A Life Aquatic: Michael Spalding

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Story by Diane Woodburn and Savy Janssen

Michael Spalding Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame.
On his second attempt in 2011, Spalding crossed the Alenuihāhā Channel.

We go.

This local saying loosely translates to, no questions, no excuses, no regrets, just … go. It’s also the perfect narrative for Maui’s local legend Michael Spalding. Because if there’s water involved, Spalding will go, and after 40 years of going, he was inducted into the Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame. This honor is bestowed upon select men and women within Hawai‘i’s water-sport community who perpetuate the spirit of our most famous waterman and global ambassador of aloha, Duke Kahanamoku, and whose lifetime of contributions inspire and perpetuate the unique connection between the Hawaiian people and the ocean. Suffice it to say, Spalding more than epitomizes this standard.

Part of an old kama‘āina (local) family, Spalding grew up on O‘ahu immersed in tradition, culture and history. His love for all things Hawaiian and his mischievous passion for adventure meant that all roads led to the sea. “If the ocean is at your doorstep, you’ve got to take advantage of it,” Spalding says.

Michael Spalding Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame.
Waterman Hall of Fame inductee Michael Spalding grins at the camera, completely in his element.

In true waterman style, Spalding partook of everything the ocean offered up, including surfing, freediving, spearfishing and bodysurfing. He is an avid sailor and paddler, as well as a former Junior Olympic water polo champion. But Spalding is best known for his prowess as a swimmer. To date, he is the only man to have swum all nine channels between the major Hawaiian Islands, including the seven-mile ‘Alalākeiki Channel between Maui and Kaho‘olawe in 2001, and the 26-mile Kaiwi Channel from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu in 2007. In 2008, Spalding attempted to swim the Alenuihāhā Channel, a treacherous stretch of water between Hawai‘i Island and Maui — but nature had other plans.

“Ten miles into the swim, I was bitten in the chest by a cookiecutter shark,” he says. “As I climbed into the support kayak, I was bitten again in the leg.” Though it’s only about 20 inches long, a cookiecutter is all mouth, and this attacker stole away with a sizeable chunk of Spalding’s upper calf. Three years later, Spalding was ready to try again. This time, with only six miles left, he was stung by a Portuguese man o’ war. Despite severe stomach cramps and leg spasms, Spalding pushed through and became the fourth-ever person to complete the 42-mile swim.

There is much, much more to say about this incredible athlete. Spalding was part of a relay team that completed the only successful swim across the 72-mile Ka‘ie‘ie Waho Channel from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i. He participated in 23 Moloka‘i Hoe canoe races, and was a member of the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society that traveled from one end of the Hawaiian Archipelago to the other, covering some 1,500 miles of open ocean in several stages. Spalding also completed a 40-mile double crossing relay of the English Channel, and now, at 74, he’s seriously considering entering a six-person relay across New Zealand’s Cook Strait.

“That will have challenges — big fish, cold water — and it will take some training … but there is nothing you can’t accomplish if you prepare properly and put your mind to it,” he says.

Accolades aside, Spalding lives aloha and instills in others his contagious love for the ocean. He established a scholarship fund for disadvantaged children in Fiji, and serves on many boards in Hawai‘i. He would often pack up his own family in their kayaks or catamaran and sail to some of the remotest places in the Hawaiian Islands, Fiji and New Guinea to camp, and is always game to take kids and friends on similar oceanic adventures. “We never had escorts; we were just winging it like ancient Hawaiians did,” he says. 

Spalding’s love of the water now spans more than four decades, and he has done it all with a perpetual smile and local-boy humility. He lives every day to its fullest with grace, gratitude and no regrets.

We go, a hui hou.

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