San Francisco resident Kim Chambers recently became the first woman to swim the 30 miles from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. The historic effort inspired a documentary film, “Kim Swims” which will be released next spring. atombash.com caught up with Kim on November 8.
Mark Davis: Before you swam the Farallones you recently completed the Oceans Seven swims. What are the Oceans Seven?
KC: They are the open water swimming equivalent of the “Seven Summits” of mountaineering; seven of the toughest swims around the world. All of these are completed following English Channel rules, which mean just a regular swimsuit, cap and goggles. No wetsuit, no thermal gear whatsoever. I was the first New Zealander to complete the Oceans Seven, the sixth person ever, the third woman. I’d like to say that I saved the best swim for last in that collection and that was Northern Ireland to Scotland last September. That swim almost killed me. I got stung hundreds of times by a cold-water species of jellyfish called Lions Mane. I ended up in a respiratory ward and then when I came back to America I was put straight into a specialized cardiac ward. That was definitely a brush with my mortality. I made a pretty swift recovery in February; I was given the all clear so I took that as permission to train for this one big swim, the Farallones.
MD: What are the other Oceans Seven?
KC: The first one that I did was the Cook Strait, that’s between the north and south island of New Zealand and that swim was about seventeen miles. One in six swimmers encounter a great white shark. Through all of these long distance swims you cannot have any contact with the boat. You can’t get on the boat to rest, sleep, you can’t touch the boat, there’s an observer recording all of this. If you do, you’re disqualified. But the Cook Strait and the Farallones are the only two swims in the world where you are allowed to get on the boat for ten minutes in the event of a shark sighting. Now I don’t know who can get back into the water after a shark sighting. But that didn’t happen to me, I hit the dolphin lottery, I had dolphins escorting me. It took me 8 ½ hours. I did end up in the hospital, I had some issues breathing but I bounced back quickly.
The second Oceans Seven swim I did was the Molokai Channel, from Molokai to Oahu in Hawaii. That’s over thirty miles. I jumped in at 8:30 PM and it was just pitch black. Tiger sharks frequent that area as do Portuguese Man of War jellyfish. I got stung a few times by a Portuguese Man of War; I didn’t have any shark sightings but again I had dolphins escort me. They light up with a luminescent glow. The water is so black but it’s also so clear so you can see things move underneath you, besides you. It’s like a dream. The conditions deteriorated pretty significantly at 20-knot winds. I ended up not landing at the beach where I could exit and I had to climb a vertical rock wall to exit the water. In channel rules, you have to exit the water under your own power. If somebody took pity on me and grabbed me under the arms and helped me out of the water my swim would be completely disqualified. It’s a strange sport. This experience took me 19 ½ hours, I was the first New Zealander to complete that swim and I think the 26th person ever. And that was when I started to hear about the Oceans Seven. I thought well, I’ve done two; I’ve only got five more to go.
The following year I swam from Spain to Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. Then in July of that year I swam from Catalina to Long Beach. I closed out the year with a successful English Channel swim. And that was a great swim for me; it took me 12 hours and 12 minutes. That was the fifth of the Oceans Seven.
The next was the Tsugaru Strait which was between the northernmost Island of Japan from Honshu to Hokkaido and that’s a pretty sharky stretch of water, it’s actually where the best tuna is fished. The locals call it the “Flying Dragon” because the wind just whips through there at such a high speed that the water is turbulent and rough. The night before as I was talking to our boat pilot, the wind started to die down. He just looked at me and said, I think Dragon’s going to be sleeping tomorrow. He was right; it was a beautiful day. I swam from Honshu to Hokkaido. The first New Zealander to do that.
Next up: A freak accident and a near leg amputation leads Kim to swimming. Stay tuned…