Becca Mann & the 21-Hour Maui Nui Epic: the Debrief

Editor’s note: American open water swimmer Becca Mann last week became the first swimmer to ever successfully complete the Triple Mau Nui Channel Swim, which took her almost 21 hours and pulled her almost 40 hours between the Hawaiian islands. A week later, Becca has had time to process the achievement, and has put together an introspective of what she went through, why she went through it, and what she learned from her swim.

From the author, Becca Mann: Before I get into the story, I wanted to let my readers know that I decided to share the truth of the whole story. This includes many instances that do not paint me in the best light or represent who I am as a person. After about 10 hours of swimming, my exhaustion led to some uncivil behavior, something that is uncommon for me. I’ll admit that I am spoiled, but I’m generally a kind person (or at least I try to be).

I debated cutting out some of the nastier parts, but ultimately decided that I would rather people heard the raw, uncut truth. I want to inspire aspiring channel swimmers and knew I couldn’t do that if I censored my irrational anger. Swimming for almost 21 hours can bring out the worst in your temperament, and I wouldn’t be doing the swim justice if I said otherwise.

I also would also like to take a moment to thank my crew, who are experts at what they do, as well as extremely supportive and nice people. Since I’ll be writing from the point of view I had during the swim, it probably will not seem that way as it was easy for me to take my frustration out on them.

Without further ado….

I didn’t think it was going to take me 21 hours.

I’ll be honest, I thought I was being generous when I estimated 15-20. In my mind, it was going to take around 14, with sixteen as the maximum.

Lesson #1––never underestimate the ocean.

Let me start from the beginning. Six days before I was to step into the ocean and start swimming for Molokai, I landed in Maui after a 22-hour travel day from Lima. I had informed my parents two months before that I would be taking on this swim and told them I would like for them to be there. They came, constantly reminding me of how I hadn’t even asked if they were free. It was hard to feel bad for them while they were sitting on the beach, though.

The six days were filled with searching for waterproof red LED lights (because apparently any other color attracts the big fish), ropes and containers to use for my feeds (we wouldn’t even end up using the containers), trying to figure out what I was going to be craving 12 hours into the swim (thank goodness I decided to get baby food at the last second) and, after the second day, minimal swimming. Plus my nervous parents making me crazy and several Hawaiian channel swimmers emailing me, telling me I was taking the wrong course. Just another relaxing vacation in Hawaii.

The day before the swim, my parents and I went to meet with the boat captain, Mike, and one of the kayakers, Shelley. They showed us the long shark shockers that dangled off the sides of the kayak and informed us that there is almost always a shark sighting, but these shockers were the best. During one of their recent escorts, two large mahi fish followed right behind the kayak as a shark circled the swimmer, the fish recognizing that they kayak had a forcefield surrounding it. Mike and Shelley then shared stories of how Shelley had to hit sharks with her paddle before they upgraded the shockers. Let’s just this was not the pep talk my parents needed. I didn’t mind––I’ve never been afraid of sharks. I didn’t even know that the kayak was going to have shark shockers.

The night of the start (but not the finish), I slept for nine hours, woke up and ate breakfast, then took an hour-long nap. A typical sleep schedule for me. After my nap, my mom was about to leave for the boat. I stayed behind as we were staying in Kapalua and the swim was to commence at Kapalua Bay Beach, a mere five-minute walk away. I would meet the boat there for a 1 PM start.

My dad was leaving that day to pack my younger sister up for college, so he helped apply around ten layers of zinc oxide (which worked surprisingly well) and a bottle of lanolin for chafing before heading out to the airport. I sat around in my suit and grease for another thirty minutes, then walked down to the beach.

I got several curious stares as I headed toward the bay, clad only in flip flops, an old Speedo LZR, and layer upon layer of sunscreen and lanolin. I could see the questions in their eyes, wondering what on earth had happened to me. I could tell no one knew that the reason for my appearance was yet to happen. That thought alone brought an amused smile to my face as I stared right back.

The boat was about 500 meters out, so Shelley kayaked in to start with me. People on the beach conspicuously stared, and Shelley loudly informed them, “This girl is about to make history and swim from here to Molokai, then to Lanai, and then back to Maui!” She theatrically pointed out the course, all of which was visible, as she spoke. People started taking pictures. I sat down, since the captain wanted to start exactly at 1 PM. I realize now that I never looked at the course with the knowledge that I was about to swim it. I wonder if I would’ve thought it looked long.

Shelley counted down. At “one”, I walked into the water, leaving Maui, and started swimming for the mass of land 16 kilometers away. Molokai. The Pailolo Channel.

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face the first ten minutes as I swam out of the bay. The bay’s protected waters were calm and I kept my stroke long and easy.

Then I swam past the bay’s protected point.

Suddenly, I was being pushed left by 3-5 foot swells (I know this is a broad range, but I’m really bad at guessing wave size). A few waves crashed on me. I started having a panic attack, wondering what I had gotten myself into––I was barely 30 minutes in, and already I was being tossed around by the ocean. And this wasn’t even the hard leg! How was I going to make it? Why had I thought this was a good idea? I wanted to get out.

I reminded myself that I was going to have highs and lows and that everything would pass. It was just one day of my life. I could swim for one day. This time tomorrow, I would be done. I started singing to myself and just kept swimming. I was shocked to find out that I had gone almost 5k in the first hour. I was making good time.

The next hour was hard. The waves were huge, I felt somewhat sick, and I had to force myself to feed (which was every 20 minutes). My mom was seasick and would throw up any time she stood up or looked down. I told myself that I had to power through. It would get easier at some point. It had to. I told myself to just make it to the next feed. I distracted myself by making up a backstory for Kainoa, the kayaker paddling beside me, a complete enigma as I had never met him before he was taking on the swells beside me.

Molokai got bigger, Maui smaller. My spirits lifted. Maybe I could do this––no, I was going to do it. I no longer felt sick and my stroke was strong. I appreciated how beautiful Hawaii is. The water was crystal clear and the mighty mountains of Molokai loomed ever closer. I saw several jellyfish floating in the water peacefully below me (I was probably stung around ten times over the course of the swim, but learned to ignore the stings as they would subside after about ten minutes). These waters of paradise were going to be my home for the next several hours. How amazing was that?

I swam in for a feed around 3 hours in and was told I was on pace to get the Pailolo Channel record. I was reinvigorated; I felt as if I had just jumped in the water. I tried warning myself to conserve, but the prospect of the record was too enticing for my ambition.

Molokai is gorgeously untouched by tourism. I watched colorful fish swim below as I swam the final distance to shore. 5:01 PM. 4 hours, 1 minute. I was pretty sure the record was 3:20, so I’m not sure why I was told I was on pace (I’m still not certain what the record is). I was, however, an hour under my estimated arrival time. I was (not really) ¼ of the way through the swim. I was confident I was going to finish––and in under 15 hours (haha).

I was allowed a maximum of 10 minutes on shore, but I wanted to be off in 8 for peace of mind. I landed with Steve, the third and final kayaker, who had brought my land bag ashore. I spent 5 minutes reapplying lanolin. My left armpit was starting to chafe, so I put a generous glob in there, ate half a slice of bread and two pieces of a sliced apple, changed my goggles to a giant clear pair that had a blinking red LED light laced through the straps (it was two hours prior to sunset), and journeyed on to Lanai. 

Channel #2––the Kalohi Channel.

The 8 minute break did not help my arms. My triceps were starting to get sore. Oh well. They just needed to last another ten hours. Whether or not they worked after didn’t matter to me. The waves were in a more comfortable position, no longer interrupting my breathing pattern, though I felt a current pushing me back toward Molokai. After about ten minutes, I became numb to the current as one grows numb from the cold. A sea turtle swam under me as the ocean floor disappeared once more, replaced by depthless cobalt blue. 

As the sun began to set, my excitement rose. I had never been ocean swimming at night before and was really looking forward to the experience. I was not let down. The setting sun dyed the sky a beautiful orange. The water darkened to indigo, then black. However, I could still see my hands––tens of dots of gold, phosphorescent light would spark to life with every stroke I took.

I did some backstroke and suddenly stopped swimming. What looked like every star in the galaxy illuminated the sky. I’ve only seen stars as bright once before, in the Serengeti 11 years ago. The only reason I remember is because it’s impossible to forget. As I floated on my back, I felt like I could reach up and touch them.

“This is incredible!” I said to my mom as she threw me the next feed. My mom was still throwing up, unfortunately, and didn’t get to enjoy them as much as I did.

The next two hours passed peacefully enough. I was throwing up the bread and apple slices, so I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to stomach solid food during the rest of the journey. I enjoyed the high of swimming beneath the canopy of stars, acknowledging that this peace wouldn’t last long, yet relishing it all the same. While I could. The moonrise over Maui was spectacular (though I was sad to see the stars go), and I continued on my quest.

Steve told me I just had to hang on for another 2 hours, which was around when I would reach the protected waters between Lanai and Maui. I could do that. I just had two more hours of fighting the invisible current and the waves crashing on my back. 2 hours of hard work, then just a 25k through the glassy, stagnant ocean. Easy.

Lanai was a dark blob to the right, Maui a dark blob to the left. Sometime around this point, my nostrils swelled together, rendering my nose useless (not that it was vital to my success). At one of the feeds, I asked if I was over halfway to Lanai. I had been waiting to ask because I wanted them to inform me that I was well over halfway.

They told me I would be halfway in 3 kilometers.

I was slightly taken aback but kept swimming. 

The monster is about to emerge (warning, your opinion of me may forever change. Proceed with caution), so I’m going to take a quick break to talk about my feeding plan while everyone mentally prepares. I fed every 20 minutes throughout the entire 21 hours, with the exception of one delayed feed in the middle (which made me extremely angry. I’m not sure what happened there, but they got an earful from me). I told my dear mother to put me on a rotation of cytomax (USA Swimming had given me a big container of it after Pan Ams), a Gatorade with an energy gel dissolved in it, and then one of those high calorie weight gain things called Ensure, paired with either a Gatorade or a cytomax. Beth Mann rarely had the right thing out. She claims that nausea and throwing up over the side of the boat is distracting, but I say no excuses. Occasionally the feeds would be accompanied by some mouthwash. For the first 5 or 6 hours, I would only drink about half the feed, but after that I consumed everything that was thrown out to me (though I often wouldn’t want to feed because I felt too sick. However, I knew that all feeds were vital to the success of the swim). My stomach is not the strongest and I would usually throw a bit of it up after each feed.

Around this point in the race, my mom tried giving me solid food. After telling her it wasn’t going to happen, she started throwing me the baby food I had spontaneously bought at the end of one of our many shopping sprees. Those came out with every gatorade and cytomax.

Okay, I’m ready to continue. I swam through another six or seven feeds, figuring I must be around a 5k away from Lanai, though it looked no closer. Nope. I was still 11.2 kilometers out. I had been swimming Channel #2 for almost 6 hours and was barely over halfway! My sudden mood swing was severe. I had gone 4 kilometers in 2 hours. 

I came in for my next feed and asked them how far Lanai was. “10.7 kilometers!” someone called from the boat.

“You mean,” I yelled, “I’ve gone FIVE HUNDRED METERS in 20 MINUTES?!”

“You’re doing great!” a response was shouted back.

“It certainly doesn’t seem that way! You told me I’d be at the easy part hours ago!” I looked up at my mom, who looked miserable in her parka, and asked her for a pep talk. She was still extremely seasick and didn’t reply––just threw me some baby food.

“At this rate, it’s going to take me SEVEN hours to swim this 10k! I’m not going that slow. I’m doing my job, so do yours and get me on a better course!”

I swam away so I could get the last word. Ha, I showed them! I told myself I wasn’t allowed to have a mental breakdown until I got to hour 12. I was at hour 10. I had to keep it together for another 2 hours. If it took me 3 days to get back to Maui, it would take me 3 days. I just had to keep inching forward.

My armpit was chafing again, so I asked for lanolin. My mom just threw it out and made me take off the plastic wrapper on my own (which I am obviously not still bitter about. I had no sympathy for her seasickness).

I passed the time by thinking about how accomplished I would feel when I was done. I thought of all the cool stories I would have. I was going to be the first person to conquer this swim! I composed some tweets. I tried to think of some movie ideas but wasn’t feeling very creative. I tried not to think about how much my elbows hurt. With every left breath, I would see Maui. Every right breath, Lanai. We were still veering left.

Midnight. Still only going 500 meters per 20 minutes. My anger exploded again as I drank a feed and was informed that I still had 7.8k to Lanai.

“Why are we swimming toward Maui? You know we’re going to Lanai, right?”

“We’re on a direct course to Club Lanai.”

“When are we going to be at the easy part?”

“There’s no way to tell.”

“You don’t know?! What happened to swimming in the middle to avoid the currents? We’re obviously not doing that! I want to go to LANAI!”

I put my head back down. The boat responded by pulling ahead about 100 meters (as it had been doing the entire swim. Often, the waves would swallow it and I would have to stop for several seconds to find it), still veering left. I stopped again, and said to Kainoa, who was kayaking next to me, “I’m not going that way.”

“There’s a reef that the boat is avoiding.”

“In the middle of the ocean?”

“By Lanai. You’re doing awesome, Becca! Just keep––“

I put my head back down, mentally deleted the backstory I had made for him, and envisioned all the different ways I could tip the kayak over.

Yeah, I know. I apologized later.

I had never been so angry in my entire life as I was then (spoiler alert: that record was going to be broken soon). Exhaustion has a way of doing that, I guess. I allowed myself to cry angry tears into my goggles, but only for five minutes because I had more important things to do and crying wasn’t going to help.

I stopped veering left and started aiming for Lanai. Kainoa kept paddling beside me. The boat lights grew smaller as I paved my own path. Just a blinking red light in the middle of an ocean of darkness.

The boat eventually came back to me. When I asked how far I had gone, the answer was 1.2 kilometers. I’ll be honest, I cried tears of happiness. We were finally out of the hard part.

The last 5k to Lanai seemed to pass in a few minutes. I was calm and happy once more. Only 20k left. Less than the longest event at World Championships. In five hours, I could climb into my bed and lie motionless for as long as I wanted. Five hours was nothing. My body was really starting to hurt, but I ignored it.

A blinking strobe light had been set on the demolished pier at Club Lanai so we could see where to land. The boat could see it from 5k away, though I couldn’t see it over the waves until I was basically on top of it.

1000 meters out from Lanai, I told my sick mom to put a new suit, lanolin, Vaseline, and energy chews in the land bag. The Vaseline was inside the room on the boat, and if my mom stood, she would throw up. The others were sleeping, so the captain had to come down to retrieve it to give it to Steve (who was kayaking at this point). This meant I got 2-minute break to float on my back. 

The break itself was nice. I was in good spirits. I asked Steve about how long he thought the Au’Au Channel, Channel #3, was going to take. He guesstimated 4.5 hours. I could do that. If I did it in 6 hours, 26 minutes when I was 10, I could do it in 4:30 at 21.

When the land bag was ready, I continued toward shore. Only, the short break had made my body feel much, much worse. The moon offered enough light for the bottom come into view. It was low tide, so I had only about a foot of water separating me from the reef. It was all I needed, though. I landed on Lanai sometime around 3:20 AM, I believe.

On shore, Steve ran to retrieve the strobe light while I stripped out of my racing suit and put on a practice suit. I needed something different for the chaffing. That took about five minutes, then I spent another 3 applying lanolin and Vaseline, and another eating 2 energy chews. My mom forgot to pack a drink (sorry I’m being so rude to you, Mom) which really bothered me. 

The last thing I wanted to do was get back in the water. The breaks made it so much worse. If someone had told me that I actually had 7 more hours, not 4.5, I probably would’ve had a major mental breakdown. I forced myself to take a few steps toward the ocean. I only had the easy channel left. I was almost there.

My arms could barely move after the 9 minutes on Lanai. Waves hit me in the face as I struggled over the reef. I realized that they had been wrong; this channel was not going to be easy. The lights of the boat were camouflaged into the lights of Maui, so I just kept going straight.

The boat found me. Steve switched out with Shelley and my tired arms started moving again. The boat passed me, moving ahead toward…Molokai?

Nope, I was not doing that again. I was going to Maui. And I was going straight there.

I ignored the boat and continued on my way. The boat did not budge, moving parallel to me about 500 meters to my left. I didn’t budge either. I was not going back to Molokai.

Shelley disappeared at some point, but I didn’t care. I didn’t need her or her shark shockers to finish. I didn’t need the boat either. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but I could make it 4 more hours without feeds.

After about five minutes of this stand-off, Shelley cut me off with the kayak. She was done with this little game.

“Becca, you’re going to miss Maui if you don’t follow the boat!” 

“That’s not even possible!”

“You need to follow the boat!” She then said something about 2 knots pushing me to the right. I’m uneducated when it comes to sailing, unfortunately, so I can’t remember if the wind was blowing at 2 knots or if the current was 2 knots. But currents aren’t measured in knots, right? I digress. Basically something strong was blowing me right, so I needed to go left.

Shelley was still cutting me off. I didn’t have a choice. 

I started crying again and the hot tears oddly felt very nice in my goggles, which ironically made me stop crying. At the next feed, “When is the ocean going to be as calm as you claimed this channel would be? Or is it going to be like this the whole time?”

6k till it calmed down, 12k to the finish. In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem. But these weren’t normal circumstances. I started worrying that my throat was closing.

I was only going 400 meters and it wasn’t fair. The ocean doesn’t care about fair. This anecdote was perhaps my lowest point in the swim.

Every feed, I would ask how much farther. 10.5k, 10.1k. I was exhausted and my arms could no longer finish a full cycle, so my stroke was shorter and inefficient. I cried into my goggles, convinced that we weren’t on the best course. I had no idea what time it was, only that the sun had already risen (I enjoyed the sunrise despite my pain and changed my goggles out to darker ones since I was swimming into the sun).

I came in for another feed and heard music to my ears: 8.6k left.

My spirits were lifted once again. I had gone 1.5k in those 20 minutes! The island suddenly seemed much closer. Just the length of one swim practice, then I’d be there. Easy.

At the next feed 20 minutes later, I asked again, expecting to hear 7.2k…

“9k.”

9k? NINE!? So I went BACKWARD?!

No one answered me for several long moments, then my mom’s head popped up from where she had been laying down, still super seasick. I guess she heard the hysteria in my voice.

“You misheard last time. It was 9.6 at the last feed.”

I was livid. The angriest I’ve been in my lifetime. At the next feed, I asked when the current would die. Young Captain Mike (both captains were named Mike) kindly told me that time didn’t matter, just finishing. That was not what I needed to hear. 

“I’ve been swimming for 18 hours and my throat is closing!”

No one responded. My mom was the only one looking at me. I was convinced I wasn’t on the fastest route.

So, to get my crew in order, I said, “I’m getting out if I’m not there in 3 hours.”

Then, softly to my mom (even though I’m pretty sure everyone on the boat heard), “Not really, I just want them to get me there faster.”

I promise that that made sense to me in the moment.

I don’t have a coherent recollection of what happened between then and when the ocean calmed with 7k to go. I remember drinking even more, with some baby food every feed.

And then we started veering right––south––despite land being straight ahead and the fact that I had spent the past four hours veering left. The GPS had Lahaina plugged in instead of  the nearest point on Maui. I told my mom to figure out why. Young Captain Mike was at the helm and agreed, fixing the destination. We were 1 km closer to Kaanapali. I only had 5.8 kilometers left.

Now in glassy water, my attitude improved tremendously. It was much easier, despite the fact that my arms (especially my elbows) hurt with every stroke. I had been doing other strokes frequently throughout the swim, but I was beginning to struggle with backstroke. My pecs were not cooperating. However, I was still happy. I appreciated the beauty of Hawaii once more. And how amazing was it that I had been swimming for so long? 

The sun was fully up, the water deep cobalt blue once more. I could make out houses on land. I was covering 800 meters per 20 minutes. 2.4k per hour, but it didn’t matter to me. The ocean was no longer abusing me.

With 2.5 kilometers to go, Older Captain Mike decided to get in and swim with me for about ten minutes. He easily kept up.

It was when I thought I only went 300 meters between feeds that I realized I needed to go faster (I think they miscalculated something, because Young Mike said I was 2k out when I really was only 1k). I was still worried about my throat closing. I started spinning my arms and, seemingly out of nowhere, the beach was only a few hundred meters ahead. I could make out individual people on the shore.

I swam over another reef and bodysurfed some waves into shore before gracefully climbing out of the water and taking two shaky steps onto the beach.

I immediately sat down. It was 9:53 AM––20 hours, 53 minutes, and 37 seconds (the Au’Au Channel leg was slower than the one I did when I was 10). I took off my cap and goggles and could feel how swollen my face was (and got to see it in all its beautifully swollen glory moments later when Shelley and Kainoa came ashore for a selfie). I was happy. It was such an amazing experience and I immediately decided that I would absolutely do something like it again.

I sat for a few minutes, then got back in the ocean to get to the boat. When I submerged, I thought my hair was up, which was strange. I reached up to take it down (which hurt my arms), then realized there was no hair tie. I had one giant dreadlock on my head. It took me over 40 minutes to get it out in the shower.

Once passed the surf, I jumped onto Shelley’s kayak and she dragged me back like a beached whale. I apologized to the very nice crew for my monstrous behavior, inspected my shriveled tongue, hosed off, and drank some apple juice (since my mom couldn’t go into the room without throwing up, she forgot we had both apple and orange juice).

The crew brought my mom and me back to Kapalua. We had to swim about 50 meters to a ladder on a cliff to get out. When I jumped back in, every patch of skin that had chaffed started to burn. I had to run home while my mom waited for the kayak to bring the bags.

My mom showered and slept for 14 hours, waking only to throw up. I was not as tired as I expected, only taking a 2 hour nap and then sleeping 9 hours that night.

My throat had never hurt so badly. About an hour after the swim, I lost my voice for a while. It returned as a croak. I could barely swallow water and couldn’t eat until 9 PM that night (which was extremely painful). My throat, mouth, and tongue would continue to hurt for 3 days.

The day after the swim, the thought of swimming in the ocean made me feel sick, but I think it was because I physically would not have been able to swim rather than a mental thing. I was only sore for about 3 days and not at all sunburned. I tried swimming on the third day, but my elbows started hurting after 100 meters, so I got out after 200.

The Maui Nui Tri Channel Crossing was definitely one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. Between the stars, the phosphorescent light, the sea life, the waves, the swelling, and the intense challenge, I have to say it was one of my favorite adventures ever. It’s interesting; I experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows––I can’t think of many other things that have such extreme ups and downs. Not to mention, it was also my first ever all-nighter!

Being alone in the ocean and swimming because I wanted to, by myself and for myself, reminded me how fun swimming is. I felt like I was 10 again, swimming the channels because I love to swim, I love a challenge, and I love the ocean. If you take anything out of this story, I want it to be that, no matter how much you hurt and want to quit, you can do it. Everything comes to an end, even 20+ hour swims. Know that when you think your body can’t go any farther, it is just your mind tricking you. Allow yourself to be angry and frustrated, but don’t give up. Remember why you started, relish in the challenge, don’t stop feeding, and chase your dreams. Attempt things that haven’t been done before, because if not you, then who?

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Woke Stasi

What an amazing story! I loved hearing about the spectrum of emotions you experienced. Takes a lot of mental fortitude to survive that swim. A 10K open water event seems like a “stroll-in-the-park” compared to what you accomplished.

Woke Stasi

P.S. I have a swim friend (Scott Kaloust) who has done the Santa Catalina, Manhattan Bridges, Lake Tahoe Long Axis, and English Channel swims. He has described to me some of mental challenges the very-long-distance swimmer faces. Based on his descriptions, some of the “lows” you experienced — especially dealing with currents and tides — are not uncommon.

marley09

Dad turned out to be the smart one in this story. I hope mom recovered.

Ragnar

No words, what an accomplishment. I’ve done the Lanai to Maui in 2008 and 2009, 6 hours the first and 4:20ish the second, and the feeling of swimming in place is very tough to get through. That was only 9 miles one way, to imagine 39 and being out there as long as she was makes this an all time great feat. Becca no matter what happens in 2020 you’re an inspiration and one of the toughest athletes of all time

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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