[This was written by Team Writer Clarke after his Molokai Hoe journey across the Ka'iwi Channel in October 2014. Good luck to all the Cali Paddlers who will be taking on this special journey in the coming days and years. ]
Greetings everyone! So if you have had my Facebook posts hidden for the last few months, you might not have heard about my preparation for racing the Molokai Hoe this past weekend. But for the rest of you, you are probably sick of reading about it.
That said, the race is over, the journey complete, and the experiences pretty amazing. It only was able to happen due to a lot of stars aligning, a lot of help and encouragement and support by friends, teammates and family. And I was completely grateful and humbled for the chance to paddle on the biggest stage outrigger canoe offers, in the waters where the sport was born.
The 62nd annual race is from the Island of Molokai to Oahu, across the Kaiwi Channel ( which translates to “Channel of Bones”, where waterman hero Eddie Aikau was lost at sea, and generally a fast changing and rough water channel to paddle a canoe). We would launch out of a harbor called Hale o Lono, which is a 30 minute dirt road away from any civilization, head west along the southern edge of Molokai, cross the channel until reaching Koko Head on Oahu, then paddling the southern Hawaii Kai portion of Oahu to Diamond Head and finish past there in Waikiki.
The top crews, the fastest paddlers in the world, finish in around 5 hours. It would take us roughly 2 hours longer. But I don’t think anyone who does this race finishes without feeling like they accomplished something pretty awesome. Some paddlers have done it over 40 times. For myself and most of my teammates, this would be our first crossing. And not something we took lightly by any means. Just being able to participate took countless months of selfless coordination, leadership, hard-work, training, and overall dedication by my teammates. From workouts to fundraising. Registration to borrowing canoes (thank you Ka Moi Canoe Club you are as aloha as it gets!). Our team was able to field two men’s teams this year, with the help of several wonderful and strong paddlers from other great clubs in California joining us. I was fortunate and lucky to have benefited by all the hard work done by our 18 paddlers. And humbled to be their teammate come race day. All the training you have seen and heard about me doing for the last few months, was so that I would not let them down. I am pretty sure each of the other paddlers had the same motivation. Henceforth, the beauty of team sports, with outrigger canoeing being the ultimate team sport.
Prior to the race, there was all sorts of rumors and mumblings about the conditions. Just like my paddling friend Randy said, "you will hear rumors of them cancelling the race. Ignore it". In fact after a bad accident on Friday where a canoe ama side huli'd (flipped) on a wave and cracked their ama and iako into pieces, they closed the harbor for any practice paddles for the days leading up to the race. Fortunately the conditions never got any worse and mellowed enough come Sunday for me to go from nervous to excited.
That said, even though I was confident in my crew and myself to safely cross, the conditions were unlike anything I have had the chance to paddle in before. I have paddled and steered in decent sized surf. And in windy conditions. And against significant tides, but this race had them all…at the same time!
- 6-8ft ground swell from the north west which was producing double overhead surf on the North Shore days prior.
- 4-6ft ground swell from the south.
- 16-24 knot winds from the east.
- Significant tide change funneling through the islands.
Throw in the 40+ miles, 100+ elite crews and their change boats, and the overall excitement every paddler had to be there....it was a pretty amazing environment.
Prior to the canoes launching to the start line, the race coordinators held a pule (prayer) for safe passage of all paddlers. And spoke for awhile about those who paddled before us and have passed away to “sail away in the white canoe”. This phrase really struck me. And I will get go into that more later, but know this, that every paddler there at the pule seemed to grasp and appreciate the significance of the race we were about to embark on, and how much of an honor it was to share the waters with those who once paddled it, but were no longer with us.
Following the pule and canoe launching, the canoes headed out of the harbor (which was not closing out like it was a few days prior and let us head out to the starting area. Following a good warm up, we came up to the line in great position. An official boat came by and told us and the other canoes beside us to back up to the yellow buoys all the canoes had drifted past. So looking at our watches and seeing that the stated 8am race start was 12 minutes away we paddled backwards. A few moments later, once we got to the start flags, we had the lonely view of the race starting, 30 yards ahead of us, at 7:48am! Right about here I said to myself…”welp, I heard the Kaiwi channel was unpredictable, why wouldn’t the start be the same?” Needless to say, over the course of 40+ miles a good or bad start doesn’t make that big of a difference. But it sure did make me reassess the phrase “Hawaiian time”.
Once we were moving, all the nerves were gone. Sure we had some pretty epic waves lift us up and spit us down. But it was all about the task at hand. Take care of business and the business will take care of you. So we did just that. The portion along the island had a tailwind that matched our speed so it was a little warm, but honestly the heat all day was a non factor. Unlike the previous year where conditions were described to me as miserably hot, this year was very comfortable. I was glad to have done runs during my training in the middle of the day in real hot areas to try and get used to the inescapable blanket that heat can feel like. But today, any challenges would be found elsewhere, and not from a thermometer.
As we neared the end of the island, the water started to get pretty interesting. We had swells forming in front of us on deep reefs by La’au point (the end of Molokai), waves breaking to our right on rocks. Swell coming in from the north (our right) as the channel started was quickly added into the mix. But the unpredictable part was the 100+ escort/chase boats that suddenly started darting in and around all the canoes trying to find their respective team of paddlers. Some came from behind, some from the left. Some towards us from where we were paddling to. Each with its own wakes that comes from a boat captain with tunnel vision on its own crew and a full throttle. Nothing horrible, but just one more thing that made this part of the course exciting. That and we were just about to enter the actual channel.
The first 1.5 hours of the race flew by. Reeling in canoes little by little, trying to hang onto canoes that were pulling away. Water from all directions-crashing onto the laps of paddlers and altering our line. My first seat was in the front of the canoe, seat 1. I am responsible for setting the tempo for the crew. Each time our canoe would have a swell pulse underneath us, I would find myself up in the air, with my paddle never hitting water. Followed shortly with a quick descent and water up to my chest as my paddle was deeper than I could ever simulate in flat water. Pretty darn fun to be up in seat 1 in such conditions to be honest, but when your primary job is to generate a consistent rhythm for the rest of the crew, it can take a lot of concentration to keep a steady pace. Fortunately for me, I had a lot of time to get better at it as we had another 30 miles to go.
Pretty soon we had our first change. This race is a change race/9man style (although there were categories racing for age groups that get more paddlers than 9) where each canoe has 6 with 3 alternates. Every 15 to 30 minutes the escort boat drops paddlers in the water on the path the canoe is headed. Those paddlers tread water and then grab onto the moving canoe and hoist themselves in while other paddlers jump out on the other side to be picked up by the escort boat. This moving change is part of the fun in my opinion and why 9man is so great. I had the awesome privilege to be in the starting crew this day, which meant my first change I would be jumping out of the canoe and swimming to the chase boat. I did my best while floating in the water to feel the mana (spirit) of the salt water I was in. Knowing I was treading water above many tall tails, wrecked vessels, and honestly, ghosts of watermen lost…it was a very surreal experience. I did my best to tap into that energy…to respect where I was and acknowledge I was not just in some swimming pool. That said, I didn’t take too long to get into my change boat. I had food and hydration to dial in, and there is a reason a portion of the race is referred to as Tiger Shark Alley.
Change after change. Race portion then recover. Canoes nearby. Suddenly all by ourselves. Repeat. Slowly Molokai got more distant. Ahead the island of Oahu came into view. Koko Head and Diamond Head became bearings for our steersman to navigate towards. Swells would regularly white cap and pulse as the wind continued to increase throughout the day. I felt strong. My crew felt strong. We were not one of those crews with ambitions to go and medal. But every single one of us was going to leave it all on the water this particular day and empty our tank for the sake of the other paddlers. My crew, and the other crew were comprised of quality folks who I knew I could lean on during a race. But also the kind of folks I could, and have, leaned on off the water. These were my friends, my teammates, my brothers. Over the course of my 6 years of paddling these were some of my favorite people to share a canoe with. I never lost sight of how lucky I was to be doing such a journey with these quality people. Reminding myself of that kept me strong.
One of the things our crews did prior to the race was consider the idea of dedicating this race to a person. Each of us sharing with our supporters and each other who our personal inspiration would be on this particular day. Some of us had dedicated to family members and friends who helped them get to this race. Some to people who helped us become the type of paddler and man we were today. Some dedicated it to those who were no longer with us. To those who had sailed in their white canoe. Knowing how each paddler was paddling with such purpose, as to honor someone else, made the journey much more than a race. Sure there were canoes around to beat, and a clock with numbers on it ticking away. But our special sport of outrigger, and its ties to ancient Hawaiian culture and the aloha spirit, adds a layer of spirit to our team sport. And knowing that all the folks in my canoe appreciate this at the level I do, makes it very special.
Mile 30 now. Land is close. The channel portion with its whitecaps, swells and crazy wind almost crossed. Enter doldrums.
There is a portion off of Koko Head I have heard referred to as the doldrums. A deep water shelf that disrupts the flows of the ocean, circulates and makes a canoe feel like its stuck in molasses. More often than not, the feeling is accurate and our speed drop was real. This came at a time of the race where fatigue can really kick in, and where you have been staring forever at a landmark that doesn’t get any bigger. Physical, mental, and now condition adversity, due to the doldrums, all piled up around here. Put the paddle in. Pull the paddle out. Put the paddle in. Pull the paddle out. Change boat comes up, and every paddler listens to hear if their seat number is going to get the next break. Not my number this time. Ok, time to remember who I am doing this for again and lean on them until it’s my turn. I always try to treat a change race like an iron (no change) race. That way I am not reliant on getting a change. But when my break comes, it is ALWAYS appreciated.
Coming up on Diamond Head now. Another 5-6 miles probably to the finish. I am still feeling strong and the crew is really enjoying the conditions more than ever, with wind swell perfectly lined up with our direction finally and the other conditions having stayed back in the channel. When I do start to get lazy or fatigued, and my technique shows signs of faltering, I focus on whatever keeps me motivated and appreciating that I am in a canoe. Paddling in the ocean. With my brothers. I recall earlier that day our change coach (perhaps the most vital cog in our team’s wheel keeping us fast and safe) had heard on the radio another team had to turn around in the first 5 miles due to their change boat breaking down. How can I possibly let up now when that team didn’t even have an opportunity to be at this stage of the race? Renewed appreciation is found. I pull a side for that crew.
Coming up on Diamond Head now, seeing a view of it that few enjoy, from the water. Thinking of the watermen who have shared this view. Feeling a sense of brotherhood with them. Couple more miles to go.
We made the final turn around Diamond Head and Waikiki comes into view. Not knowing the course since its my first time, I don’t know where the finish line is. I pick the farthest building in sight and use that as my marker. Expect the worst, hope for the best is my approach. We are gaining on a canoe now, but slowly. We have canoes joining us from the left that took a much more southern course. I hear the calls and chatter from a canoe gaining on us from behind that took and farther inside line. 38 miles in, and it’s going to be a race to the finish. Sure canoes have been done for an hour or so. But our race is still happening. Our last change takes place, our final crew in the canoe with the cheers from our teammates on the chase boat being heard. Those paddlers gave us the honor to finish the race today and are now rooting us on. We don’t take that for granted one bit. Our kapena (steersman) calls attention to the canoe we are chasing, “lets give that canoe a fight. We don’t give them anything today, they have to earn that spot ahead of us!” The canoe picks up speed. 1 mile to go, we are gaining but not fast enough. Just as I convince myself that beating that crew is not important, kapena yells to the crew again, “next side we paddle for whoever seat 1 is dedicating their race to!” Seat 1 calls out the name, “Brother Brook” I yell. The canoe jumps. Next side seat 2 has the honor. Then 3. Then 4. Each seat calling out the name of who we are paddling for. Just about then, we have caught the other canoe, and are coming up on the final turn buoy to the finish line 400 yards away. If we let up now that canoe will dig something fierce like a woken beast from slumber. We have to pass them and break them before they know what hit em, or we waste everything we have been doing to catch up to them. Kapena yells “next side and the rest of this race we dedicate to Mr. Gagnon!” Now as we paddle in honor of our seat 5’s father, who passed away 1 month ago to the day, our canoe flies. We don’t even sense the other canoe as we pass by them. The commonality of our focus and energy is untouchable. Mr. Gagnon, your two sons and the rest of us know you are in your white canoe at this time, but for the last minutes of our race, you were in our canoe. Along with every other supporter and loved one we have. Our canoe was heavy in company and spirit, but light as a feather.
We crossed the finish line. The announcer called out each of our 9 names. Our change coach had entered nicknames for us each and they were called out as well. Not often you smile when you finish a race and are listening, but “Clarke “Pineapple” Graves was smiling.
After beaching the canoe, we were met with supporters, friends and family from Hawaii and San Diego, who traveled to support our journey. We were given beautiful lei and long embraces. Our sister club Ka Moi finished soon and so did our second crew. Our ohana was safe and on land. The journey complete.
While the euphoria of our success was amazing, it was tempered by very sad news. I came later to find out a paddler from another club (Ka Mamalahoe 60+ 'Koakahiko' crew), had gone into cardiac arrest following his final leg of the race (which they ended up medal-ling in). He died doing what he loved. I did not know him, but he was a paddler making a journey that we just did. So, in the closeness of our sport, we all knew him. Aloha Oe Uncle Manny. Aloha Oe…
I didn’t really set out to do this race when teams were first being discussed months and months ago. In fact it took some pretty amazing support and encouragement for me to even think it could become a reality. But it did. Conditions were described by several local Hawaiian clubs as “challenging” “fun” “rough”. I had some amazing teammates, some were in the canoe, some back home, help get me across. And I will be putting this down as one of those achievements that makes me a better person, nevermind just a better paddler.
Dedicated to Braddah Brook who continues to unknowingly teach me about being a waterman, father, husband, and man. Mahalo to my coaches Kawika, Dy, and Greggy, and all those teammates (in my canoe and home) who inspired me to leave it all on the water for you. Mahalo Stef and Ashlyn for allowing and supporting this latest adventure. Now its your turn for me to support you.
Team Writer Clarke Graves - If there is water, he will paddle it (regardless of craft). Clarke is a surfer turned paddler who grew up in San Diego but has traveled every corner of California enjoying its beauty and appeal. He has had the privilege of racing SUP, OC6, OC2, OC1, Prone and can't wait to hop into a dragon boat and surf-ski for an extended length of time.
One of Clarke's goals is to paddle as much shoreline in California as he can, with as many paddling friends who are willing to join him. If you have an idea for Clarke to write about or any questions, send it our way and we will pass it along!