Pure Stroke | The Weaker Sex?
The article originally appeared in our Fall 2016 issue which focused on women in SUP.
I had just reached the five-mile turnaround buoy when I decided to chase the two girls.
Midway through a Battle of the Paddle ten-mile distance race I was already working at about 90 percent of my max—not quite tomato-faced, but right at the edge of that pace where you're pretty sure that every paddler ahead of you must have some sort of equipment advantage; why else wouldn't you be moving up through the pack? And there's also this thing about an out-and-back course: if you can divert your gaze from the nose of your board and look to the side you can see every paddler who's very obviously faster than you, at least at this point in the race.
In this case they all looked young (at least younger than me), fit and fast. Which, to my effort-addled mind, meant that if I could just up my pace a bit I might have a shot at winning the over-50 division.
Like, wouldn't that just thrill the crowd? Well, it seemed important to me at the time. So as I rounded the buoy, I ramped up my cadence a few strokes-per-minute, focused briefly on a pair of paddlers approximately 100 yards ahead of me, put my head down and went hard.
The 'head down' part was essential to my effort, especially if I was to convince myself that I was doing something amazing, something heroic, by chasing down two young women in bikinis.
It's not like I'm chauvinistic in my ocean pursuits or that I haven't paid plenty of homage to female paddlers over the years. I'll be the first to acknowledge the acumen of the waterwoman the world over. And I've actually been forced to on more than one occasion.
I once placed third behind Liz Benevidez in a Bud Pro Tour heat at Malibu back in the early '80s and got all the way back to my car without crying; in a Waikiki prone paddle race I drafted behind Honolulu lifeguard Debbie Bowers the whole way and only passed her at the finish because I moved over onto the reef and caught a little wave. Debbie out-paddled me for sure—she really deserved the flip-flops and Rainbow Drive-In plate lunch gift certificate that I won for my efforts that day.
The very first female standup paddler I ever saw was competing at Duke's Oceanfest in Waikiki almost ten years ago. It was Candice Appleby. Being part of a small cadre of ocean athletes there at the beginning of a whole new sport was unique, an entirely new culture that up to that point seemed entirely male…and then seeing Candice Appleby, absolutely ripping at Queens (appropriately named, it turned out) on her way to first place in the men's SUP surfing division.
Candice's victory should have surprised no one, especially in Hawaii where island lore is filled with accounts of remarkable female ocean athletes. In Hawaiian researcher John R.K. Clark's wonderful 2011 volume Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions for the Past, numerous translated accounts attest to the significance of women in the ocean. I recalled a few every time I looked up to see if I was gaining any watery ground on the two such specimens ahead of me on the BOP backstretch. One, in particular, came to mind.
"If one surfed to flirt, then this is how it was done," wrote Ka Nupepe Kuakoa in 1865. "The men put on a red malo and wrapped it tightly around the waist like the warriors did in days past. The women wore red sarongs and they would all go surfing together, the men mixing with the women. When they surfed the men and women surfed the same waves. When the men and women caught the same wave, this was called flirting. The end result was a love affair."
Wait … What was I thinking? I didn't want to flirt with the sea nymphs up ahead of me—I wanted to beat them. Which would be no easy task at this point. I could only take solace that I was hardly the first guy to find myself in this position. Again, from Hawaiian Surfing:
"As they were paddling back Kawelo observed a large gathering of men and women and asked the fisherman, 'What is that crowd of people for?'
"'It is a surf-riding crowd,' replied the fisherman. 'But there is only one who is unparalleled; it is a young woman. She is never wet by the surf. Her name is Kanewahineikealoha.'"
All I knew was that there were a couple Kanewahine's in front of me and that I was determined to at least catch them. Which I did, eventually, paddling at full tomato-face pace, only to pull alongside to find that my fierce adversaries were, in fact, a pair of comely teenage Junior Guards, stroking casually along, chatting and giggling over some innocuous anecdote.
Not a snot bubble between them. Just out having fun in the sun and the sea, the ten-miler apparently just a pleasant way to pass the morning.
Undistracted, they didn't even look at me as I huffed by. Oh, yeah, I passed them. Won my division, too, carrying home my little trophy with the dubious pride of having out-paddled two teenage ladies. Who, had they even a portion of my fragile male ego, could no doubt have shown me their heels with a laugh and a smile.
The weaker sex? Mine, obviously.