Who to Watch at the 2016 OluKai Ho’olaule’a
The start to downwind racing season is only a day away, with SUP racers from all over the world showing up on Maui for a crack at the podium at the 2016 OluKai Ho’olaule’a. The wind has been firing all week and Maliko Gulch has been packed with paddlers eager to get their feet underneath them on the world-famous Maliko Run. Local speed demon Scott Trudon says he’s never seen so many people from around the world in town and on the water in the week leading up to the race, which leads us to believe this could be one of the most competitive Ho’os yet.
There are a few noteworthy alterations from years prior that will have a big effect on the race. First, this year’s race will start inside of Maliko Gulch instead of outside, in open water, as it has traditionally. This will give the advantage to better starters, sprint paddlers and tacticians instead of downwind specialists. Whoever gets to the buoy outside the gulch and headed downwind first will have a major advantage. Second, the final buoy placement. It’s been a matter of speculation all week as to where along the reef at Kanaha they’ll put the buoy. Depending on the swell (which doesn’t look too big) and just how hard the wind is blowing, the positioning of this buoy could change the whole race. Third, the wind. It looks like it’ll be good, but whether it’s more east and pushing out to sea or more north and pushing to the beach will change everyone’s lines and potentially, the people who end up standing on the podium.
The big news on the women’s side is that undefeated, seven-time Ho’olaule’a champion Andrea Moller has a leg injury (sustained during the all-time Maui big-wave season) and will not be racing tomorrow, according to OluKai. This leaves a hungry pack, led by 2014 and 2015 second-place finisher Sonni Honscheid, who’s coming off a third-place finish at the Carolina Cup. That means she’s in good shape and will be racing on a stretch of coast that she frequently visits to paddle with her SIC Maui teammates. She’s also no stranger to racing on the open ocean, having won Molokai 2 Oahu twice. She has to be the favorite with Andrea out.
But there’s a hungry pack that won’t let her win without a fight. 2013 M2O champ Terrene Black (fifth at Carolina), Hood River phenom Fiona Wylde (fourth at Carolina), Maui paddlers Devin Blish, Talia Gangini-Decoite (another M2O Champ) and Kathy Shipman. The wind’s up so it will be a run race to watch.
Then there’s the men. You can’t look past consecutive four-time OluKai winner and Maui local Connor Baxter to win here, especially after his 2015 win where he crossed the line two minutes ahead of second-place. Not only is he one of the fastest paddlers in the world, he’s otherworldly in downwind conditions. He knows this stretch of coast intimately and we spotted him doing laps in the Gulch before disappearing into the downwind spray. The new start will also play into his race-start strength.
Travis Grant is the yearly runner up here and is a dangerous downwind demon. He’ll give Baxter a run for his money but he’d need to paddle a perfect race against the local boy to take first. That said, if anyone is going to take the crown from Baxter, Grant is probably the guy.
Last we spoke with Dave Kalama, he wasn’t even sure he was racing on Saturday due to a back injury sustained in the surf. But Kalama loves this run and will have a hard time keeping off the start line with all the excitement in the windy air. Expect him to give the young guns a run for their money, though the Gulch start won’t help him out.
Then there’s a hungry Aussie crew featuring Matt Nottage and James Casey who have been chain-blazing Malikos and looking strong, according to local downwind ninja Jeremy Riggs. Riggs will be another top-ten finisher who could end up at the front of the pack if he gets a good start. 2010 OluKai winner Livio Menelau, a Brazilian who’s lived on the island for years, will be right in there to.
And then there’s Kai Lenny. The SUP magazine crew did a Maliko Run with him this week and Lenny was dancing down the coast, literally doing walking 360s as he rode bumps. He knows what he’s doing out there but he’s been notoriously fickle about doing this race. If he shows up, expect him to gun for the top spot.
And don’t forgot the other Maui boys: Kody Kerbox, Zane Schweitzer and Josh Riccio.