Ten time world champion Jamie Mitchell calls it the “Waterman’s Super Bowl”, for me, the chance to realize a dream of adding my name to the rooster of legendary watermen and women that have successfully crossed the infamous channel. The Molokai to Oahu Race really began for me last fall. The notion of attempting the “Channel of Bones” as a team was first conceived at the Battle of the Paddle in southern California following a Team Canada Relay top 20 finish with good friend Norm Hann.
Unknowingly, my Stand Up Paddling career began at the BOP one year earlier when I traveled south to try my hand at this amazing new, but still relatively unknown sport. As a lifelong surfer, kayaker and fitness junkie, it was as though SUP was created just for me, one sport that encompassed all of my passions! The following June, I traveled to the birthplace of SUP, Waikiki to compete in the very first Battle of the Paddle Hawaii. The community of paddlers that make up the professional SUP Ohana, or “family” exemplify the term “aloha” in all respects. The sport alone was enough to inspire a change of lifestyle and career (now Canadian brand manager for Surftech and Kialoa), add to that an amazing roster of surfing icons that included the likes of Gerry Lopez, and Dave Kalama to the mix, I knew that this was the beginning of a new era for me. My full time career focus would shift to introducing SUP to the Canadian marketplace through both the sale of equipment an instruction.
Soon thereafter I was invited down to southern California to become the first Certified (now Canada’s only “ASI Master Certified Instructor” by the World Stand Up Paddleboard Association), and commenced development of my business, Paddle Surf Fitness, and “Surfit”, a Crossfit equivalent on the water! Fifteen months later, a couple more certifications, BCRPA Fitness Leader and Paddle Canada Instructor Trainer, 250 plus students and coaches to my credit and my dream lifestyle had come to fruition. Two more professional races in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands left just one more major challenge before me, the infamous Ka’iwi Channel!
The Ka’iwi Channel, also known as the “channel of bones”, aka Molokai Channel, has a centuries old reputation for being one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world. Ka’iwi has claimed the lives of many, from ancient canoe fleets, to fisherman and watermen including the tragic loss of Hawaiian big-wave surfer Eddie Aikau. Regarded as the world championship of paddleboard racing, the Ka’iwi Channel traverses 32 miles of rough, shark infested waters from the North Shore of Molokai, to the South Shore of Oahu. The channel covers a depth of 2,300 feet and is subject to open-ocean swells of up to 30 feet. Considered one of the roughest ocean channels in the world, it represents the ultimate test of endurance. Wildly varying open-ocean conditions challenge a paddler’s surfing skills. Top paddlers can ride swells for 100s of yards. Capricious currents and tidal effects test a paddler’s ocean navigation skills. Gerry Lopez, one of the most highly regarded surfers in the history of the sport, and M2O veteran was quoted as saying, “ Molokai is a big bite!”
British Columbia’s spring in 2011 was the coldest on record, a variable that did not play well into an already short pre-race training schedule. As the very first Canadian SUP team to attempt the channel, we held no false expectations, to be accepted to race was a privilege, to just finish was an honor. We were well aware of the training and experience that we were up against, primarily from Hawaii, Australia, California and Central America where top athletes are training and racing in like conditions every day of the year. Norm and I simply wanted to finish knowing that we gave it our best effort.
Serious training for me began immediately following the acceptance of our entry in January. Having been hampered by an already 7-month-old Achilles tendonitis issue, I was forced to “train outside the box” and seconded the expertise of one of Canada’s foremost endurance athletes, Jenn Seger, girlfriend of my teammate. It was not until May 15, almost one month later than any previous season that the ice broke at Heffley Lake, where my family calls home. I recorded a video of myself on the first “M2O on water training day” of the season, breaking ice with the nose of my Surftech Dominator SUP board, the video was shared across the world! The following 2 months training would encompass an entirely new regime for me. Traditionally weight training and running were my focus for the shorter events, with little to no significant endurance training. My injuries and the required race conditioning focused on TRX (functional suspension strength training), Mt Biking and of course lots of on the water paddle time. Truth be known, I LOVE stand up paddling, however, when it is 3 degrees Celsius and pouring rain for the entire month of June, on the water training takes on an entirely new meaning in doses of 2-3 hour sessions per day!
A tremendous amount of logistical planning is required for the M2O event. Escort boats, required by all teams crossing the channel, flights from Oahu to Molokai, board transportation, nutrition and hydration requirements, the list kept me busy and mind on task in the months leading up to the event. I designed a Team Canada, Molokai to Oahu logo, and good friend Sean Sweet from Sweet Waterwear printed jerseys that we would auction to raise funds. Norm focused on establishing the Stand Up 4 Great Bear Charity, the cause that we chose to paddle and raise money for. Hann started the Stand Up for Great Bear organization to raise awareness for and understanding of the significance of the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, and the threats that it’s pristine future faced.
I arrived in Hawaii on July 25th in order to train for a coupe of days in similar conditions that we would race in and to familiarize myself with the tricky finish. There was no doubt in my mind that my conditioning was up to par, however no amount of endurance training alone would get me across the channel. Training on the flat water at Heffley Lake was a far cry from the open ocean swell, current and winds that we would endure, if any single variable would affect our performance, this one would. It was also common knowledge shared by all competitors that if you were fortunate enough to manage the first 30 miles of open ocean, the final 2 of the race were the toughest. Several trains of thought make up the strategy for planning a route across the channel, rum line straight to Oahu, or push further north to lessen the risk of being swept away into the abyss by the south current and NE winds. Either route would serve up extremely challenging conditions resulting from backwash and currents along the infamous China wall, then straight into Hawaii Kai, through a shallow reef and surf break against 20 plus knot headwinds in the sprint for the finish. I had an uneasy stomach just thinking about it.
Competitors from around the globe began arriving in Waikiki in the few days preceding the race. It helped to ease the pre-race anxiety by “talking story” with legendary Pipeline Master, Gerry Lopez, surf icon Dave Kalama and other seasoned competitors. We talked board choice, weather and of course last minute navigational strategies that would be dictated by the days weather. This was truly a waterman’s event that would require the combination of many skills to ensure success.
One of the most difficult things for me, a surfer from the soul, is to be in a surf destination before a big race and not surf! Despite explicit instructions from my trainers and wife to rest in the days leading up to the event, how could I pass up perfect paddle surfing conditions at all of Waikiki’s infamous breaks. As fate would have it, two days before the race, paddling into a wave in hard offshore wind at “Publics”, with Norm, I heard a “pop” and was overcome by the excruciating pain of a torn oblique muscle. SUP, an activity well know for its “core” conditioning, relies heavily on those outside abdominal muscles for power, and here I was, now unable to even paddle a single stroke on my right side just 48 hours before the race of my life, I was devastated. Consultations with local doctors delivered my only option, maximum doses of ibuprofen and a girdle like torso sling to stabilize the muscles. Not a perfect solution as the sling would hamper my breathing, however I was not about to quit now.
The following night would have us grocery shopping and provisioning our escort boat, “Enzo” with necessary nutrition and hydration. The escort boat would depart Saturday morning for Molokai, while Norm and I caught the 10am flight over, not willing to chance pre-race sea sickness the day before. The flight was amazing as we flew right over the treacherous but beautiful open ocean that we would be crossing in less than 24 hours. Butterflies were back! We arrived at Kaluakoi Beach mid day and simply rested in the shade, looking out over the long stretch of ocean trying to anticipate our coming fate. We were fortunate enough to have connected with some local racers, friends of friends who invited us to crash at their luxurious condo the night before the race, a much better option than the lounge chairs around the pool as our hotel reservation was somehow lost and the entire islands accommodations were sold out.
Five am came fast on race day. Loaded with ibuprofen, and a hearty morning breakfast of oatmeal and toast, we were ready. To look out at over 100 plus escort boats that had now converged in the bay was nothing short of a spectacle! Last minute preparations of equipment and the final strategy for the day’s race were in place. Norm would start the race, me on the escort boat until our first exchange 30 minutes in. The plan was that we would each take 30-minute intervals, then 20 and finally 10 for the final few miles. Enough for a rest but not long enough for our muscles o cool down.
At 6:45am the traditional “Pule”, Hawaiian Prayer would have all of the competitors, hand in hand in a large circle on the beach. The Ka’iwi Channel had taken the lives of many courageous watermen that challenged her powers in the preceding centuries. The local Hawaiian elder asked and prayed for a safe crossing for all competitors, it was a very moving moment.
Eight am was game time, and it was time to “bang” as Norm coined it. Norm was out of the gate and paddling hard. He is a tremendous athlete and competitor and I could not think of another fellow Canadian that I would have wanted to share this experience with! The first few miles immediately served up some challenging conditions. My heart was pounding right out of my chest as our escort boat raced ahead of Norm about a 100 meters, as it slowed, paddle in hand I leapt from the rear of the boat into the channel, waited for Norm and swapped out. This was the first of many perfect exchanges that we executed throughout the day.
The wind, as forecasted was blowing hard at 20 knots out of the NE with a strong current running south, perfect conditions given my injury. We had to avoid getting too enticed with catching all of the 8-10 foot plus waves and stay on our planned course, maintaining a north line, otherwise we risked getting too far south and subsequently facing a long run back upwind at the finish. In the end, of the estimated 7850 strokes each, I paddled less than 50 on my right side to maintain course! Thank Duke (Kahanomoku) for that one!
Our boat captain and crew were amazing. Johnny maintained a perfect course while Justin and crew assisted by throwing a buoy out to drag us back into the boat, saving energy between exchanges. Time passed quickly on the boat, hydrate, eat, rest and back to baggin, we were on fire! One of the local Hawaiian competitors suggested the night before to take the time to enjoy where you are, he said that after your exchange, waiting for the escort boat to circle back, just relax and look down into the 2300 feet of ocean below you. I made a habit of doing this on every exchange, we rarely seen another escort boat mid channel, bouncing up and down in the massive swell looking down into oblivion is a life altering experience.
After several 30 minute exchanges, we were down to 20’s, endurance feeling fabulous, but the legs were taking a beating balancing through the swells, wind chop and current, all of which were coming at us from a different direction. Many times during the race I dug deep, recalling all of the support and well wishes from friends and family to keep me on pace, this was not just for us, it was for all of Canada!
Several exchanges later I looked at the boats GPS and could not believe that we were already over half way! We were ahead of our desired pace, a 6-hour finish, feeling great, and having the time of our lives! I could not resist and grabbed my cell phone to call my wife Brenda at home. Over the past 24 years of marriage, she has been nothing but completely supportive of my endless adolescence, extended surf trips, motorcycle trips into Central America, and now this. Brenda had sacrificed as much as I had for this race and it was as though she was right there with me all the way. Thanks babe!
Our teams navigation skills proved bang on as we paddled in on the island of Oahu. Coco Head was well in sight as was the China Wall and her rumbling, turbulent waters ahead. We would round out the 20-minute exchanges and start in on 10’s as we moved in on Portlock Point in Hawaii Kai. Despite most competitors dreading the enormous headwinds that awaited the final miles, along with them came calmer seas. Still much larger chop and current than Norm or I were accustomed too, but much closer to the conditions that we trained on. Norm brought us around Portlock, we exchanged and I navigated through the surf break and reef as practiced a few days before, back to Norm for a beautiful jaw dropping inside left-hander and the final sprint in was mine! Seeing those two huge red buoys at the finish line was a dream come true. I have never paddled harder in my life. I trained for the finish, no matter how exhausted; I had another gear in hiding! As I crossed the line to a roaring crowd on the beach, I could see our time on the clock, 5:49:23! I immediately turned back and paddled back to Enzo to pick up Norm so that we could both paddle through the finish together as a team. Jubilation, a triumphant finish for the first Canadian SUP team in the Moloaki2Oahu. 55th out of 163 competitors, and had even finished ahead of many highly respected Hawaiian teams. We were very pleased to say the least!
In the days following the event, naturally while every other ocean dwelling competitor recovered and rested, Norm and I chased waves in Waikiki. Warm water, surfing in boardshorts, are you kidding…rest? I had to learn how to paddle surf while paddling only on my left, but was stoked just to be out there with a good bro and the events memories top of mind. At one of the localized surf breaks where we were scorned and hassled as “visitors” the previous week by a couple of agro locals, the same crew was in the line-up and chirping again. Another Hawaiian that we made friends with stepped up and said, “hey, these guys just paddled the Channel brah, the agro locals offered us the next wave.”