Masters of Moloka’i
The Moloka’i Hoe represents one of the planet’s premiere paddling events. Teams from all reaches of the globe gather on the quiet and easy-paced island of Moloka’i to test themselves against one of outrigger canoe racing’s greatest challenges: the Kaiwi (aka Moloka’i) Channel. The 41-mile race to Oahu is not only a distance battle between over 100 crews, but conditions that must factor tides, currents, winds and swell also add scale to the massive event. The combination of these elements creates a race packed with everything from classic downwind conditions and intense battles to, should the conditions line up against the course, utter misery and agony. These conditions were intense enough for organizers to cancel the September 2015 women’s race, with winds and swells jeopardizing the safety of both crews and escort boats. Weeks later, the men’s race arrived with light trades and an unfavorable swell much to the chagrin of most crews.
One of those crews was Outrigger Team California (OTC), comprised of many elite watermen whose paddling careers span from top-level SUP racers to former Moloka’i Hoe winners. Many on the crew’s paddlers have a long history of other top races such as New York’s Liberty Challenge, California’s Catalina Crossing and the Maui-to-Moloka’i Pailolo Challenge. Though this particular group of guys may have had a few more years experience, that shouldn’t have fooled any of their competitors. Like other endurance sports, age is not necessarily a limiting factor in outrigger racing, and OTC strives to win the races it enters overall, not just in an age division—though a win in the Moloka’i Hoe’s Masters 50+, the second most contested division of the entire race, was still an obvious target.
In preparing for the race, most crews not only train throughout the year, they also focus on specific longer distance races and compete in many other events that help refine crews, planning and practice for race-speed water changes. OTC had an amazing run of finishes leading up to Moloka’i Hoe including the Southern California Iron Championships overall win, first overall masters for the season in Southern California, fourth overall in the U.S. Championships and fourth overall (second in their division) at the Pailolo Challenge. Yet Moloka’i Hoe is the toughest and most competitive race in their schedule, against the best crews in the world in attendance.
During the 2015 edition of the Moloka’i Hoe, I shadowed OTC, who had its sights set on former Masters 40+ champion and perennial powerhouse Mooloolaba Outrigger Canoe Club (Australia) and local Hawaii power crew Kailua Canoe Club. What follows is an inside perspective of what the crew managed, participated in and battled through before and during the race.
Everyone who participates in the Moloka’i Hoe will pass through Hale O Lono, the small protected harbor on the south side of Moloka’i. Each crew makes the long dusty drive through the old Moloka’i Ranch to rig and prepare their canoes, barged over from other islands days prior to the rac. Most crews strive to rig in the early morning before the intense mid-day sun and heat. Hale O Lono is also where opening ceremonies take place as well as the blessing of crews and canoes, the loading of escort boats, and, just outside the breakwater, the official race starting line. (From this perspective, all crews head to the right of screen, running parallel along the southern shoreline of Moloka’i toward La’au Point and into the Kaiw’i Channel.)
Some of the race’s traditional tasks include delivering water and supplies to your escort boat before flying to Moloka’i, then arriving on Moloka’i with rigging equipment, sprayskirts and, most important to remember, duct tape! Fiberglass spec canoes and traditional koa wood canoes are the only allowed craft in the Moloka’i Hoe. Further keeping with tradition, cotton roping is used to attach the ‘iakos (the wood crossbeams, pronounced ee-YAH-koo, which connect the outrigger amas to the canoe’s port side). It takes a couple of hands to rig properly for an extremely strong bond that also allows for natural flex in rough conditions.
Rigging is an art: Too light and the canoe is too tippy. Too heavy a rig and the canoe creates too much drag on the ama. The goal is perfect balance to run freely yet maintain rough-water stability to keep the crew’s paddles driving forward in the water. Here OTC tests its rigging before installing the sprayskirt and safety straps. Once it’s set, there little chance to readjust.
After a grand pre-race dinner, the OTC crew goes over its final strategy. Led by Tim Dougherty, seen here discussing the course with Jim Vitale, Allan Horn, Brian Stockdale, Scott Granger, Casey Owens, Brian Kummer, Eric Starnes, and steersman Rich Long (just out of frame) talk over everything from wake-up time, cleaning up this rental house, loading their escort boat (each crew has one), the starting crew, change charts, who calls changes, what each seat is responsible for, who bails water from the canoe after each change, plus overall communication during the race. Despite the multiple hours of the race, communication with teammates can be limited with the breaks out of the canoe, usually about 10 minutes apiece.
Every crew is made up of nine paddlers. A canoe has six seats, so each change can switch up to three paddlers. Every crew has their own game plan and approach: Some crews will have a steersman that “irons” the entire race, never changing. Others always change the stroke, or seat one at every change. Some crews utilize a “union break” to signify a paddler getting to sit out for two full changes, which comes at a price as going through three straight changes can result in nearly 45 straight minutes of uninterrupted race-pace paddling!
Nine paddlers. One crew. Total commitment. Absolute trust. One goal.
The race-morning drive down to Hale O Lono is in the pre-dawn light. Without recent rains, the only view is a line of tail lights and dust. Lots of dust. Escort boats jockey for position along the dock to load crews’ equipment. Locals direct parking of rental cars ready to be abandoned as the crews make final preparations on canoes like this koa wood racer. It’s also a last chance to catch up with friends before the final announcement, the traditional blessing, and mad rush to launch canoes for the starting line.
Hale O Lono to La’au Point is approximately four miles, where all crews race parallel to the shoreline. At the 30-minute mark, escort boats are allowed to find their canoes, most of which are past the point, where in the early morning light it’s not uncommon to see O’ahu. Crews use their escort boat and its bearing to a pre-marked point on O’ahu to set a chosen line. Some crews go north, into the prevailing swell, hoping for a downwind payoff later, while others opt for a direct line, or as was the case this year for many crews, a more southerly route. Here OTC nears the crest of solid northwest swell coming around the point.
Plenty of other races have water changes. The conditions of Moloka’i Hoe, however, make them even trickier. During a water change, the escort boat approaches along the canoe and shouts what seats will be changing. The escort boat then powers ahead, arcing wide to avoid creating a side-wake for the canoe. Crossing the canoe’s path, less than 100 yards away, the resting paddlers jump out into the water as the escort boat motors just off the course line. The steersman navigates so the waiting paddlers line up on the canoe’s port side. Timing is critical. The exiting paddlers must continue paddling until the last moment when they unzip sprayskirt, place their paddle into a special holder that keeps it upright, and roll out to their right. Simultaneously, the waiting paddler the gunnel and, in a swift-kicking motion, pulls themselves up into the seat. They quickly situate themselves, grab the paddle, zip up the skirt and get into the crew’s paddle rhythm. The goal is to minimize stoppage time. Done properly, a race boat can easily gain a boat length on the competition. (Here Jim Vitale watches after exiting Seat 5 as Seats 3 and 1 are still surfacing to get in.)
Scott Granger exits Seat 2 as Brian Kummer (3) and Rich Long (5) also prepare to exit. Casey Owens, Allan Horn and Jim Vitale continue maintain momentum, paddling on the right (starboard) to allow three new crew members prepare to load on the left (port) side. Even though each canoe weighs 400 pounds empty, one paddler not entering the canoe properly can bring the entire race to a halt.
The Ka’iwi Channel crossing is a technical downwind course. The winds are generally side-stern as is the swell. Most of channel is spent quartering as Moloka’i sits just south of Oahu—not as conducive to classic downwind conditions as the Pailolo Channel is between Moloka’i and Maui. Big northwest swell, a dumping tide going against the race course and weak trades presented water that was both confusing and sticky. No 2015 crews escaped these conditions. Most teams took a southerly course, yet all had to battle with conditions that rarely presented bumps to catch. Here OTC drives hard through more slop mid-channel.
Not only were swells to catch few and far between, but water changes challenged up-to-speed acceleration and subdued glide. The confusing sea conditions mid-channel bat the OTC canoe around, taking a toll on the crew mentally and physically, forcing them to expend extra effort, using core and leg muscles to paddle securely in their seats.
The conditions can be confusing, choppy, wind blown and mountainous conditions turn serene and calm underwater. Meanwhile, OTC shows how timing and blending during each stroke is the best way to capitalize on every bump, swell and glide advantage they can extract.
Seat 4 has just rolled out of the canoe while the steersman works to keep the canoe moving forward, creating momentum to help swing in the three incoming paddlers on the opposite side. The escort boat meets the exited paddlers. They climb aboard, hydrate, rest, and consume some calories as the escort boat races back up to pace along the canoe, just off its stern. A few quick minutes pass before seat calls signal the next change. The cycle continues.
Over the years, coverage of the Moloka’i Hoe has increased and taken a welcome spectator-friendly turn with media boats and helicopters (like this one filming OTC battle Kailua Canoe Club, its direct 50+ men’s division competition) for TV as well as a live webcast. 2015 saw the addition of GPS tracking devices added to every canoe to help fans track racers in real time.
After a water change, every paddler brings water into the canoe, even during rough conditions when using the securely fastened and zipped sprayskirts. Water adds weight and the sloshing can kill glide. Each paddler carriers manual bailers with them and a skilled paddler can bail out gallons fast enough that they stop paddling for only a few seconds. Generally Seat 4 has the lowest point of the canoe at their feet, and is usually the lucky ones to bail after each change.
All eyes focus on Eric Starnes and Allan Horn waiting for a water change, spaced apart and lined up in the order of the seats they are headed into.
Finally on a bump after making it through a majority of the channel, with the welcome sight of Koko Head. This year, OTC and many others took a direct line or southerly route, which wound up paying dividends as the dumping tide and swell were not lined up to provide the classic Hawaii Kai downwind run to Diamond Head.
After four hours, Scott Granger breaks to deal with the toll of the constant confused water, sun, swimming, water changes and of course paddling, before the last stretch of the race.
The final stretch of the race, in front of all the surfers and swimmers on Waikiki, turns into an all-out drag race as the canoes merge onto the same course after Diamond Head. OTC is just minutes away from the finish line and awards tent in the distance. Their long struggle across the channel turns into a hard pill to swallow as miss their target finish, just missing the podium with a fourth-place finish in the 50+ division (10 minutes behind the winners, Mooloolaba, after 6 hours of racing).
For race information, full results and the entire webcast, visit molokaihoe.com.