Swimming with sharks - the story of Ranie Pearce’s Molokai attempt / by Crispin Thorold

Ranie Pearce's Molokai swim. (Video: Aaron Begle)

After her dramatic encounter with tiger sharks on a solo attempt across the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, the marathon swimmer Ranie Pearce has called for a more open conversation in the channel swimming community about what can be expected during this and other Oceans Seven channel swims.  Aerial footage of the incident, which was captured with a drone-mounted camera by a videographer on board her support craft, has been widely viewed on social media.  

“This is an unusual occurrence but it is a possibility so I don’t want to shy away from it either”, said Ranie Pearce speaking from her home in Orinda, California a week after her Molokai solo was aborted.   “I feel like we don’t talk about it enough.  Obviously I am not the first person that this has happened to, but yet I cannot tell you who this has happened to.  […] How many times has the Molokai swim, and indeed the other Oceans Seven swims been stopped by sharks? That information is not out there.”

The 42km swim from Molokai island to Oahu island across the Kaiwi Channel is the longest of the Oceans Seven channels and is regarded by swimmers as a brutal prospect.  Swimmers face strong winds, high swell and waves during this warm-water crossing in addition to potentially aggressive marine life.  Pearce compares the lack of information about Molokai with the directness of the Cook Strait website, which states clearly that one in six swims encounter sharks.

“[The Cook Strait encounters are] not death or dismemberment but people get out of the water because of sharks”, the swimmer said.  “That’s good to know going into it.  You need to be mentally prepared.  You need to be physically prepared, perhaps with having a shark shield.  I didn’t get that information from Molokai.”

 One of the tiger sharks swims between swimmer and paddler (Photo: Aaron Begle)

One of the tiger sharks swims between swimmer and paddler (Photo: Aaron Begle)

Ranie Pearce added that her pilot has taken fifteen swims across the channel - on three of those crossings sharks have been spotted with two of the swims aborted due to sharks (including her own). That said, the Triple-Crown swimmer was full of praise for the way that her crew handled the lead-up to the swim and the incident during it.  “It was just all well greased.  It was nice, I was confident that I was in good hands and I liked the people.  They were outdoorsy, sailers, paddlers, they were water people.”

Taking on Molokai

The first four and half hours of the crossing were very challenging.  The winds were a stiff 18-20 knots and the swell 4-5 feet high, with waves of a similar height on top of that.  In these conditions it was a struggle to find a regular rhythm. “You swim three or four strokes and then you surf for a minute, you just glide and you pick yourself up and then you start stroking, and something comes and hits you from the side and rolls you.  You lose your balance, you have to collect yourself and start swimming again.”

Although the water temperature started as a balmy 24ºC (76ºF) it dropped around 4ºC (8ºF) when Ranie Pearce swam beyond the continental shelf, above the depths of the open ocean.  This water temperature was still very manageable for a swimmer who trains in San Francisco Bay and has completed several cold-water channels, but the shock of the unexpected temperature change and periodic vomiting, was already taking a toll when the swim took a dramatic turn. 

An encounter with tiger sharks

Initially, she was blissfully unaware of what was going on.  Her paddler was the first to spot a shark and he immediately radioed the pilot.  

“He [the kayaker] just keeps his eye on it and then he circles me, in a big circle so that I did not really notice”, said Ranie Pearce.  “I guess he was trying to drive the shark away.  And then he circles me again and I think that is weird.  I pop my head up and I say ‘what’?   […] He said, ‘don’t panic, there is a shark in the water.  I am trying to scare hm away and the boat is coming and they are going to try to scare him away’.  As he was saying that the boat just zoomed by going full speed.”  

At first Ranie Pearce was more nervous about the boat’s apparently erratic behaviour than the nearby sharks, and she recalls that both her and the kayaker remained calm.  That changed when a surprise wave hit them both, knocking the kayaker and submerging Ranie.  When she resurfaced the kayaker asked, “Did it hit you?”.  By this time everyone’s adrenaline was running high. 

 Trying to scare away one shark (Photo: Aaron Begle) 

Trying to scare away one shark (Photo: Aaron Begle) 

“The shark was between me and the kayak, which I had thought was pretty close to me.  And I thought I want out of here. I think that the kayak had bumped me but he thinks the shark had bumped me. […] I said really calmly ’I want out of the water’ and he radioed and said ‘she wants out of the water’.  As he is saying that I look at my feet and there is the shark.  He is literally one hundred percent squared off under my body, as close as I can touch if I put my feet down.  I am not treading water at this stage I am floating.  If I had put my feet down and tread water I would have kicked him.”

Ranie Pearce compares this moment to Hollywood reenactments of shark attacks.  “I felt him move the water - that’s so close but it was so big.  He was over ten feet and he was so menacing and his eyes were so black. […] I think it is the black eyes that don’t have irises or anything, that don’t follow you, that don’t move.  It was just a little bit more than I can handle.”

The crew joked later that Ranie’s swim to the boat was worthy of a place in the Olympic trials, although she recalls that her focus was on calm swimming without splashes rather than speed.  The kayaker was in her wake and after a somewhat poorly timed overboard he also made it to the boat safely.

Taking stock

Ranie Pearce is very clear that whatever the appearance of the footage the situation was tense, rather than panicked.  There was communication between the swimmer, the kayak and the support boat throughout and the swim was called when Ranie decided that the sharks were simply too persistent and too curious.  There was also a fear that by trying to chase the sharks off with the boat they could have been provoked. “It just didn’t seem like we should keep playing that game”, recalls Ranie Pearce.

 An accomplished Channel swimmer

An accomplished Channel swimmer

Despite this she is frank that the pressure of the swim - the money, the time, the training - did have a bearing on her decision about when to call the swim.  She also defends the pilot’s decision not to abort the swim earlier. “I didn’t feel like he was endangering my life at all.  I felt that he was part of my team and that he let me make the decision.  But I think that ultimately because he is the captain, and would have been ultimately responsible, if we had dithered any longer he would have said done, get out.”

So what of the safety of the channel?  On the swim before this one the same pilot aborted a relay after a group of white-tip sharks showed a persistent interest in the swimmers.  Ranie Pearce was fully aware of this before she left Molokai and planned to wear shark bands at night, but decided that they would be too heavy to wear for the full 18-20 hours.  Before the swim her greatest fear was the Man o' War and Box jellyfish that inhabit the channel.

Now, speaking a week after the incident, Ranie Pearce is unsure that she could return to the channel - in part because of the prospect of returning to the same waters, but also because she fears her family would struggle to understand why she would want to attempt Molokai again.  However, she remains determined to get back in the water soon and is investigating organising a Lake Tahoe crossing, ideally in the coming months.  There is no way that a couple of sharks - albeit tiger sharks - is going to put this swimmer off her passion.  

“I see that I am bigger, richer, happier and more interesting because of what I do and who I have met.  […]  It’s magical and I am just not able to give this up just because there is a risk.”

 Ranie Pearce at the  S.C.A.R Swim Challenge  in 2014

Ranie Pearce at the S.C.A.R Swim Challenge in 2014

Ranie Pearce Swimming highlights

Completed the Triple Crown (English Channel (2011), Catalina Channel (2013) and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (2014)), as well as the Straits of Gibraltar (2010) and many other marathon swimmers.  She is also an ice swimmer.

Ranie Pearce attempted to swim the Molokai Channel on Tuesday 28 June 2016.  She was interviewed a week later on 5 July 2016.