in the sea, you drown in a puddle.” Post surgery, that was me all over. Drowning in a puddle.

Might this be what some positive spirits term “aquatic mindfulness meditation”? Concentration? Serenity? Bliss? Nope. No dry-land therapies, please. No counting of breaths, no training of the mind. In the ocean, one mostly gives in—consents to surrender. 

Back in my forties, thinking of Queequeg’s canoe-coffin in Moby Dick, and reading about a retired 72-year-old who died surfing, I thought—from afar, so to speak—it wouldn’t be a bad way to go. Out on the waves during a surfer’s funeral as ashes were strewn and leis placed, I could imagine being cycled and recycled in the tropics. One day to return as warm rain.

But now, bedridden, rider of my bed, poet Marianne Moore came to mind. “The sea is a collector,” she wrote. And, “the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.”

I thought as well of Tennyson’s Ulysses, ship at the dock, setting out “To Sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars, until I die.”

I also recalled Ahab’s melodramatic exchange with his first mate in Moby Dick: “Some men die at the ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;—and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old—shake hands with me, man.” 

Bedridden. When my wife, checking on me, would read my grim mood, she’d inquire, “What are you grinding on?” 

Not that I was up for being interrogated. Too much to say, too much that couldn’t be said.

One day, however, channeling Ahab, I came up with “I’m going out with the tide.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” my wife asked, reasonably enough.

I took some time. 

“Molokai,” I finally responded.

Though my wife has spent much of the last decade in Hawaii with me, her time is not in the moana, ocean, but hiking in the Koolau Range. Or at her halau—Tahitian dance school with its kumu, teacher. This dancing: on dry land but waves! Cascades! Torrents! Of relentless drumming. Layered frenzied pitch chattering, impelling the dancers’ shaking, rotating, gyrating hips and pelvises. She’s determined to improve her fa’arapu, ami, and ruru. And oh, the regret of having not started as a child! My musician-wife is also studying percussion, sometimes herself one of the halau’s drummers.

“So what about Molokai?” a Tahitian dance zealot asked a querulous husband. For her, Molokai is an island we’ve only yet to visit.

Another long pause. Choosing my words. 

“I’m going to swim to Molokai.” 

Another pause.

“And,” my wife said, to move this exchange along.

Though I wasn’t myself lately—not hardly—she assumed I know what I’m doing in the ocean. It’s my thing. Always has been, she gathers. Also, given how curt and ill-tempered I’d been, if I said I was going to swim to Molokai, then, very well, I was going to swim to Molokai.

Think about your own marriage or mate. How much does one want to share? How much do they really want or need you to share?

I was tired of pretending, withholding. Dead tired, as they say.

“I’m going to swim to Molokai,” I told my wife, “but there’s no way I’m going to make it.”

Illustration by Egle Plytnikaite.