What a tremendous experience the 2013 Molokai2Oahu World Championships were. Two years ago Bodie Shandro and I competed and successfully crossed the channel on a 14′ Bark Expedition. I remember at that time thinking I would return to cross the channel solo envisioning the challenge it would present. The calm words of surf legend Gerry Lopez, kept ringing in my head, “Molokai to Oahu…. it’s a pretty big bite.” Well this year, I was ready to take the bite. First thing I did once I committed to this race was to get my partner Jen Segger, to put me on a good training program in preparation for the mental and physical challenge of racing across 53km of open, turbulent, ocean.
There are a lot of logistics when it comes to doing this race similar to planning an expedition. Details, which included hiring a good boat captain, finding a board to race on, accommodations, flights, shuttles, more training etc. It all came together with the help of my good friend Scott McPhail and with most of the details in place I flew to Hawaii five days before the race. I stayed with Scott while I was there and his experience, support and knowledge was invaluable. Scott has crossed the channel 15 times on surf skis, paddleboards, outriggers and stand ups. As understated as “Wheels” is, he’s a badass and he helped me immensely.
Scott picked me up late Tuesday night and the following morning we hit the water for paddle surf at Four’s on the south shore of Oahu. What a treat to be surfing in board shorts and not a 5/4 hooded wetsuit. Later that afternoon we met one of Scott’s closest friends, Jay “The Director” Stephens. I bought the 17’ Unlimited Bullet off Jay and I was excited to get some experience on it with a Hawaii Kai run. I had known for awhile that if I came back to M20 I wanted to race an unlimited board. Even though I trained with a 14’ SIC Bullet, I was not used to being on a board with the steering assist. The Hawaii Kai run was so much fun. The board was stable and fast and caught waves with ease. I would only have one hour and 15 minutes of experience on this board before M20, not ideal but that’s how it was.
Thursday was more surfing, relaxation and dealing with logistics. I met my boat captain, Dan Habel, and dropped of my paddles and other essentials for the race. His boat was the Moana Kai, which meant vast ocean. Thank you to Johnny Pang, our boat captain from 2011 for setting me up with Dan and his wife. Dan was a real professional. One of the crux moves for M20 is getting a good boat captain, something you want to get on early when planning for the race. Scott then took me to Portlock Point and the China Wall, the landmark where after 31 miles you finally make the turn into a head wind and charge for the finish line. It’s a challenging area and Scott showed me how to negotiate the reef and the breaking waves. It was a pretty cool spot and an area that would be lined with spectators as we made our dash for line. That evening Scott and I dropped off our boards to a different boat captain who would be shuttling our boards across the channel the following day. Not all captains will take your board across due to the chance of damage but again Scott looked after this for me. That evening we were invited to dinner by one of Scott’s friends, Mark Rocheleau. Mark and his brother are big wave chargers, paddleboarders and accomplished waterman. Their dad Bob is a legend and he pulled out some charts later that night and shared with us the best route across the channel based on winds and tides. This is one of the things I love about Hawaii, there are so many great, humble watermen and you can’t help but learn and try to take advantage of their incredible experience.
Friday was a full day of relaxation and a beautiful evening spent with another close friend of Scotts, JD, and his family. Scott helped me with race nutrition and hydration that evening and we got to be early.
Saturday we flew across the channel to Molokai. The channel was frothy and plane turbulence let us know that the winds were moving pretty good. We took a cab with Scott Gamble and Mark Rocheleau to race headquarters. Scott ended up having an incredible race and place second behind Travis Grant. We had a great dinner that evening and met all the racers including a fellow Canadian Lina Augaitis and her husband Andrew. It was great to see a familiar face and I was proud of Lina as the first Canadian female to attempt crossing the channel and her commitment to the race. Accommodations are really tough in Molokai and most places make you book for three nights. I have to thank Scott, The Director and his wife Katie for hosting me and letting me sleep on the couch. Thank you, thank you.
Wheels was racing this year in the unlimited class again on his purple F16 and Jay had given up the unlimited board to me for a 14’ bullet in the stock class. We all had a great sleep and headed down to the beach for the morning prayer. The prone paddleboarders started at 7:30am and standup start was at 8:00am. I met Dan, grabbed my paddle and headed to the start line as I watched the clouds overhead starting to move quickly. For the first time in 10 years Jamie Mitchell was not on the start line to defend his 10 time prone paddleboard championship.
It’s always a bit nerve wracking waiting on the start line for the horn to go but I focused on my breathing and brought calmness by staring into the clear blue waters. The horn went and we were off quickly. I used my flat-water training to try to get out quickly. I took a gel 15 minutes before the start of the race so I would have a boost to help me deal with the stress and energy expended in the first half hour of the race. I was working hard and was sweating profusely from the intensity and heat. I got my breathing under control and my body was feeling pretty good as the wind slowly started to build. It wasn’t long before everyone started to spread out and after a half hour or so Dan and the Moana Kai had found me. I was happy being back on the channel again and I felt really fortunate to be where I was. Having the experience from our race in 2011 helped me to landmark on Oahu as I made my way across the channel. We picked a line and Dan and his wife helped keep me on that line and not let me drift too far south. They were there to support with equipment changes and the refilling of my hydration pack, which happened a couple of times. Just knowing the boat was there brought comfort.
The wind was building but never really seemed to be pushing in the right direction. The wind and swell direction was pushing south and every wave you caught would quickly take you off line. Riding waves south is very enticing but it’s a bit of a trap as your line across the channel is in a north east direction.
One of the things I love about the channel are the flying fish which fly across the water in schools usually right in front of your board. Watching these fish take flight makes me focus on the moment and appreciate the time. You spend most of your time living in the moment when your on the channel but at sometimes it is easy to let your mind wander as the hours and miles pile up. These flying fish always snap your mind back to the moment and always put a smile on my face. They are just so cool and were reflected in the branding on all merchandise for this years race.
I was working pretty hard, paddling, hydrating, eating and trying to stay on my board as the island of Oahu started to become larger and the landmarks easier to see. The further I got across the channel and closer to Oahu the more challenging the ocean conditions became as the wind, swell, current and chop began to transform the channel. I just kept pushing on and kept trying to find someone in front of me to catch. Even with small distances between competitors it was really hard to catch someone because every athlete on the channel can paddle. Small distances are hard to make up and I did my best to gain ground and to not get caught myself. For the most part with the rough conditions you can barely see the support boats let alone see other competitors.
In between hours 4 and 5 I found my legs getting pretty tired and worked from the unstable conditions. As a result I started falling in the water a lot more with the right combination of wind and chop. Sometimes I would waiver and lift a rail and that was enough to have the wind get under and flip you over. The board I was on was stable and I am pretty solid on a standup but the conditions were tough. If your in the water, not only are you losing time but you get out of your paddling cadence and it’s a big energy expenditure getting back up on your board and getting the engine going again. Usually a lack of concentration due to fatigue was the culprit for a quick dip. I remember thinking that those who said, “All you want to do is finish” were exactly right. I also felt that I was “paddling my board” more than I was surfing it. I just wrote this off to my inexperience in the channel and the fatigue that I was feeling. It takes a lot of energy to accelerate a 17′ board fast enough to get into a wave which is where having a light, carbon fiber board is of benefit. I did not have that luxury and even with my inexperience the conditions did not seem right to surf. So now I seemed to be pushing this board a lot more.
The closer I got to the south shore of Oahu the more challenging the conditions became. The waves were ricocheting off the shore and combining with other waves. It was one big confused sea and it took all the concentration I had to stay on the board. Catching waves was barely an option.
Soon I could make out Portlock Point and China Wall and could see the waves starting to break. I battled to Portlock Point, the area where all the competitors after being spread out across the channel would funnel to. Wow, it felt really good to get here, I knew the end would soon be in sight. As the wind that had been on my right shoulder the whole way started to die and get ready to shift, at that moment that the most amazing thing happened. A huge beautiful sea turtle swam up towards my board and then dove down just as my board glided over his back. My first thought was , “Who is this?” I had read before that people thought the great big wave Hawaiian legend and North Shore lifeguard Eddie Aikau was reincarnated as a sea turtle after being lost at sea in the exact same channel I had just crossed. Maybe the turtle was here to bless and congratulate my safe crossing. This turtle made me feel really good, I can’t quite explain the feeling but it was powerful and was one of the highlights of my entire paddle. It’s path seemed so deliberate that I was sure it had something to tell me.
As soon as the turtle disappeared into the turquoise blue depths the dreaded infamous head wind that blows from the valley behind the finish line and Hawaii Kai hit me like a ton of bricks. I weaved my way through the reefs and breakers off Portlock and I envisioned myself surfing a big bomb like I did in 2011 on the Bark Expedition which helped us to cover at least 100 yards. But I was unsuccessful trying to surf this big 17’ displacement hull, especially being so fatigued and I found myself in the water a number of times getting worked across the shallow reefs. To add insult to injury I stepped on a black sea urchin and had to extract the painful spines before paddling on. After getting through the surf zone and with a km left I zeroed in on a competitor in front of me and put the hammer down in the headwind to try to sneak up on him and beat him at the finish line. He was laboring but his crew sounded the alarm and gave him the motivation to get to the line just before I did. If I wasn’t such a kook in the surf zone I may have picked up another spot.
I was concerned about my time since my goal was to finish in under 5hr:30min and I had hit Portlock Point at 5hr:30min. I was a little disappointed because I thought I could do better and it wasn’t until got past the finish line that I heard the announcer say that Travis Grant had won in 4:50min, 40 minutes slower than last years finish. Travis was the only person this year to go under five hours and the consensus was that it was one of the toughest races and conditions in recent memory. Even Wheels when he came in said, “Dude, what the heck was that??” I had to laugh. The challenging conditions confirmed why I was battling and pushing my board more than surfing it. I finished the race 22nd male overall, and 3rd in my age category of 40-49 which got me some hardware as Scott would say. My time was 5:58min. I was happy with that. I was happy with crossing the channel solo as a Canadian. I have paddled a lot in my career and all over our coastline and that was the toughest 6 hours of paddling I have ever done. Everything they say about the channel is true.
Travis Grant first, Scott Gamble second, and both upset the favorites, Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny. It sounded like it just came down to different lines. Travis and Scott stayed more north while Connor and Kai got sucked a little too far south. When I hit beach I was given a bottle of water, a hug and lei, and I got my coveted M20 belt buckle. JD’s children were there to also give me congratulations, lei’s and hugs, their big smiling faces lit my heart up. I then headed for the cooler to grab my well-deserved Kona Island Lager. Scott and Jay came in and we all celebrated together. Scott was second in his age category and Jay won his category in the stock 14′ class.
Congratulation goes to all of the competitors who crossed that finish line. There were some really inspiring stories out there that again confirmed how lucky I was to have the opportunity to compete and race across the channel. I was so excited for every competitor that I saw finish and there was a common bond from a shared experience like that.
I am humbled and thankful to all those people who supported me before, during and after the race. I used all of your positive energy and stoke to get me across the channel. I felt so proud to be a Canadian and to represent the country and all of the great people in it. Thanks to Scott, Jay and JD for all of your help in Hawaii and to Jen who was at home looking after our future keiki.
I have already been asked whether I will go back to race again. Well I have my 17′ board over there waiting for me and I would like to have another crack at the channel in epic conditions for downwind surfing so I guess that’s a yes.