Molokai 2018 – A run too far

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May 25, 2018
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A run too far.

by Dean Gardiner.


The annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of Ocean Paddling is undoubtedly done in May and it is to the Hawaiian Islands. In particular Oahu and Molokai. These two islands stand as the bookends for what is known as The Kaiwi Channel, Molokai Channel, Channel of Bones or simply Molokai.

Roughly 52 kilometers separates the two islands and most of the time the wind blows roughly in the direction you need to paddle to traverse this body of water from Molokai to Oahu.

The Race starts on the Western Shore of Molokai and finishes on the Eastern Shore of Oahu. The trade winds in the area range between North East and East and vary in intensity sometimes reaching in excess of 30 knots and as little as 6, generally around the 15 knot mark.

The Maui Jim Sunglasses Molokai to Oahu has been a part of my life since 1989. I haven’t competed in all the races since then, but most.

Having been at the event for almost thirty years it has been interesting to watch the highs and lows of the event itself, the changes in skis and watching the champions that have won and lost in an array of conditions.

For a few years now I have wanted to do one more good one. The last few years at least, have not been good for those wanting a downwind race. In fact, when you look at even the last eight or nine years wind has been the one thing that has really been missing from the event.

The other disciplines that do this race have all experienced exceptional conditions over the last decade or so and have maybe had one or two bad years. It seems for ski paddlers it has been the opposite. 

Sitting in my living room in Sydney, I start to glance at the weather for the Hawaiian Islands about ten days out. I never take it as gospel until the day of, but at least you can get some idea of what is happening in the big weather picture in the Northern Pacific.

For the last few years I have committed to a little bit of solid training leading into the event and usually, start that in April using my Ningaloo Dreaming Trip as a base week for the race.

I am committed every year to go up to the race to help Guy Wilding out with the hiring out of the Fenns for the competitors coming to the race. In the old days, we used to roll up at the airport with our skis and hope for the best. Sometimes they made it sometimes they didn’t.

The system now of adjustable skis all over the World makes it so easy for paddlers wanting to do these events.

So once again I took the gamble did a bit of training and went up to Hawaii to see if I was going to race or not. It had been three years since I last had a paddle in my hand on Molokai so I was hoping  I would get the chance to do it again.

I only wanted to do the race one more time.

Leading into the race everything was looking favourable. In fact, I wasn’t really thinking too much about the race itself as for the moment it was overshadowed by the news coming out of The Shaw and Partners office regarding the huge initiative for Ski Paddling in Australia. (This is a whole other story)

Thursday before the race and the day after the huge announcements at Shaw and Partner HQ in Hawaii (The Halekulani) I was looking at the weather, and it was good. At this point I hadn’t entered nor did I have an escort boat. Good mate from years past Billy Robello said he would escort and race organiser Jim Foti graciously let me enter the race at the last minute.

The event this year featured an awesome lineup of ocean paddling talent headed by Cory Hill and Hank Macgregor in the mens and Hayley Nixon and Rachael Clark in the ladies. Also on the line was Jasper Mocke, Clint Robinson, Macca Hynard, Austin Keiffer and local favourite Pat Dolan. 

In the men’s lineup, of the forty-two years previously raced the competitors entered this year accounted for about thirty of those wins.

In the last couple of years, myself and Cory Hill have made our way up to Molokai a day or two earlier to take in the delights of this amazing island. This year we were joined by Llani, Corys partner. Llani is almost as laid back as Cory but still keeps him on his toes. 


The day before the big race and the wind is smoking. From Kepuhi Bay (where the race starts) when you looked East all you could see was white. The wind was ripping sheets off the water and blowing in exactly the right direction.

Saturday is the day most escort boats make the trip up. It is worth going down to the beach on this day and getting a report from those that have made the journey on the boat, on what its like out in the channel. On this day no words needed to be exchanged, their white, salt-crusted faces told the story.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

On the way to the race.

The forecast for the next day showed the wind softening a little although still in the good range. With wind that had been blowing all week and the strength of Saturday’s blow, the race was looking good.

We spent the day exploring the island, Cory and I had some long chats about the various aspects of the race. 

The side of Molokai most don’t see.

Cory is an amazing talent when it comes to these races. I have had the pleasure of watching him race this event from the escort boat over the last three years and watch him develop to what he is now over the last decade.

The first time I watched he won the event in pretty average conditions. The second time he had a solid lead and blew it coming around Portlock, staying too close for too long. And last year his race didn’t really go to plan.

This year he looked fit. Many have told me over the last few years that Cory can’t beat Hank if its flat and Hank can’t beat Cory if there are runs. What a load of crap. They have both done what they are not supposed to do to each other over the last few years.

While there were others on the course I knew the race was going to be between these two.

It’s funny when I look at these two guys. At some point many years ago I used to race their dads so I am very fortunate to still able to line up on the same line as both of them, as is anyone else that does this stuff. The beauty of our sport I guess.

Pre-race prayer.

Race day

The usual chaos that surrounds this event was once again prevalent on race day.  Finding your escort boat is generally the most stressful pre-race drama that competitors face.

Three starts, phones, SUPs and preselected slower paddlers took off at 8.30am. An hour later ladies and OC1s then the main start at 10am.

As I was racing this day I can’t really give a detailed report about what was happening with the main guys. My race was further to the South and was with Austin Keiffer who stayed in front of me the whole way across.

Escort boats just off in Kepuhi Bay.

After the start most of the field took a Northerly line, I opted for a course just North of the rumb line and pretty straight. Austin also choose this line so he was my pacer across the channel. I knew that if I could hang with Austin, speed wise, I would be reasonably close to the leaders.

Lots of things happen during this race. Not talking about fitness or athletic performance, that all happens to. More like course, currents perceptions of who is where and where are you. 

Billy was my point of contact with reality. Every now and then he would tell me how far North of the line I was, who was near me etc.

At one point during the race Oscar came up behind, I glanced back and saw him. A sight I had seen a few times before. I had raced very conservatively till this point (around two hours) so had a lot of juice still in the tank. Billy kept me updated on where he was and when Jeremy Cotter came past me (Jeremy was part of a three-person team) fresh after just getting on the ski, I knew that he would now be my pacer.

We were now about ten kilometres from Portlock and I stayed with Jeremy for quite a while. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was positioned. Austin had put a bit of distance into me and was further South, Billy was telling me there were boats coming down from the North so I knew that that would be the leaders and Oscar was no longer behind me.

I tried to stay in touch with Jeremy and did so till a kilometre or so off Portlock. The deadly China Wall cramps started to hit so I knocked it back a notch, caught a long wave off the Point and made my way to finish.

Leading into the event there was a lot of interest in the race record. Conditions were favourable and a competitive field was on hand, the two main ingredients required to break records.

I had held the record since 1994 with a time of 3:24, that year Clint Robinson and I had gone head to head. In 1997 another paddling legend, Herman Chalupsky and I went head to head and I lowered the record to 3:21:26. Since that time some had come close although the distance had been shortened with different finish lines. 

This year was legit. Koko Marina was where the record was to and if was going to go it had to go this year.

Three hours fifteen minutes and nine seconds.

A new race record to Cory Hill, in fact, six paddlers went under the old record time a true testament to just how talented this field was. Not only did these individuals break the previous record they also left some very talented teams in their wake. 

Hayley Nixon also lowered the ladies record to under four hours.

For me this year was the end of my solo racing time on the channel, more than that though I believe it to be the rebirth of the event. Molokai Surf Ski Race needed a year like this. After multiple flat years and almost a decade of very average conditions, racers this year experienced the real beauty of racing Molokai.

Well done to Kanaka Ikaika on another great event. Thanks to Maui Jim and Shaw and Partners for throwing their weight behind the sport.

It is exciting times for Ocean Paddling.