At dawn on June 10, 2006, my father went for a swim in the Strait of Tañon.
As a Fulbright Scholar, he was teaching a course on the law of international human rights at the College of Law of Silliman University in Damaguete. The Straight of Tañon lies between the islands of Negros and Cebu in the Visayas region of the Philippine archipelago. It is part of the South China Sea and known for whale and dolphin watching. The distance between the islands is four miles as the crow flies, and this particular path has only been known to have been crossed by a single individual in Philippine history.
This is my father’s story, in his own words.
For three weeks I trained but it was not nearly enough. On May 4 and June 5, I swam 2.6 miles in a hotel pool – two hours each – no big deal. The following week I tapered off with one and a half miles on Tuesday, and one mile on Wednesday. I did nothing on Thursday or Friday.
Friday afternoon I went out with my buddy, Jay, and bought 50 litres of diesel fuel for a big pump boat owned by my friend and colleague, Myles, and a small chase boat. Also, drinks, snacks and bananas, of course.
On Saturday I rose at 4:00 am, not well rested though I’d tried to sleep early. Nerves, I guess. Myles picked me up and we headed to Silliman Beach. We took the dinghy out to the Dixie Queen. My sponsor, Snoopy, never showed up. Myles’ family was there. Jay bailed, however, because he had to accompany his brother-in-law who was being medivacked for cirrhosis of the liver. Choi Gallarde, the tele-reporter from Sky Cable News made it, however, with his camera. The captain, who had recently failed his licensing examination (again) lifted anchor and we were off to Cebu at 5:40 am.
For the next half hour we chugged up the Strait of Tañon to the cemetery in Cebu which I had picked as my entry point, with the advice and consent of Rogelio LaCerna, lieutenant and pilot in the Philippine Navy. Rogelio is the only other person to do this swim in Philippine history. His time was 4:03 and he finished the swim on August 31, 2002. He was 28 years old at the time and a veteran of the Military Academy swim team. Rogelio swam from Negros to Cebu so I decided to be the first to do the reverse.
I was 62 years old.
Conditions were perfect. Calm seas, light current. The new moon prognostication seemed to be paying off. I wolfed bananas as commanded by Rogelio and prepared my plastic bag of water, Power bars, Gatorade and more bananas for the chase boat. I also popped two aspirins in anticipation of swelling. I felt great.
At 6:30 am exactly the dinghy deposited me on shore. I glanced at the cemetery and waded into the sea. I picked my target, several big white fuel tanks across the way, and commenced to swim free style towards the island of Negros Oriental.
For the first few hours I felt strong and thought, naively as it turned out, that I might finish in less than four hours, breaking Lt. Lucerne’s record. Along the way, curious fisherman in bancas, outrigger canoes, would come around to gape. No freighters appeared (I had notified the Coast Guard the day before).
Every twenty minutes or so the guy in the banca or the guys in the chase boat would throw me a bottle of water or a banana. I had practiced drinking while treading water. I would chug a small bottle and then throw it back into the boat. A happy camper. Lots of dolphins kept me company and, happily, no sharks. At this point the water was some 275 feet deep. I was in the main channel, more than half way across. On the shark issue, I had received mixed information that ran the gamut from “shark infested waters” to “fished out”. A less extreme view was that the sharks usually fed before dawn.
In any event, things were going swimmingly, as they say. But after four hours circumstances began to change. First, the current reversed. This was unanticipated and disturbing because it meant that the flow was coming to my breathing side. I lift my head habitually to the left. It’s something like being left handed and not something one can readily change. Next, the sun started to get higher in the sky and was rising on my left so that every time I took a breath I looked into the sun. And my goggles weren’t tinted. I would close my eyes and see bright red. I couldn’t focus on my target. Worse, given the change in current, I had to change tactics and choose a new target since I was now going to be swept to the north and not the south as anticipated. Unfortunately the guys in the boats didn’t understand this and continued to try to lead me to my original target. Which meant that I was swimming, futilely, against the current. So for an eternity I swam against the current and at best managed to stay in the same place. I might have even lost ground (ground?). I tried to explain this to the guys in the boats but they hardly understood English. My arms and shoulders were tiring and getting sorer by the minute. When I tried to explain the need to change targets, the guys in the little boats would just smile and throw me another banana.
Then the worst happened. The sea became choppy and the waves smashed directly into my gasping, breathing side. And I was getting delusional. One time I would focus on the shore and think I was close. The next time it looked farther away than ever. I was bobbing and being tossed about by forces I couldn’t resist. But I put my head down and aimed at my new target and would swim for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, barely looking up. When I did stop to see where I was, I was invariably discouraged to see that I made no visible progress.
Choi, the SkyNews guy, was in the chase boat which was emitting unending diesel fumes directly into my face. My throat was sore breathing through my mouth. My tongue began to swell from the sea water getting into my mouth. I remembered those stories about desperate sailors drinking sea water and the suffering this caused. Even when I drank my bottled water, I couldn’t rid myself of the effects of the salt.
The weather got worse, rougher. After more than five hours, the banca guy said, “Just a thousand meters to go”. A kilometer! I didn’t think I could continue. I debated whether finishing was worth dying for. Myles and company had hyped this thing so much, I thought about the ignominy of failure. I resolved to go on no matter what. I wondered at what point I would simply be unable to use my arms. Surprisingly, my left arm hurt more than my right. I had been worried about the right since I have some scar tissue left from 1989 diskecomy (sp?) that sometimes makes my right arm go numb. I always wondered at what point one’s body would quit from complete exhaustion. I know I was approaching that point. I considered the possibility of trying to finish using a sort of side stroke or just leg power. My legs were still pretty much ok. Trouble was, while I could keep afloat this way, I couldn’t make any headway against the mounting seas.
Somehow after about five hours and forty minutes I could see that I was just a couple of hundred yards from the shore. Even at that point I thought I might not have the strength to finish. I knew that I was possibly doing real damage to my upper arm, chest and shoulder muscles. Plus I could begin to feel the serious sunburn on my head, shoulders, back and the back of my legs. I had put sun block on early and tried to reapply it a couple of times along the way, but it was hopeless. It would just immediately wash away.
I kept swimming. By God, I hadn’t come this far to fail. I could see a row of poles with fishing nets strung out. I turned to avoid them and banged my head against a submerged diagonal pole. Boom! Dazed, I could see the bottom. I tried to stand. The clear water was deceptive. It was still ten feet deep.
I kept swimming. Twenty yards. Rocks. Ten yards. I tried standing and touched the bottom. I couldn’t stand. The rocks were slippery and uneven. I thought I’d fall. I feared I couldn’t use my arms to break a fall. Choi was on shore filming away. Myles was standing there with two bottles of San Miguel beer. I picked my way slowly ashore. My hard core support team cheered.
I lifted my bottle of San Miguel. Smiled.
And then, gingerly, back into the chase boat for the trip back to the Dixie Queen. God, I was so glad it was over. I drank more water and swallowed more aspirin. I ate five tuna fish sandwiches. And then sat back for a forty-five minute ride back to Dumaguete.
My time was exactly six hours. I finished at 12:30 noon time.
When I got home I received a congratulatory phone call from Rogelio who talked about glory and history and so on. I collapsed but couldn’t sleep. And that night I had to attend a dinner party with the new president of Silliman University. Mik Maxino, our host, said grace, in which he thanked our Lord for my deliverance.
The distance from Cebu to Negros is four miles across as the crow flies but with the tide and current changes, I’m sure I swam much further. Without question it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
P.S. I was smoking a pack a day at the time of this event.”