Maui to Molokai: A Crash Course

Big bumps for first-timers in the Pailolo Channel. Photo: Greg Leion
Big bumps for first-timers in the Pailolo Channel. Photo: Greg Leion

Maui 2 Molokai: A Crash Course

An introduction to downwind open ocean racing with Jeremy Riggs

Interviews by Mike Misselwitz

The learning curve is steep in downwind open ocean SUP racing. The challenges of a race crossing demand not only the common characteristics of a paddling racer—exceptional fitness and stamina, physical and mental fortitude, drive and passion (possibly a touch of neurosis, too)—but also a tailored and thorough ocean-oriented skill set, specific knowledge of the sea in that area and an ability to make condition-dependent judgment calls only acquired with experience on the big blue. Even the fittest paddler may not be equipped to take on such a feat without proper mentorship and preparation.

That’s why Jeremy Riggs—open ocean paddling guide/coach and accomplished standup distance racer from Maui—found a different approach to get people involved. Jeremy—himself a highly regarded veteran of race crossings—placed 7th in the 2010 Mormaii Maui to Molokai Race, 1st in the 2012 Molokai to Oahu two-man relay stock division with teammate Travis Baptiste and 1st in the Naish Paddle Championships rudderless division five years in a row, to list but a few of his accomplishments.

Last April, Jeremy put together a group—all of whom were experienced paddlers but none of whom had ever done a race crossing—for the Maui Paddling Hui’s 27-mile open ocean race from Maui to Molokai across the Pailolo Channel. Kathy Shipman, Gregg Leion, Art Aquino and Randy Royse, entered the race with Jeremy as a guide.

This is how it went down.

Jeremy:
Last spring I asked a group friends that had never done a channel crossing if they’d be interested in doing Maui to Molokai with me. Normally I do these races competitively, but I knew I had a lot of paddling buddies who were all experienced but never had the opportunity to safely take on their first race crossing. Everyone signed up, we ended up sharing an escort boat and doing the race. Instead of doing the race competitively, we went at it leisurely. This crossing is a bucket list thing for a lot of paddlers and it’s one of Hawaii’s best downwind runs, so it was a great way to get my friends out on the crossing for their first time.

Kathy:
I’d wanted to do a channel crossing but I needed a push since I’m too chicken to take on the open ocean alone. When Jeremy asked me to join for the race last April, I knew I had to jump at the opportunity to do the crossing with the group. It was a perfect introduction and one of the most fun things I’ve ever done! Now I’m hooked—I ended up doing another M2M in July.

Randy:
Jeremy saw that the forecast looked really good and called me to ask if I was in. He envisioned our group doing it together as a fun run during a race, which was comforting for us first timers; we could stay together and wouldn’t have to worry about what line to take, getting too exhausted, etc. It’s 27 miles—you’re looking at around five hours of paddling—and if something goes wrong, at least this way you’d have some help.

Team stoke. Photo: Greg Leion
Team stoke. Photo: Greg Leion

Jeremy:
Since it was a first time for a lot of people, and because we’re very safety cautious, I asked everyone to bring their own VHF radio. It’s so easy to get separated out there—even though we were in a group and planned on staying together, you get a few hundred yards away from someone in big swell and it’s nearly impossible to see them. So having a VHF radio made everyone more comfortable. We also carried safety streamers, our cell phones in waterproof cases and inner tubes to use in case our rudders malfunctioned.

Gregg:

I think it’s fair to say we all had mixed emotions in the days just before the race—excitement, anticipation and a bit of fear of the unknown, for me anyway. I had a little anxiety about what it would feel like to be out in the middle of an open ocean, Hawaiian channel but the excitement of doing the crossing totally outweighed any of my fears. I couldn’t wait to do this!

Gregg:
On race day, we met up a Maalaea Harbor and carpooled up to the start at DT Fleming Beach on the northwest tip of Maui. Conditions were epic with wind in the 30s, sunny skies, temps in the 80s and seas of 11 to 15 feet. I can’t even describe how excited I felt at the start.

Jeremy:
Even though we’d all seen the forecast, I was the only one who knew exactly how big it gets in the middle of the channel. The whole time, I knew we were in for double overhead swells and heavy wind at our backs. I was so stoked for everyone, because I knew they were ready for this stuff but they couldn’t have known how thrilling it would be.

Art:
At the start of the race, we all paddled over the small surf break out of DT Fleming Beach. Once we were all lined up, the whistle sounded and the five of us headed out together into fairly flat conditions. After about three miles, the wind and swell gradually started picking up from the east, so we all started to drop in on these giant swells and surf over and over while heading out. We did this for a long time, regrouping once in a while. Then, around mile eight or so, the swells got way bigger and Jeremy gave us the thumbs up to head west down the coast of Molokai. It was game-on! We were all surfing rollers the size of school busses towards the Kamalo buoy. It was non-stop leg burning fun.

Kathy:
The wind was howling and there were huge waves in the channel—I would have been terrified to be out there alone. But, it was so much fun to be next to all our friends sharing the experience and feeling safe. Knowing Jeremy was there to guide us allowed me to have a great time without worrying—to have someone that you can trust makes a huge difference.

Randy:
The whole time I tried to keep track of where everyone was, and when we’d get separated, we’d stop to let everyone regroup. During one of those stops, I remember looking at Jeremy, and I was just like, “Oh my God, is this even possible?” To be out surfing these huge rollers, in the middle of the ocean, paddling to another island? Humans aren’t supposed to be frolicking around just for the fun of it in conditions like this…but there we were.

Art:

Once we’d all successfully made it to Molokai, we congratulated each other and talked about doing it again next year. The race organizers did a fantastic job with everything, and doing the race for fun with friends was an awesome way for us to get introduced.

Jeremy:
For me, a lot of time I’m just racing and trying to win. I have a blast and I’ve gotten some pretty good results in the past, but this meant more to me. To share the experience with guys I’d been paddling with for years, and to know that they had one of the best times they’ve ever had on the water, was as good as it gets. Since then, everyone in the group has done this race on their own. I’m just stoked I was able to show them the ropes.

For more information on Jeremy Riggs, or to inquire about his paddling lessons, visit paddlewithriggs.com or email Jeremy at jeremy@paddlewithriggs.com.