So I had a post I was writing, trying to finish and sitting in draft literally since September 2018 as myself and crew of novice paddlers were prepping for the famed Molokai Hoe; a 40+ mile outrigger canoe race crossing the Ka’iwi Channel. It’s considered the World Championship of outrigger canoe racing and draws over 1000 paddlers from around the world every year.
Obviously, seeing as it’s now April, I never finished the post, so instead the post has become more of a reflection on the lead-up to the race and the experience of taking part in such a long running tradition.
Those of you who happen to follow my instagram account are likely aware of our family’s new found love of the sport of outrigger paddling. A demanding and competitive sport in Hawaii, the South Pacific, and a growing number of cities around the world. As opposed to the prior year, my season this year started out a little different, due to the ongoing health issues facing our battle with Lyme Disease I found myself missing the majority of my Novice A regatta season; returning and practicing for the last couple races (technically only the Oahu championship and States.)
As regatta season was coming to an end, our coaches and crew chose to train for and compete in long distance season, which starts right after the states championship. I’ve been told by seasoned paddlers that you “suffer through regatta season only because you know distance season is coming,” and after both I completely understand why. Long distance is hard, frustrating, painful, full of laughs, camaraderie, awe inspiring, and like nothing else. Long distance is kinda like that drug that runners speak of, you get out of the monotony and experience a sport that takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to dig deep inside and ignore what your body is telling you.
Our practices morphed from running sprints and drills to paddling for 7-10 miles on the weekday and up to 15 on weekends. We had grown accustomed to the back and forth nature of 1/2 mile sprints and no longer tethered to the turn buoys and only limited by the setting sun.
Lanikai is a special to paddle, its outer reef protects so much of the bay that the water can often be glassy or just some wind waves, it’s great for regatta season, but you do not often get the chance to learn the nuances of catching ocean swell or negotiating open ocean conditions. We had to start learning these skills and it was in these moments that were often humbled by the ocean. We often found ourselves paddling out to ‘Bird’, across Kailua Bay to the Kawainui Canal and back, looping from Wailea point around Flat Island several times or paddling deep into Waimanalo and around the Mokes.
We raced four races leading up to the Hoe (one was cancelled due to weather), placing in the middle of the pack throughout the season. We were less worried about placing high, just knowing it was crucial training for what was to come and try to be prepared for the unknown the open ocean may bring.
Our Oahu races ended as quickly as they came and final prep for the Hoe came quickly. We found ourselves unrigging and shipping canoes, booking flights, hotel rooms and gathering supplies for the big race.
Our crew flew into Molokai a few days before the race to rig the canoes, get some practice runs in and finalize registration. The already small population of the island swells as 1000+ paddlers arrive with support crews and coaches. The small resort on the island became a melting pot of paddlers from around the world. The old timers who have been competing against each other for decades enjoy their reunions and talk story, the elite crews enjoy the spotlight and the junior crews look like they are ready to take on the world. Everyone busies themselves finding shade, hydrating, sleeping, and loading up on carbs and protein.
On Sunday, our crew was up at 4am eating breakfast, packing up, and pepping for the the 6+ hour race ahead. I packed up my dry bag with all my food packets, electrolytes, and Cliff Bars, covered my face and neck with sunscreen and doing what I could to settle my nerves. We were all loaded into school busses and driven down to Hale O Lono where we gave the canoes one last look over, enjoyed a prayer and blessing and were soon paddling outside the harbor for the start.
The start is essentially 100+ canoes trying to stay lined up in the wind and waves anxiously waiting for the flags to wave yet jockeying for position. Friends the night before were now your strongest competition. At the drop fo the flag and blast of the horn every canoe was off, trying to catch whatever wave they could find, bumping into each other, avoiding the dreaded huli, and knowing they have at least 30 minutes of paddling before their first rest.
I started in seat 5 of the race, one that I was not real familiar with but it allowed me to see the top crews power their way ahead of the pack and soak in the amazing atmosphere. Our crew stayed in good pace for the next 30 minutes passing a few other crews and watching others catch waves and pass us by. La’au point was getting closer by the stroke, it is at this point the support boats can come find you and begin changing out paddlers. We were all getting a little tired and ready for a change at this point and unfortunately made a mistake right before our first change, flipping the canoe. This setback took about 3-4 minutes to get the canoe back over, everyone back in, and get going again. Being in seat 5 I was responsible for a big part of bailing the canoe and ended up fighting bicep cramps the remainder of the race. After one change and another 15 minutes of paddling it was finally time for my first rest of the race.
Leaving La’au point means entering the fabled Ka’iwi channel. This channel can be as flat as a lake or one of the most dangerous channels on earth. Leaving the protective lee of Moloka’i, the water gets deep, the wind picks up and the swell starts to rise. This is where the test of endurance begins with 5 hours still remaining in the race.
Our crew was generally on a rotation of 30 minutes of paddling with 15 minutes rest. Rest meant finding shade on an open boat, pounding a packet of carbs and rehydrating however necessary. Our crew stayed strong, changes were rather smooth, and we started to get the hang of catching a bump here and there to aid in our trek back to Oahu.
About half way through, Koko Crater and Diamond Head become more prominent on the horizon and Molokai starts to fade, causing your mind to start playing some games, the 11th mile in a half marathon. You rarely see another canoe and where you came and where you are going seem so far away, but you know you are on the downhill run of the race.
Our course brought us back inside the lee of Oahu outside Hawaii Kai, other crews began appearing, and we set goals on catching other canoes for the remaining 12 miles, we knew we were close and had been in these waters in other races. Before we knew it we were rounding the Diamond Head buoy with a handful of miles remaining. Helicopters were buzzing overhead, the smell of hotel restaurants in Waikiki filled the air and our coaches were keeping us motivated to catch the next canoe.
With the finish line in site coach asked who wanted a change, my body was saying yes but I knew if I started I wanted to cross that line in the canoe. We all passed on the change, many of us paddling nearly the last hour of the race. Together, we stroked our way around the big yellow turn buoy and made our last dash into the beach at the Hilton Hawaiian, finishing with a time of 6:14:59.
The finish was emotional for me. I cried when I stepped out of the canoe and into the arms of my wife and kids. My family sacrificed a lot for me to be able to train and compete in this event. Hours of training in the canoe, spending time in the one man, lifting weights, push-ups, pull-ups and running came to fruition. We survived and conquered the channel as a truly novice crew.
The Ka’iwi Channel was not unfamiliar to me. I had the privilege of crossing the channel many times with my Grandfather on fishing trips to Molokai and more. The last time I traveled across the channel was to spread his ashes outside Kalaupapa and thinking back on all that channel has given me in life experience is priceless.