Mark, Keith, Jason, Keizo, Colin, Brent, Jesse, Larry, Will and Jamie at the finish of the 2012 Moloka’i Hoe
Fog rolled off Jamaica Bay and washed over the runway as we waited to board our Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu. It was the first week in October and a decidedly cold fall day for New York City. As we sat in the terminal waiting for our flight to board, the collection of shorts, tee shirts and slippers worn by the passengers at our gate dramatically contrasted with the coats and dark colors of passengers on other flights. Even amongst the giddy Hawaii bound passengers, the excitement of our paddling crew stood out. With big grins and the buzz of a new adventure, our guys discussed the upcoming days. After months of training – and nearly a year of planning – we were on our way to compete in the most famous outrigger race in the world: the Moloka’i Hoe.
In the world of outrigger paddling, the Moloka’i Hoe stands out as the race by which all others are judged. In the last decade new races have emerged demanding greater lengths, but no race draws as large and diverse a field of international paddlers as Moloka’i. With over six decades of history, the annual event is a hallmark in the outrigger racing community. But the concept of a race between the islands of Moloka’i and O’ahu was originally dismissed as too dangerous. At a distance of over 40 miles, the race requires crews to paddle in open ocean conditions in what can often be an unforgiving channel. The course takes paddlers across the Kaiwi channel, known as one of the deepest and most treacherous in the Hawaiian chain. The conditions themselves, while reasonably consistent, are no sure thing and crews will often see the ocean change several times over the course of the race. In a long distance race with a changing environment, a crew’s preparedness is crucial. For our crew from New York, training meant weekends in eastern Long Island chasing Atlantic storm swell and 25 mile paddles from the town of Sag Harbor to Southampton. The crew knew there was no way to mirror the conditions we would see in the middle of the Pacific, but we did our best to get into as much trouble as the East Coast summer would provide.
As our flight touched down on O’ahu, our Moloka’i Hoe experience began to take on a new dimension. After months of training for the unknown, the only thing left for us to do was have fun and rest up for the race ahead. Our first few days in Hawaii were spent relaxing, eating everything imaginable (it’s called carbo-loading, don’t judge) and paddling with our wonderful hosts at Waikiki Yacht Club.
After relaxing for a couple days on O’ahu it was time to head over to Moloka’i. On the flight over we got our first view of the Kaiwi channel and a chance to see what all the weathermen had been predicting for days: a glassy blue ocean devoid of any groundswell or windy whitecaps. After months of working on our surfing technique and practicing rough water changes, the site of a placid ocean was a disappointment for some on our crew, but that feeling of melancholy quickly evaporated as we began to spot white bursts all across the ocean – not from windswell, but from the 100+ motorboats headed over to Molokai for the race. For those who had never done the race before, it was their first exposure to the awe-inspiring scale of the event.
Upon arriving on “the friendly isle,” we set off for the race site to rig our canoe and meet up with our escort boat driver, Holo. As usual, it was impossible to avoid the sun or red dirt at Hale o Lono harbor, but everyone was energized by the activity of the race site, and for most of our crew it was the first time they had seen a collection of 100 canoes gathered in one place. After rigging we headed to our hotel for dinner, where our coach, Sara, ran us through what to expect the following day. With two decades of coaching experience, Sara was one of the incredibly talented local folks who had agreed to be on our team – the others being Keizo, our steersman, and Holo, our boat driver. Undeservedly, we had somehow convinced a stellar group of local friends (and one reality TV celebrity from LA – Jason’s sister, Jamie – who was a-ma-zing on the escort boat) to be part of our crew. Sara, Holo, Keizo and Jamie used their knowledge and experience to push us as a crew, which made the race experience much more rewarding. But before we could race the next day, we needed to retire to our rooms for a night’s sleep that was, for most of the excited crew, less-than-fantastic.
The next morning we woke before dawn and piled into our rental cars. A blanket of starlight illuminated the road in front of us as we made our way through rolling ranch-land pastures to the race site. A few miles from Hale o Lono harbor we traded the pavement for a dirt road, just has we had the day before. But unlike the previous day, we now found ourselves in a caravan of cars headed for the site. As we slowly snaked down the dirt lane, the motorcade sent clouds of red dust ten feet in the air, temporarily blinding us at points and casting a red hue on the morning sun.
After reaching the harbor and the pre-race blessing ceremony, we worked our way through the field of canoes to launch our boat. Unlike the women’s Na Wahine race two weeks earlier, the harbor mouth was calm with no breaking waves to navigate. With calm water in front of them, our starting six paddled their way to the start line, while the remainder of the crew met up with Holo at the east end of the harbor. After an unexpected rolling start, the canoes were off and headed for O’ahu. With calm seas, the expectation was that the bulk of the pack would stay close to La’au Point, opting for a direct line across the channel to O’ahu. Instead, a favorable current took many of the canoes south, our boat included.
Once the escort boats were released to find their crews, we searched the northern portion of the pack for our orange and blue canoe. This is by far the most intense portion of the race, and one that requires an experienced hand at the motorboat wheel. Imagine this point in the race as an Easter egg hunt, spread out over miles of ocean, with canoes and motorboats everywhere, and paddlers heads bobbing in the water as crews make their first change. The opportunities for something to go wrong are great, and experience and caution make all the difference. After twenty minutes of searching and mistakenly spotting the other orange and blue Waikiki Yacht Club boat, our crew was finally spotted by a helicopter crew, allowing us the opportunity to make a belated, but much appreciated, first change.
With our canoe and motorboat reunited, the crew settled in for the channel crossing. As an east coast crew we were accustom to long distance races and experienced at pacing ourselves. Quickly noticing our mistake in lowering our pace, Sara told us to up our stroke rate, explaining that this was, “not the Molokai Crossing but the Molokai Race!” Unlike our typical east coast distance races where we find our rhythm, the Moloka’i Hoe is a sprint race where paddlers cycle in and out of the boat on set intervals. When we were in the boat, our only goal was to go all out until the next change. To think of the race in its entirety would be a mistake, as it is really a series of short sprints strung together in a chain across the channel. Through the Kaiwi we maintained our intervals of sprint and rest, sprint and rest. When the sun beat down and the canoe began to lag, Sara and Jamie loudly let us know to pick up the pace, and the boat would jump forward with renewed focus.
As we reached O’ahu the crew had cycled through the canoe numerous times, but our steersman, Keizo, had never left his seat. On such a flat day, the role of steersman was more paddler than anything else, and Keizo’s determination to iron the whole race made clear to the rest of us that there was no place for whining about our soreness or fatigue. While the canoe worked its way down the south shore of O’ahu past the neighborhoods of Nui Valley and ‘Aina Haina, Sara and Holo debated the strategy of cutting inside the break at Blackpoint and Diamond Head, or heading outside to the open ocean. Before asking Keizo his plan, Sara presciently predicted his choice, “He’s heading inside” she said, and those of us in the escort boat prepared ourselves for the tough paddle ahead. For once inside the surf, any crew changes would be risky and the decision was made that the group in the canoe would have to iron through until we reached the calm waters of Waikiki.
As we rounded Diamond Head and entered Waikiki, we suddenly found ourselves alongside the other orange and blue Waikiki Yacht Club crew. As she did with numerous boats throughout the race, Sara made clear that their canoe was the rabbit and we were to focus on overtaking them. The remaining few miles were a sprint to the finish, with each paddler in our canoe fighting fatigue and exhaustion to keep up the intensity. As we reached the finish off Duke Kahanamoku beach, the race officials announced the names of our crew. With our canoe coasting to shore and the announcer reading out the next crew’s names, our exhaustion washed away and was replaced with a pure sense of accomplishment. After 41 miles and nearly seven hours, we had crossed the channel between the islands of Moloka’i and O’ahu.
New York Outrigger was honored to take part in the 2012 Moloka’i Hoe. Anytime we can paddle in Hawai’i it is a special experience, but to participate in a race with such history, tradition and competitive athletes is truly thrilling. We went to Hawai’i with the goal of competing, but more importantly we wanted to be a part of the amazing international community of paddlers this race brings to the islands.
For a crew from New York, competing in Hawai’i would be impossible without the kokua of old friends and the incredible generosity of new ones. With Sara McKay Hines and Jamie Graetz coaching us, Keizo Gates steering our canoe, Waikiki Yacht Club generously loaning us a boat, and our good friend Richard Holomalia escorting us across, we knew we would have an amazing experience. And we did. It is that spirit of aloha and generosity embodied in the people of Hawai’i that truly makes the Moloka’i Hoe such a special race, and one we hope to be fortunate enough to compete in for years to come.