The History and Future of the Kaiwi Channel Association

The History and Future of the Kaiwi Channel Association

The most exciting channel race since the professional races across the English Channel in the 1950’s took place in the Molokai Channel in 2013.

The Ka’iwi Channel Swim is a 42 km marathon swim relay race for from the island of Molokai to the island of Oahu in August 2013. The brainchild of Jeff Kozlovich and Steve Haumschild, the channel crossing is one of America’s Top 100 Open Water Swims. It pitted the Veterans (Karen Schmidt, Amy Dantzler, Brent Blackman, Bill Ireland, Bruce Thomas and Dianne Gleason who finished in 9 hours 53 minutes) versus The Youngsters (Terence Young, Brian King, Mitchell Degeus, Jamison Grove, Brittney Yim and Erin Yamamoto who finished in 9 hours 56 minutes).

The Veterans and The Youngsters on Oahu at the finish of the Ka’iwi Channel Swim

Below is an interview with Kozlovich and Haumschild about how they got involved with long distance swimming and crossings of the Molokai Channel, how the Kaiwi Channel Association was formed, and the challenges of finding the best boat pilots.

Q1. How did you get started with swims across the Kaiwi Channel?

Jeff Kozlovich: Back in 2006, my friend Bill Goding was preparing to swim the Kaiwi Channel. When I heard about it, I asked if there was anything I could do … that was the start. I paddled for him and Forrest Nelson during their successful September of 2006 crossing. From there, it just took off. Penny Palfrey asked me to paddle for her Kaiwi attempt. After that, for her successful 108 km swim between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman Islands in the Cayman Islands, (Bridging The Cayman Islands that took her 40 hours 41 minutes in 2011). It was a surprise to me, but I became known all over as the guy to talk to for anyone who wanted to swim Molokai to Oahu.

Steve Haumschild: I have been working as a professional expedition guide since the late 1990’s in high altitude mountains, whitewater, jungles, oceans, and everything in between. During that time, when I was not traveling, Hawaii was my home. While on a Denali summit climb in 2011, some members of my crew were friends with a marathon swimmer who wanted to swim Kaiwi – which to me sounded insane. I had never heard of marathon swimming at that time, but I was comfortable working in harsh and risky environments so I agreed and met Darren Miller on my first escort. Darren and I were cut from the same cloth, but just had different passions that other
people thought were insane, but are actually ultra calculated. I had had expeditions and personal adventures my entire life, so it was amazing to me to have the best seat in the house watching a trained and dedicated athlete do something unimaginable to me. On this crossing, I met Jeff and we quickly became friends with a shared love of the outdoors. Jeff and I would go for hikes, runs, surfs, and anything else outdoors. We are both gluttons for outdoor punishments.

Darren Miller with Jeff Kozlovich

Jeff Kozlovich: In a very short time , probably that first swim with Darren, we knew we were a good team and had each other’s back out there. We each knew what we needed to do and just did it. Nobody I’d rather be bobbing around in the middle of the channel with.

Steve Haumschild: We were consistently going on escorts for swimmers and watching the weather, tides, surf, and winds to see how they impacted the success of the swimmer. Kaiwi is the longest of the Oceans Seven and conditions can change rapidly to massive ocean swells, shifting winds, large shorebreak, and of course a variety of ocean creatures from Portuguese man-o-war to sharks. Jeff and I became students of Kaiwi and spent as much time as anyone in the waters learning and adapting. We quickly realized that even in average ocean conditions, there is no way a swimmer could safely key off the boat and keep the course and safety, so we switched to primarily kayak escorting with boat support for feedings and crews.

Q2. How did the Kaiwi Channel Association start?

Jeff Kozlovich: The Channel had a rough reputation all around. Basically no rules or guidelines and since it’s a crazy adventure in the first place, it attracted some crazy paddlers and boat pilots. Paddlers who had no experience and boat pilots without any credentials – including no registration and no Coast Guard Safety Certification. It was so new [that] information on where and when to start and finish was hard to come by. I had no thought of forming an Association until Steven Munatones talked to me and said he wanted make Molokai one of the Oceans Seven channels and he felt he needed a governing structure to help make it more professional. I wasn’t sure at first. Steve and I had a long talk about it and decided we’d rather not. We tried to sell the idea to Bill Goding and Linda Kaiser. Both had successfully swam the channel and were more insiders in the community. I have a huge amount of respect for both of them, but they didn’t share our vision and we finally decided to form the Kaiwi Channel Association.

A crossing with Pat Gallant-Charette; footage by Mike Scott.

Steve Haumschild: After my initial escort with Darren Miller, Jeff and I nearly immediately were overwhelmed with other swimmers wanting to cross Kaiwi. But it was certainly the Wild West of channel swims. There was no consistency in starting and finishing points; the weather was still not quite understood; and there were no crews that were trained to safely escort something at this level.

Kaiwi (Molokai) was on the hot list for the Oceans Seven and it very much needed governance and consistency as well as people with experience keeping swimmers as safe as we could by controlling what we could. At that time, Jeff and I were in the trenches and preferred to kayak and do logistics, but not any certification. However, the existing database refused to allow relays and other types of crossing and mostly brushed our opinions off despite Jeff being a City and County lifeguard and myself being a professional guide.

Since we were in the trenches with the swimmers, we decided to work with Steven Munatones at the World Open Water Swimming Association to create the Kaiwi Channel Association and quickly became the go-to for all swims across Kaiwi. Since then, we have escorted the majority of the swimmers who attempt to cross Kaiwi.

We also worked with a variety of boat pilots of various experiences. Many did not have insurance, few had the proper equipment to keep a swimmer safe, and some were just outright dangerous (e.g., fishing during crossings, excess drinking, etc). In fact, on one crossing a boat captain was hired and literally at the harbor, he raised his fee, swapped to a boat significantly smaller with children at the helm. In massive seas 12 miles from Molokai, this boat took on water due to an inadequate bilge pump and sank leaving Jeff and I, our client, and children stranded at sea with no safety equipment or ways to alert the USCG.

At that point, Jeff and I no longer tolerated discount boat pilots and crews and decided if we are going to be involved at any capacity, we will be only use professionals that we train, that have the right boat, crew, equipment, and mindset for something as serious as swimming one of the most dangerous channels in the world.

Jeff Kozlovich: Yeah, that evening Steve and I had a long talk about boat pilots. Then a few days later, the Coast Guard came looking for me. One day the following week while I was at my post as a lifeguard on the South Shore of Oahu, my supervisor came to the tower with a Coast Guard officer. I was told to take a break and have a talk with the officer. It was not an easy conversation. Basically after hearing my story about the capsize and answering a few of his questions, he told me that in the future, I should make better choices about boats and boat pilots, that as a professional rescuer and one of the founders of the Kaiwi Channel Association, he expected better of me in the future. That stung! Still does. That was back in 2014 and our mistake was trusting without verifying. We’ve…grown…learned…changed our policies since then. We verify!

Q3. How Did the COVID-19 situation affect you? How did you and the boat pilots adjust? Didn’t they have travel bans to Molokai for awhile?

Steve Haumschild: In the beginning, like everything else everywhere, there was a mix of information, guidelines, rules, etc. Ultimately Hawaii went into a shut-down mode for months not allowing any non-essential travelers into the State. Hawaii went into a deep lockdown where unless you were essential, you could not leave your homes, go to the beaches, parks, etc.

Each island also had their own rules layered on top of these State rules as well as local input.

Locals on Molokai were protesting visitors at the airport. There is a long history of Hawaiian lineage and visitors bringing deadly diseases to the islands, so it’s a sensitive topic. This essentially cut the entirety of the 2020 swim season. Even after restrictions in Hawaii began to be lifted, restrictions traveling to the United States in general or restrictions returning to swimmers home country put too many hurdles in front of most swimmers that they elected to postpone and reschedule their Kaiwi attempts. This lasted throughout 2020 and into 2021.

Once restrictions globally began to ease, we had a massive influx of swimmers rebooking. The swimmers who were already scheduled in 2021 in addition to the swimmers who needed rescheduling from the 2020 season. This became compounded with new swimmers wanting to change their schedules because other Oceans Seven channels were not able to be swam. The end result is Kaiwi is completely booked for 2022 with growing waiting list as well as filling up in 2023.

Jeff Kozlovich: For a while, there was an inter-island travel ban. That meant that no swimmer on Oahu could go to Molokai. The authorities on Molokai were very clear on that. Then a boat pilot trying to hustle up business told swimmers he could sneak them on shore for a covert start. This really pissed me off. I have met personally with the authorities on Molokai, The Department of Land and Natural Resources, the City and County officials, and had a very personal visit from the Coast Guard and all hinted that regulation by them is probable unless we can keep swims in the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu professional and especially toward the Island of Molokai, respectful.

You do not have to go through the Kaiwi Channel Association to swim the channel. We are not looking for that type of control. But we are the most professional and respectful with a dedicated and experienced group of boats, pilots and paddlers.

For any swimmers considering attempting Kaiwi in 2023 and beyond we encourage you to immediately contact Steve Haumschild of the Kaiwi Channel Association at shaumschild@gmail.com to discuss the swim and timing options. He schedules calls over video apps, WhatsApp @Steve Haumschild, Facetime @stevehaumschild, Skype and Instagram @lanikaisteve.

Next time, boat pilot Mike Twigg-Smith will join the conversation as well as the latest group of paddlers. They will also lighten up a bit and tell some fun stories from the paddlers perspective.

The Kaiwi Channel Association planned and helped escort Becca Mann on her unprecedented 57.58 km Maui Nui Triangle Swim between the islands of MauiMolokai and Lanai in 2019 in 20 hours 53 minutes: 15.75 km from Maui to Molokai, 26.50 km from Molokai to Lanai, and 15.33 km from Lanai to Maui.

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Steven Munatones