Just Keep Swimming


Story by Diane Haynes Woodburn


It’s spring, the season when all thoughts turn to new life, replenishment, awakening and hope. Hawaiians have a ceremony to celebrate this sentiment called hi‘uwai. I was introduced to the ritual at the annual Celebration of the Arts by my friend, Hawaiian practioner Clifford Nae‘ole, and I fell in love with it.

Just before dawn, I joined Nae‘ole and a group on the beach. It was still dark, but the call of seabirds mixing with the rhythmic sound of the shore break slowly awakened my groggy senses. Nae‘ole instructed us to think about our lives, of those who came before us, and how we are all connected. We then entered the water, some fully, some offering just a toe — how much of your person got wet didn’t matter. What did matter was our collective faith in the power of renewal.

That experience reminds me of another trial by water, not quite as contemplative, but perhaps just as profound. Long ago, I hiked the entire Nāpili coast of Kaua‘i by myself, all the way to the Kalalau Valley. It was a self-test of grit — or maybe foolishness; some 50 years later, it’s still hard to tell the difference.

At Kalalau, I met other young adventurers on similar quests. Three of them, two guys and a girl, somehow convinced me we should swim around the farthest point of Kalaulau to the next beach over, Honopū.

Honopū is the epitome of remote. It’s flanked on both sides by sheer canyon walls, and it’s against the law to land there with any sort of seafaring craft. The ocean along that stretch of coast is notoriously rough. But with youth and folly on our side, and the assurance that we’d have the beach and valley all to ourselves, we decided to go for it.

It was agreed that the boys would swim out first to test the current, and once they felt it was safe, would give us the sign to join. We all shed our swimsuits (because why not?) and the boys jumped in. Soon, they were mere dots bobbing beyond the menacing break. When they gave us the thumbs up, we looked at each other and dove in.

Keep your head down and swim hard! I told myself. When I finally made it beyond the breakers and popped up, I saw I was alone; my swim mate had retreated back to shore. Far ahead, the boys were treading water, waiting for me. Should I go back or continue? I chose to continue.

I joined the boys and together we continued around the point. It was a long, arduous swim and my elation at seeing the shore was quickly quashed by the sight of the immense, crashing waves we would have to navigate in order to reach the beach. I can honestly say that I swam for my life until I finally tumbled to shore, dumped unceremoniously on the sand by an enormous swell. I stood up, faced the ocean and looked out from this remote edge of the Earth, triumphant at being one of the very few people to arrive on this hidden beach.

Or was I?

As I turned, I saw a middle-aged couple, fully clothed, with a large picnic basket and a big spread of food. (I would later find out that they had chartered a helicopter to drop them here in this private paradise.) They stopped mid-bite and stared at me.

“Hello,” I said, wearing nothing but a shy smile and a sheen of salt water. Slowly, the man extended his hand and offered me an apple.

I’ll never forget that swim, not knowing if I was strong enough to make it, but absolutely committed to trying. I shake my head in wonder when I remember those days, and yet, in retrospect, times haven’t changed all that much — jumping into dangerous, deep water and pushing forward with your head down succinctly sums up our collective swim of the last two years. And although there still may be a few tumblers ahead, I’m willing to bet there’s also some warm, golden sand.

Whether your style is to blindly jump in, or to simply test the water with your toes, I hope you find your perfect beach — perhaps even in these pages — and your own sense of renewal. And don’t forget to pack an extra apple. You never know who may drop in.


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