Feb 16, 2021

This Way Through the Waves of Waikiki


Laurie Foster

With the Roughwater, you never know what’s going to happen until the day of the race.

I’ve probably done it twenty-five times, and it’s always something different. The beauty of this swim is you just don’t know. It can be anything. About half the time, the swims are gorgeous. It’s glassy and it’s clear. Some years, that current is just ripping at you, and if it’s chop and slop, it’s throwing you around — you can’t even get your stroke. Other years the current is ripping the other way, and it’s a sleigh ride. Yahoo!

I was born and raised here. There is a very deep appreciation of the water in Hawaii, and we think about it all the time when we’re out there: being able to respect the ocean for what it is and being thankful that we have this place. It’s a competition but it’s also such a blessing to be out there and to be challenged and have friends around. With any ocean swim, there’s comfort to being with so many people. Everything that comes at you seems okay because you’re in it together.

My best time is probably forty-five minutes and my worst swim, the current was so bad it took me two hours to swim it. You know you’re in trouble when you can’t even get to the turn point because the current is streaming at you so hard.

That swim, they pulled people out of the water with helicopters or with boats. They had an alert – all boats in Waikiki had to go pick up swimmers because a thousand people were in the water. There was a human chain on the buoys! People hanging onto other people’s feet, if you can believe that. Hanging!

You really have to know the water.

When there’s a current like that, my strategy is to go inside. As you reach the buoy, turn right. You can swim along the shore, where the current is way less, then go back out to the buoy and back in.

You have to be prepared to train for a three or four mile swim because it could be. Train hard. Get here early and try to do the start and the finish. There are a lot of people who go out the weekend before and they go out to the finish and back to figure out the sighting and the line to come in. If you’re a pool swimmer, practice your head up, looking around. You gotta be able to sight. There’s a lot of buoys and you’ve got to be able to be comfortable looking up and figuring out where you are.

You can’t just stick your head down and swim. In terms of landmarks to sight, you’ve got the church, which is about a quarter of the way, then you’ve got the Sheraton, which is the big hotel, and then you can start seeing the Hilton, which is the one with the rainbow, and the one you turn in on. Those are the big ones.

Even the people who travel here, they come out with us and swim the course beforehand or at least swim the start and swim the end because those are the tricky ones. Especially the end. You can get off kilter with the surf break on the left.

You always see turtles, stingrays, and lots of fish.

You can see dolphins a fair amount of the time, which is always a spook in the beginning because you see the fins. If fins are going front to back, you know it’s a dolphin, but if fins are going left to right, you know it’s not a dolphin. That’s a problem!

You can’t do anything besides front crawl. You can do a few breast strokes to figure out where you are, but that’s a waste of energy. Better to learn how to keep your head up and sight, or just follow somebody (that’s called drafting). You certainly can’t do butterfly. Backstroke, maybe. Breaststroke isn’t fast enough – there’s no question about that. Goggles are really important. Stick with one pair that you’ve used a hundred times and don’t mess around with a new suit. Do something you’ve done in prior races. And sunscreen, of course, is critical.

It’s a great accomplishment to do 2.4 miles. You’ve got a thousand people on the beach cheering you on. Everybody goes down there and you’ve probably got 3,000 people. You’re coming up the line and you’re not staggering — you’re running! By that time you’re so happy you’ve done it. People are high-fiving, and everybody sticks around for the awards. It’s a life-changing thing for some people. We are so lucky to be out here. You give up things being in Hawaii, but nobody can do what we do every day and get out there. You just say, “Wow.”

As told to Senior Editor Jason Schwartzman

Laurie Foster

Veteran Swimmer, former President of Waikiki Swim Club
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