Last weekend, I competed in my first Hawaiian channel crossing. A 42km journey from the beaches of Maui to the rugged coast of Molokai, a race known for its incredible downwind conditions.
On race day the wind was blowing 10-15 knots (weak wind for most bodies of water), but thanks to the exposed ocean of the channel, 10-15 knots could kick up some fantastic surf. Many racers were complaining about the light wind, but for me the wind was perfect. The problem was the heat. Coming from a Pacific Northwest winter, the baking sun and humidity felt almost oppressive. Not to mention the slower wind would change the race from taking around 2hrs and 15mins to 2hrs and 45mins. It may not seem like much, but an extra 30 minutes in the heat was daunting.
On top of that, I knew the pace and competition were going to be fierce due to the last minute race entry from Pat Dolan. Pat and I have had a great rivalry over the years, going back and forth as top American at US Surfski Champs and most recently battling in the 2016 Hong Kong Dragon Run. Pat is a force to be reckoned with on any course, but as a native Hawaiian and a savant in these waters, I knew he was going to be a force in this crossing. As we got on the water for the warm up, I was jittery and fired up to see how my two week bootcamp on Maui had prepared me to face a local champion. There were so many factors to optimize - the most direct line, the fastest ocean currents, the most optimal angle to surf the waves, and making sure to avoid the shallow coastal reefs of Molokai. I didn’t trust myself to make the right decisions, so I planned to give it my best attempt and stick to Pat’s like glue. Partially to gauge my competition and partially to ensure I didn’t make any tactical mistakes.
When the horn finally did sound I pushed off the line, I was itching to go and I wanted to get out of the main pack confusion. Only one paddler powered up to follow me, Pat Dolan. And just like that, it was a two man race.
I felt fantastic. Despite the heat, I was surfing powerfully and efficiently. After a few hard minutes, I cooled off my pace to let Pat catch up. I needed to stick to my strategy and for it to work, I had to let him lead. He caught up and for the next 10km we surfed side by side. At times we could have reached out and touched the others boat, dropping down the same wave much of the time. As we danced around each other, I was feeling so strong that I decided to make a move. I easily put distance on Pat and my surfing felt effortless as I moved out in front. Every once in a while I would check over my shoulder and make sure he wasn’t radically deviating his line. Every change he made, I countered and my confidence began to build. He had no answer. I was throwing my strategy out the window, essentially following him form in front, but I just felt so strong.
I lead the race for another 10 km and then Pat made a move of his own. Behind me he made a radical move to the right. When I finally did check on him over my shoulder he was much closer to the coast. I started surfing right, but I didn’t chase him aggressively. I had clearly been out paddling him and what difference could his deviation make in open ocean? A big difference.
When I looked back to the right he was even with me, I had no lead at all. I was so confused, how could he be going so much faster? I worked hard over towards his line, but during my struggle to course adjust he steadily moved out in front. When I finally fell in line behind him, my speed jumped dramatically. Whether on purpose or out of luck, he had hit a fast patch of water and effortlessly put 300 meters on me. As soon as we were back on the same line, he ceased moving ahead, but now we were in water the same speed. And the waves were becoming longer and faster, making it extremely difficult to gain or lose any ground on a similarly skilled surfer. Even back in a surfing rhythm I wasn’t making any dent in his lead. I started to panic. I couldn’t afford to be behind by this much coming into the finish. I needed to make up the distance now.
In the waves, you have to be patient. It’s not just about paddling harder and putting in more effort. The ocean presents opportunities to throttle up and jump ahead, but you have to be focused. You have to be ready and be explosive when openings appear. Slowly, ever so slowly, I started to claw back over the next 10km. I constantly told myself not to give up, that I had been in this situation not weeks before in California. Finally, I pulled up even with Pat and we were once again surfing a wave, side by side. I had done it! I was back in the race and it was on that wave that I sucked the last drop out of my hydration bottle.
I had no water left and heat exhaustion was chasing me down like I had chased Pat. My “low fuel light” was on and at 37km my engine started to sputter and die. The fatigue set in, in earnest. “I can still do this!!” I told myself. “You caught him!” But try as I might to stay wave for wave with Pat, he slowly started surfing away from me. Defeated, crashing and starting to cramp, I was finished. How on earth would I motivate myself to keep pushing for the last 5km? I should just limp it in?
Like an answer our of the sea, along came the largest sea turtle I had ever seen. I didn’t even know turtles could grow this large, its shell must have been the size of a monster truck tire and bobbing just below the surface. Upon first glance, I thought it was a discarded house front door! I passed within feet of this giant ocean being, racing by on a wave as it peered at me with one giant eye. I smiled. After hours of being in my own head and focusing on the race, I had forgotten what an adventure I was on. I might be cramping, I might be exhausted, and I might no longer be in contention for the lead, but I was still smack in the middle of an experience of a lifetime. With a renewed attitude, if not any renewed speed, I finished the race and managed to keep Pat’s lead to just over a minute. I crossed the finish line and almost fell out of my boat. It was over!
I paddled over to Pat and congratulated him on his race. I was proud to lose to an athlete of his caliber and, as always, it was a blast competing with him. Shaking hands, the whole adventure sunk in. Maui to Molokai had been one heck of a race and an unreal way to end a trip to Hawaii! Now back to Seattle to make sure I was ready for our next showdown (but first 3 Cokes, 3 apple juices and 4 bottles of water, lets just say I was dehydrated)!