An Unforgettable Swim To Niihau

Swimmers Quinn Carver, Jen Schumacher, Brian Denaro and Bill Goding head for Niihau

There are many reasons so few people have attempted to swim across the Kaulakahi Channel from Kaua’i to Niihau. For one, arriving on the privately owned island of Niihau is forbidden without permission from the Robinson family. Then there is the 17-mile stretch of ocean,which can be incredibly unforgiving with its waves and strong currents. And perhaps the biggest concern for most is the presence of sharks – lots of them.

It is believed four people had completed the challenge. That number is now eight.

On Aug. 29, lifeguard Bill Goding, computer programmer Quinn Carver, Brian Denaro (active duty U.S. Air Force) and student Jen Schumacher left Barking Sands Beach at 6 a.m. for the long swim to Niihau, escorted by fishing charter captain Don Jones, Schumacher’s mom Barb and lifeguard Jeff Kozlovich.

It didn’t take long for the curious to arrive.

“Forty-five minutes into the swim and we were seeing sharks,” says Kozlovich. “For the next four hours they were seeing Galapagos sharks pretty regularly. The sharks were curious, but they weren’t being aggressive.”

Nerves settled and the group fought forward, enjoying the ocean life below and the flocks of birds above. After several hours the sharks lost interest. The concern shifted to a sudden change in current and winds. Conditions intensified. Kozlovich says it was a challenge keeping everyone together.

“They constantly wanted to swim off in their own directions,” says Kozlovich, who paddled his rescue board the entire way. “They slowed considerably.”

Goding in the foreground with Schumacher’s mom Barbara on kayak and fellow swimmers and Niihau ahead

After a grueling nine hours and 56 minutes and more than 19 miles of actual swimming, they approached Niihau, now battling jellyfish. Kozlovich says the group had received “third-hand confirmation” from the Robinson family to “touch the beach and leave.”

“We ended up landing in a very rugged area with sharp lava rocks and pounding surf,” recalls Kozlovich. “Three of them touched a few rocks on shore before scrambling back to the boat, but one of them decided to explore the beach. He was immediately greeted by a Hawaiian man with a rifle and a woman with a camera.”

Kozlovich says no threats were made but the message to leave was clear. The group soon started the two-hour trek back to Kauai on the escort boat.

Upon arriving back at Barking Sands, the group was greeted by base security. The swimmers had put their gear in plastic trash bags and were swimming to shore after jumping off the boat 100 yards away.

“They were not amused seeing us carrying suspicious bags,” says Kozlovich. “Our arrival set off a full security alert!”

In their excitement they had neglected to alert base officials they were staying at the Pacific Missile Range Facility beach cottages.

“We told them we just swam to Niihau and they didn’t believe us at first,” he says. “We were questioned for more than an hour.”

Their story eventually checked out and they were released, marking the end of an unforgettable experience.

“Guns on both sides and sharks in the middle – that about sums it up,” says Kozlovich. “It was heavy, very heavy. What a day!”

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