Text by Martha Cheng | Images by John Hook
From the shore, it looks like someone has unloaded the contents of a bouncy castle into the water at Sunset Beach. What looks like a thousand colorful balls bob on the surface, until a horn sounds, and suddenly, the balls become the fluorescent swim cap-covered heads of a thousand swimmers gliding amidst the splash of windmilling arms and kicking feet. And with that, the North Shore Swim Series begins.
In the summer, when O‘ahu’s North Shore waves ease up, NSSS takes over. Now in its 28th year, the series encompasses a total of five swims, spaced two weeks apart, beginning with a 1-mile sprint from Sunset Beach to ‘Ehukai Beach Park (also known as Pipeline), followed by a 1.2-mile loop in Waimea Bay, a 1.6-mile swim from the surf break Chuns Reef to Waimea Bay, and a 1.9-mile swim from Laniākea Beach to Pua‘ena Point. The series concludes with a 2.3-mile swim from ‘Ehukai Beach Park to Waimea Bay.
In 2015, about 900 competitors raced in the first swim, and 580 turned out for all five, with participants ranging from professional athletes to recreational swimmers, and representing all ages, from 8 to 82 years old.
Kai Flanagan is one of the event’s youngest entrants. When asked, she says she’s been swimming for “my whole life,” which totals to 10 years. This seems appropriate for someone whose first name means “sea.” Kai learned to swim from her dad, John Flanagan, who is in the Hawai‘i Swimming Hall of Fame and has a collection of medals from national and international competitions. Kai trains five days a week with the Kamehameha Swim Club; the NSSS gives her a change of scenery from the bottom of the pool. “You get to see the ocean and all the fish: angelfish, humuhumu, turtles,” she says. This is one of the main reasons participants love NSSS so much—the courses take place in some of O‘ahu’s clearest waters, along one of the most beautiful stretches of island coastline.
“The North Shore is prettier, with more coral and fish,” says Trisha Filimoehala, a 13-year-old NSSS participant who also competes in open-ocean swims along the island’s south shore. Filimoehala has big dreams: She has her sights set on the Olympic 10-kilometer marathon swim, an event that was introduced in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics. “Open-water swimming is the best type of swimming because there’s a connection to the wildlife out there,” she says. “Sometimes we go so far you can’t see the bottom.”
“Do you ever get scared?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says.
“So what do you do?”
On the other end of the spectrum, NSSS participants are getting older. But this hasn’t stopped them from swimming. In 2014, the series’ race director created the 80-plus age group for Vernon Knight, now 81, and Warren Harlow, now 82, who had both been racing against the 70-year-old whippersnappers in the 70-plus division. “They’re too fast,” Knight says. “I’m glad I’m not competing against them—they’re 10 years younger.” Knight and Harlow are the oldest competitors in NSSS, and have entered almost every race since the event’s inception in 1988, back when it was a single swim from Pipeline to Sunset Beach.
Knight grew up swimming Kāne‘ohe streams, and in the 1950s, swam for the University of Hawai‘i under legendary coach Soichi Sakamoto. Knight has swum the ‘Au‘au Channel between Lāna‘i and Maui, and the Pailolo Channel from Maui to Moloka‘i. For him, NSSS is merely a warmup for the aptly named Looong Distance Rough Water Swim, a 7-kilometer invitational on O‘ahu’s south shore held at the end of the year. Knight was the first swimmer over 80 years of age to compete in the race, an accomplishment for which he won an Old Man in the Sea award.
Knight finds open-ocean swimming relaxing. “You realize you’re going all that distance. It’s not that much effort if your technique is good,” he says. “The main thing is, you have to conserve your energy. You pull hard on your stroke, but then you glide. It’s like cross-country skiing.”
For Warren Harlow, NSSS and open-ocean swimming give him a chance to see fish, turtles, and “the rest of the inhabitants.” But when he first started swimming in NSSS events in the ’90s, “It was a fun way to keep in shape for triathlons,” he says. Harlow was a big-wave surfing pioneer in the ’60s, though he remains modest about this fact. “There weren’t that many people doing it, so you didn’t have to be terribly good in those days,” he says. As a consummate waterman, Harlow also used to windsurf, free dive, scuba dive, and is a three-time Kona Ironman finisher.
Now, as an octogenarian, Harlow sticks to swimming his home waters on the North Shore, enjoying the freedom of calm summer currents and sneaking in swims between swells in the winter. Through NSSS, he’s met a lot of people, including Knight, the last of his longtime peers to still participate. “Most of them have stopped swimming. Or maybe died, I don’t know,” Harlow says. “I’m getting slower every year, but if you keep moving, it’s better than stopping.”
This year’s North Shore Swim Series starts on June 11. For more information, or to register, visit northshoreswimseries.com.