Acing A Cool Swim Around Oahu

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - September 17, 2008
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 'Ace Cool' Cooke
Alex ‘Ace Cool’ Cooke

Long before the X-Games and other extreme sports existed, there was Alec “Ace” Cooke, better known as “Ace Cool.” The big wave surfer and veteran waterman is often imitated but seldom duplicated.

“I’m the original,” he laughs. “I’ve spent a lifetime doing extreme things.”

Cooke gained fame in the 1980s as the “crazy surfer who dropped out of helicopters into monster surf.”

“I’m the guy on the postcard catching one of the biggest waves ever photographed,” says the 52-year-old Cooke. “I’ve done it all and I’ve seen it all.”

And it’s what he’s seen that motivated him to take on his latest challenge. Armed with just a snorkel, a mask and some fins, Cooke swam more than 100 miles around Oahu over a 10-day period to bring attention to the condition of our ocean.

“It’s getting dirtier and dirtier out there, and every time one of our irrigation ditches close, we see more runoff and more pollution,” says Cooke, who documented his journey with an underwater camera. “I took several underwater tests and the samples are milky, they’re brown, they’re green and they’re yucky.”

Cooke admits many of his previous tests of courage brought attention to himself, but this effort was about keeping the ocean blue.

“With the amount of residents and visitors we have here, our ocean is receiving more than a million toilet flushes every day,” says Cooke. “We only hear about the large sewage spills, but so many more go unreported. There’s something wrong with the system and something wrong with this picture.”

Cooke’s journey around Oahu started and ended at Haleiwa. He swam about 10 hours every day, camping overnight wherever he left off.

Ace swam up to 10 hours a day while circling Oahu
Ace swam up to 10 hours a day while circling Oahu

Cooke says his counterclockwise course around Oahu often meant he was swimming against the currents and tides. He says his support staff kept him nourished and motivated.

“You’re only as good as your team, especially my support boat captain Matt Buckman and his crew,” says Cooke. “I was swimming upstream so much, in the first four days I dropped 15 pounds. They were handing me energy bars and I was telling them give me a steak!”

Cooke recalls several interesting encounters during his challenge, including a close call with a submarine. He says besides trash sitting on the bottom of the ocean, he saw many large animals along the way.

“I saw moray eels longer than you can imagine and, of course, sharks are always a factor,” says Cooke. “I tried to hug the shoreline as often as possible, but in order to stay close to my escort I had to go outside.”

There were several areas along the coast where Cooke rode in the support boat for safety reasons, particularly around military bases and spots known for high shark populations. In the end, his “crazy endeavor” to raise awareness of ocean pollution confirmed what he already knew.

“I got some nasty water in my mouth and I dry heaved for a half-hour,” says Cooke.

“I want people to ask, ‘Why is this guy doing this?’ This is not about Ace; this is about keeping the ocean blue.”

Cooke estimates the 100-hour swim around Oahu cost about $5,000 out of his own pocket. But in his mind, it was worth every penny.

“I’ve ridden the biggest waves and the ocean has given me so much pleasure. It’s time to give back.”

And, in his case, giving back never felt so grueling, but so good.

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