Suzanne “Bobo” Bollin is among the small number of people in the world who have swum along the rugged Napali Coast of Kauai, where winter waves reach heights of 40 feet and crash into jagged cliffs.
In fact, Bobo has made the swim so frequently since 1972, she has lost count of how many times she has done it.
A lively woman of 67 with a youthful voice, Bobo is an icon on the North Shore. She is well-known and respected for her swimming achievements and her animated conversation, and is easily recognizable by her long white braids that fall more than half the length of her 5-foot-4-inch frame.
Swimming along the Napali has been only one aspect of Bobo’s colorful life, but it has been a large and integral part.
She begins at Kee Beach, where the highway ends on Kauai’s North Shore, and swims parallel to the steep rock faces, coming ashore on one of only two beaches along the coast where it is safe to do so.
Hundreds of feet above, the challenging 11-mile Kalalau Trail winds its way from Kee Beach into Kalalau Valley. Once Bobo reaches the beach of her choice, she walks up to the trail and hikes back to Kee.
“I started out by swimming to Hanakapiai Beach, about a mile by ocean. The swim to Hanakapiai is pretty easy in the summer when the ocean is flat. If you pick the right conditions, you can get there in as fast as 30 minutes,” she says. “If you pick the wrong conditions, you can get there in as slow as an hour and a half.”
Bobo’s first experience felt so easy and so fun, that she was inspired to swim all the way to Kalalau Beach, six miles by ocean. But initially she was intimidated.
“I’m a very cautious person when it comes to the ocean. I know that I’m very, very little and it’s very, very big,” she says.
“I had to overcome a lot of my own personal fears to swim farther. The way I did that was to swim to Hanakapiai a bunch of times. The more I did, the more at peace with the ocean I got and the less intimidated I felt.”
The first handful of times Bobo had friends on surfboards escorting her. After her fifth time, she swam to Kalalau on her own.
“Once I started doing it by myself, it seemed to me that the sea life was a lot more at ease with me being alone. Fish, turtles, dolphins and things like that would swim up a lot closer to me and I’d have a lot more exciting, fun experiences than when I had other people with me,” she says.
‘Piece of cake’
It has taken Bobo as little as three and a half hours to swim from Kee to Kalalau. She’s also had some days when it’s taken her more than six hours.
Once you come around the corner from Kee Beach you’re committed, Bobo says, because the wind and current take you down the coast. Then, once you swim past Hanakapiai, you’re committed for another reason: the inhospitable, steep cliffs of the Napali Coast make it nearly impossible to come ashore, aside from a couple spots, and those are dicey in all but the most favorable conditions.
“The ocean has to be really flat, not even a little windswell, or the waves will just smash you into the rocks and you’ll get all cut up and hurt,” Bobo says. “It’s better to stay away from the rocks and the cliffs as much as possible.”
The most recent time Bobo planned to swim from Kee to Kalalau, she hadn’t done it for two years. She wondered if she would be able to make it. She called on her boat captain friends to keep an eye out for her.
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I’m getting old. I’m feeling kind of weak.’ I had lost all confidence,” she says.
When the day came, she and a male friend took off swimming from Kee. She arrived at Kalalau an hour and a half before he did. “I felt just fine. I was like, ‘Wow, that was a piece of cake.’ ”
‘He doesn’t know what I’ve got’
One time, while Bobo was swimming past Hanakoa Valley, roughly halfway between Kee Beach and Kalalau, she spotted a 5-foot-long tiger shark in front of her.
She found herself in a quandary. She didn’t want to swim farther out in the ocean, because that would put her more in the shark’s environment. On the other hand, she didn’t want to get caught between the shark and the cliffs.
“Then I start to think, ‘He doesn’t know what I am or he would have come up and bitten me by now if he knew how harmless I was. He doesn’t know if I have stingers or big teeth. He doesn’t know what I’ve got,” she says.
“I turn around and I swim at him as fast and as hard as I can while thinking, ‘I’m going to bite you!’ And he goes away.
“I feel like what I did only works with sharks smaller than you,” she says. “If it had been a bigger shark, he would have just opened his mouth and let me swim in.”
The closest Bobo ever came to getting killed on the Napali Coast was in the early 1970s, when she and a friend, Mike, encountered a huge number of man-of-war jellyfish near Hanakoa. They had gotten a few stings, which she says is not uncommon.
But soon she and Mike found themselves amid thick “wind lines” (groups) of man-of-wars that each stretched four feet wide. Each individual man-of-war had stringers hanging four or five feet below the water’s surface.
Twice Bobo and Mike dove underwater, swam until they were past the jellies, then surfaced in clearings.
“But the clearings between the lines of jellyfish were getting smaller and smaller, until we started coming up into little holes in the midst of this gigantic school of man-of-wars. We were getting stung more and more, and I was losing the mobility in my arms,” she recalls.
“We decided that we could keep swimming and get stung to death, or we could try to climb the cliff and intersect with the Kalalau Trail. But the spot where we were, the cliff was straight up and down,” Bobo says.
“We chose to climb up the straight up and down cliff, because if we were going to get killed, it might not be as painful as going by man-of-war.”
Bobo waited for a big wave to bash her into the cliff, where, on her first try, she grabbed the rock, taking the highest grip she could reach.
Mike wasn’t so lucky. The first wave he chose smashed him against the cliff, but he couldn’t get a grip.
“He gets sucked down the cliff: bang, bang, bang, bang. I’m like, ‘Holy s***, he doesn’t look good.’ ”
On his second wave, Mike got a hand-hold. He and Bobo climbed the vertical cliff face hand over hand until they met the Kalalau Trail, around the trail’s seven-mile point.
Instead of opting for the shorter four-mile route into Kalalau Valley, where Bobo had a stash of blankets and food, they chose to head back to Kee Beach.
“We were so happy to be alive, that we decided we were going to hike the seven miles back and go out to dinner, have some drinks and celebrate that we were alive!”
Clean and sober for 28 years
Bobo has been clean and sober for 28 years, but she traveled a long road before getting to the day in Hanalei when she made a bargain with God that she would quit drinking and using drugs.
When she was 39 years old, standing in Hanalei Pavilion, in or near a puddle of water, she and a man were having an altercation. He pushed her.
“My feet slipped and I fell headfirst into the cement. I didn’t put my hands out. I was too drunk to react. I bashed my head into the cement. I got a concussion and a skull fracture,” she says.
“I knew I was injured and I knew I had to get away from that guy. I took off running.”
She ran down to the beach, where she stayed for a couple nights. She lost her vision from the fall. The concussion also affected her mind.
“I had serious brain damage. I couldn’t even finish a sentence before I forgot what I was saying. That pissed me off more than being blind,” she says. She decided she wanted to die.
But she didn’t die. Instead she began having alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
“I was down there on the beach with hallucinations, sick as a dog and crazy. Not even human; pretty close to death,” she says.
After a handful of days, she was ready to make a change.
“I said, ‘God, let’s get a little deal going here. I don’t even care about the blindness, but you cure my brain and I’ll quit drinking.’ So me and God made this little deal and I quit drinking at that time. I haven’t had a drop now in 28 years. I haven’t smoked a joint in 28 years or done any drugs in 28 years.”
Bobo says the ocean has always kept her alive.
“I remember when I first got sober, a woman I’d met in a recovery program said to me, ‘Well, now that you’ve been restored to sanity, you don’t have to do those crazy things anymore, like swim the Napali Coast.’
“I went home and thought, ‘Whoa, I can’t let these crazy recovery people tell me what to do.’ The very next day, I swam the Napali Coast.
“That woman thought swimming the Napali was part of my self-destruct. It was part of my soul.”
Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of “Kauai Stories” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2,” that will include a more detailed version of Bobo’s story.