For the Molokai channel, the support boat cannot stay right alongside you- the swell and waves mean it would be dangerous. So, you have a kayaker who stays with you and the boat leapfrogs ahead, then you swim to catch up. At about 1am, after 10hrs of swimming, the boat had just gone about 200yds ahead. Everything had been going really smoothly. I stopped for a brief feed when the kayaker said ‘don’t tip me out, but there’s a shark’. The kayak had a shark shield provided by E-shark force dangled off the back so I swam over to the rear of the kayak and tread water. I asked where the shark was and turned to see the bow wave and fin disappear below the water about 5m away. Not hurried, not twitchy, but leisurely. Mike in the kayak switched his head torch to strong beam in time for me to see this grey shape right alongside me, so I lifted my feet- it was that close underneath me- and it glided under us. Mike was busy trying to raise the alarm with the support boat without panic and a couple of minutes later, asked if I could see the shark. I couldn’t, but he said “it’s right there” through gritted teeth.
What seemed like an age later, the support boat swung around, although in reality only a few minutes had passed I’m sure. But when you are alone in the dark, in the water with a kayak and a shark that is bigger than that kayak, every second stretches to infinity. I was handed a personal shark shield which I attached to the back of my cozzie straps and I elected to keep going. I ‘heads up breast stroked’ for a good 10 mins to get my nerve up then used very slow smooth strokes with no legs at all for another 10-15mins. It felt surreal to be continuing.
It was part of my plan to believe I could cope if I ever had to deal with a shark. I have read about different sharks and their triggers; which ones are territorial, which ones are opportunistic. I’ve had dreams of punching a shark valiantly as it approached to bump me and know most encounters are actually not bloody, sharks are not out to get us. But you never really know how you’ll react until it happens. In the pitch black when the demons of the night are closer to the surface, fatigued from 10 hours of swimming, I was amazed at how well I coped.
Unbeknownst to me, Mike had a fear of sharks hence his comment about not tipping him out, and when he said the shark was right there, it was less than 2 feet from me, hanging out alongside me with its nose touching the front end of the kayak. I could have reached out my left arm and pet it! I am a little disappointed that I wasn’t told it was there- I would like to believe I would have enjoyed checking him out…..
However calm I may have been, that kind of poise in the face of danger comes at a cost. An hour later, I had an immense adrenal crash; having been so calm through facing a shark in the dark, it suddenly hit me and it became really difficult to see my way to the end of the swim. It had been planted in my son’s head that I could be eaten by sharks on this swim and he had been very anxious so having faced his greatest fear, I felt pretty wretched for quite a while and it took sunrise and the news that I was so close to finishing that brought me back. A good zap from a Portuguese man of war certainly added a wake up call. I was stung across the face, had a tentacle spiral up my entire arm and got lots of little stings from sea wasps through the whole swim.
This may seem like a very cold factual surmise of what is possibly a swimmer’s greatest fear- it is hard to process any other way. I am lucky to have encountered a chilled out shark and blessed to have had the strength to swim through it, so have both moments of triumph to recall- the closeness of the shark and the completion of the swim.
It was not a clinical experience. I was surprised to find myself really actually coping as it happened. I found it fairly easy to separate myself from panic. I discovered a depth of strength emotionally that only came to light after the crash though- after I had retched and sobbed and had my concentration obliterated. From the depths rose a sense of calm and purpose that came straight from the heart. I felt stronger and stronger, even though I had to sprint my way through the last 2 hrs of relentless current. I earned my stripes on that swim. Some never need to go to such lengths to learn about themselves, but I love channel swimming because it brings you face to face with your deepest depths and allows you to confront your darkest moments, and work through them in real time.