Strong currents plagued participants in the Waikiki Roughwater Swim yesterday, scattering some of the pack from Black Point to Waikiki. The Fire Department helicopter lifted some hapless swimmers from the waves and deposited them at Kaimana Beach.

Waikiki swim
turns to chaos

Rescue crews pluck hundreds
of swimmers from currents
driven by a distant storm

Hundreds of swimmers were rescued yesterday when powerful currents got the best of most of the Waikiki Roughwater Swim participants.

Of the 1,055 swimmers who started the annual 2.4-mile race about 9 a.m., only 356, including two men in the over-70 age group, finished the race. The rest either turned back, were helped back to shore by fellow swimmers or were rescued. Coast Guard, city lifeguards or fire personnel reported saving at least 267.

As of 6 p.m. three swimmers -- one from Hawaii, the others from California -- were still unaccounted for, but race organizers said they likely failed to report to race officials after getting out of the water.

Race director Ted Sheppard said no one has reported anyone missing.

Ramses Rosa, a rescue craft operator with the city, said he saved more than 100 swimmers. Working with a partner with a rescue board, Rosa pulled four or five swimmers at a time to shore and made more than 20 trips, he said. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 93 swimmers, and the Honolulu Fire Department helped at least 74.

Swimmers who failed to finish the course yesterday congregated at Kaimana Beach.

"It was total chaos out there," said Capt. Kendall Rust, with the city's Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services. "The race organizers were totally unprepared, and they are lucky nobody died out there. The people they had working weren't trained, and sometimes they had to be rescued, too."

Sheppard said that no swimmers were in extreme danger.

"We certainly appreciate that Lifeguard Services were there," he said. "They certainly speeded up the operation of getting people out of the water faster. But swimmers weren't in extremis, and most of them are looking at this as an adventure."

Sheppard said "the current was very strong and unexpected and had a negative impact on most of the swimmers."

The race took place just as Hurricane Jimena was passing the southern tip of the Big Island. When the race began, the National Weather Service had a small-craft advisory in place along with a high-surf warning for east- and southeast-facing shores on all islands.

Sheppard said that when the 17 bright orange race buoys were set about 7:30 a.m. on a course stretching from Kaimana Beach to the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the current was against the swimmers, but it was not strong.

But racer Chadder Kanehira, 36, swam for 90 minutes against the strong currents before giving up.

"It was crazy out there," said Kanehira, of Kaneohe. "Never been pushed backward before when I was swimming as hard as I could. It was an ego thing not to turn back, but finally I had to. I was too tired."

Thomas Tsutsumoto, 35, who was swimming the event for his third time, said, "People were huddling around the buoys waiting to be picked up by boat."

Mark Ahsing, 38, of Salt Lake, noted that "it was like swimming in place. I looked up, saw the buoy and kept swimming (for half an hour to 45 minutes more) and looked up again and was still at the same buoy. I never got any farther."

The race has its own water safety crew consisting of seven boats and 100 ocean kayaks. Race officials contacted the Coast Guard and Fire Department at 10 a.m. for help picking swimmers out of the water.

The Coast Guard responded with four boats, a 47-foot vessel and a helicopter. HFD brought at least two rescue boats, a fireboat, a helicopter and a jet ski.

"They called that they were overwhelmed and needed help," Honolulu fire Capt. Kenison Tejada said yesterday morning as a fire helicopter flew overhead.

"We're going to keep checking. We want to make sure we don't miss anyone. But we are also getting a lot of help from good Samaritans out there on boats."

Tejada said the rescue was called off at about 2:15 p.m.

Dan Kunkel, a 41-year-old Honolulu attorney who finished the race in one hour and 43 minutes, said that during the first third of the race, swimmers started spreading further and further apart and that the current pulled some off the race course.

"The whole race was hard," said Kunkel. "By the end it was really lonely. There was no one around you to follow."

Sue Dills, 58, who came from Spokane, Wash., to compete, said she slowed down near the fifth buoy to help an 18-year-old teenager who was starting to panic.

"I stayed with him, and before I knew it, the current had pulled us back to the first buoy," she said.

Dills said that about 30 swimmers around the buoy held hands and were waiting for a boat when a surfer pointed them toward a break in the reef so they could swim to shore near the Outrigger Canoe Club.

Dennis Blake, who has completed the race many times and opted to referee yesterday, said: "In 20 years there is maybe one other race that was almost this bad.

"You can't predict a current like this one. We told them at the start that the current would be against them. But it didn't seem this bad."

Sheppard said the further out swimmers went, the stronger the current.

He said those who started in the earliest groups and stayed near the reef made it to the end of the race. Nonetheless, it was a slow race. He said the winner, Grant Cleland, finished in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 25 seconds, about 20 minutes slower than the winner last year.

For a list of winners of the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, see Scoreboard.


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