I arrived in Hawaii a zombie, manufactured through 12 time zones, 2 hemispheres and 36 hours squeezed in an aluminum tube at 36 000 feet. My body which I’d been surgically sculpting for many months was stiff and sore, my mind delirious.
It is a tricky thing being an international athlete. Trying to get your body to peak for an event you’ve been working towards for months is difficult enough. Dealing with the potentially debilitating effects of long distance air travel just adds to the difficulty mixture. You see an airplane full of people is a test tube full of virus and bacteria. An athlete close to his/her peak is generally the perfect host for most of the baddies found in test tube B 777.
The plan was to take my first few days easy, to shed the zombie and become human again. My enthusiastic host Zsolt Szadoski had other ideas though and was twisting my arm to do a Makapuú Run before the sleeping pills had even worn off. I submitted and that afternoon we were surfing down swells bigger than my surfski in water bluer than any blue I’ve ever squeezed out of a paint tube. I saw turtles and flying fish. The unswerving force of the tropical easterly trade winds dulled the throbbing in my head. I had to pinch myself entering Hawaii Kai’s palm tree lined bay. This indeed was absolute paradise. The perfect remedy to the torturous journey I had endured to get here.
Everybody paddles in Hawaii in one form or another. The most popular practice is six man outrigger canoe paddling, the traditional Polynesian kind. Outrigger canoe clubs are more abundant than petrol stations on Oahu. They’ve been doing the Molokai to Oahu crossing in these canoes for 60 years; it is Hawaii’s national sport. You can find crews of all ages and genders training on most stretches of water every evening in Honolulu. The famous Outrigger Canoe Club is truly something to behold. It’s more Ritz than the Ritz itself. Situated right on the water below the famous Diamond Head, it has to be the pinnacle of any paddling club in the world.
The more modern single and double outrigger canoes are probably the next most popular form of paddle sports in Hawaii. Lightweight and easy to paddle they make ocean paddling accessible to the masses. Hot on the heels of outriggers is the infectious new trend of Stand Up Paddling (SUP). There was a race on in Waikiki whilst I was there and they had over 300 competitors in a range of different categories. Surfski probably comes in last in terms of local participation. It is however interesting to see that locals aren’t loyal to one particular brand of paddle sports. They chop and change craft depending on their mood and the mood of the ocean. This means that if you live and paddle in Hawaii you may compete in two or three Molokai crossings a year, all on different craft. All in all ocean paddle sports is a winner in Hawaii. The place is a paddling mecca.
I was here for the Molokai surfski race, famous and infamous worldwide. I’d heard all the stories and been thoroughly briefed on what to expect from many helpful friends back home. I think it’s safe to say that Molokai doesn’t have the greatest reputation for oily smooth organization. There are many things to worry about. Support boats, air tickets, surfski transportation, nutrition, accommodation, the admin list is endless! Godfrey Mocke once told me that; “Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance”. This is most definitely the slogan you need to follow when approaching Molokai, even more so if it’s your first attempt. Despite forgetting my passport at home and nearly being denied access onto the flight over on race day, I felt I had all my bases covered. I’d asked all the questions, done all my homework and to be honest I sailed through it all, with very few hassles. All that was left to do was to paddle the Kaiwi channel.
Molokai Island is completely different from Oahu. It’s flat, dry and desolate. I didn’t see a soul on the 20min drive from the airport to the Kaluakoi Resort, the race start venue. I don’t think we even past another vehicle. It reminded me of places back home in the Karoo. I found myself scanning the bush for kudu and springbok. Maybe I was a bit homesick? I dunno, but I wasn’t feeling too many pre raced nerves. This place was chilled and it was rubbing off on me.
The Kaluakoi Resort is even more African than the back streets of Nairobi. The golf course has been overrun by tropical creepers and the maintenance man obviously has a wage dispute because it looks as if he’s been on strike since 1993. Strands of golden grass have long ago squeezed their way through the cracks in the concrete flooring. Roof tiles lie broken and beaten after many years of holding on too tight. I can’t dispute the setting though. The bay that was slowly filling up with 20 foot whalers is beautiful. Tall palm trees line a golden beach, framed at one end by black volcanic cliffs and filled with that mesmerizing blue Pacific. It doesn’t seem like the place you would typically start an epic journey. Rather a rest stop on a journey that you have already embarked on.
Oahu was barely visible as we lined up for the race start. The antithesis of Molokai, Oahu is distinguished by massive dormant volcanoes. The mountains trap moisture and cloud. They are the life and soul of the island, the father of the lush and fertile landscape. It was the mountains I was headed for. “You see that little valley there, to the left of Koko Head? You wanna head for that.” a word of advice from Molokai legend, Dean Gardiner. It’s a big expanse of ocean and I was told that we were lucky because often you can’t see Oahu from the beach at Kaluakoi. I’m not sure what you do on days like that. Head for the horizon and hope for the best really.
We had some wind to start with, a steady 12knots over the right shoulder. Surfing down perfectly sculpted 3 to 4 foot wind swell, I was nearly fooled into thinking that it was going to be a breeze. The fairytale slowly began to fade after about 12km though. As the wind coughed, choked and slowly died I was quickly reminded that this was going to be grueling. Rides became shorter and more infrequent. I started to notice the heat.
The thing that really makes the Molokai tough is the heat. It is merciless. With the wind dying at my back I was drawn slowly into a heat vacuum that was sucking the life out of my body. Cramping becomes an issue because you sweat out all your body’s vital salts. Zsolt had warned me about it before. He’d told me how he had once cramped so badly that he was rendered useless. Dead on the water, in the middle of the channel, arms mangled, unable to reach his juice or hold his paddle.
I had taken every precautionary measure possible in the hope of avoiding cramp. I drank most of the electrolyte supplements available and made sure I added extra salt to my evening chow. Alas after 40km and even with 2,5 litres of fluid in me, my muscles were twitching and fragile. I was cramping in the weirdest places. I remembered someone telling me that drinking sea water was a good idea because it replenished the lost salts. It was a last resort and I tried it. I swallowed a couple mouthfuls and washed them down with fresh water from my juice bladder. It seemed to work. I actually kind of craved the taste of sea water at one stage. Your mind plays funny games on you sometimes.
It was great to come along China walls with the finish in sight. I caught a couple waves on the reefs inside the bay of Hawaii Kai and cruised under the bridge and across the finish line, satisfied. I was reasonably happy with my result but more than that I was really stoked to have finished my first Molokai.
Molokai isn’t a 52km paddle across the Kaiwi Channel. It’s more than that. It’s a journey. A journey I thoroughly enjoyed rambling through. I met great people and ate great food. I surfed waves at the home of surfing and rode swells like mountains. If you love the ocean then Hawaii is a place you have to visit. If you paddle, Molokai is a pilgrimage you must complete. Aloha.