Words and Photos by Will Taylor
The lead up to the annual Molokai 2 Oahu is full of speculation. Will the wind be favorable across the 32-mile Ka’iwi Channel between the two islands? How bad will the current be off Oahu? Who’s paddling in what category? The whispers escalate to animated conversations that escalate to questionable theories portrayed as facts.
The one truth is that you don’t know what the Channel of Bones will give you until you’re on the water for race day.
When we woke up on race morning, July 29, in the pre-dawn dark on the west side of Molokai, the wind whipped through the palms. The trades had been blowing for over a week and they’d softened over night, but just barely. It looked like it was going to be a good day.
It was my third year going through this ritual and I was happy that two of my close friends from Oregon, Luke Martinez and Rocky Burns, were there to race with me on a three-man team for their first experience with the channel. M2O is hard no matter what, but having buddies there to cut the miles and put a smile on your face definitely helps.
The energy on the beach that morning is palpable. The fittest crowd of people you’ve ever seen applies sunscreen, checks their fins, warms up and swims out to meet their support boats with their gear. They’ve trained for months and many have based their whole year around this event. Hundreds of boats clog the waters off Kalua Koi, turning this usually peaceful stretch of coastline into a frenzy for a few short hours.
Luke took the first stretch, lining up with the finest open-ocean standup paddlers in the world. Not only was this his first M2O, it was also his first race, period. It’s an intimidating start line for anyone but that really adds to the pressure. He came out steady amidst the wake of all the paddlers and navigated the chop as all the escort boats came in to find their charges (each team or individual must have an escort boat for the race).
From there, we fell into 20-minute paddling intervals, a long enough time to get in rhythm and go hard but not so long as to get overly tired. It was Rocky’s first race as well and I watched as both he and Luke grew in confidence and started to find the cadence of the Ka’iwi.
The wind hooked around Ilio Point on the northwest side of Molokai and shot out across the channel for the windiest conditions I’ve experienced in my three years out there. To stay on line to hit the finish with the least amount distance covered, we tried to stay on the rhumb line, the straightest way to get from point A to B, by surfing the north-running smaller bumps and occasionally hooking into the larger windswell bumps headed southwest.
The seas got rowdy. Piles of whitewash rolled across the deep-blue surface of the ocean, overhead swell rocked us and the wind continued to howl, keeping everyone on their guard, including our boat captain, Will Foster. In a strange series of events, we’d gotten connected with Will — who’s escorted across the channel many times — after we learned that he’s married to Greer Price, a woman that Rocky and I had gone to high school with in our tiny home town.
A three-person team makes for a more festive paddling experience. Including Will, there were always three people on the boat. We swapped stories, hooted as we all caught big bumps and encouraged each other through the tough sections. There was laughter, some blood and gallons of liquid consumed to keep our bodies from cramping.
In my experience, there is always a reckoning during this race. It seems to come about 10 miles from the finish line. If you’re lucky, the wind remains but everything else seems to change. The bumps get harder to ride, your strokes don’t get you as far and Oahu, which you’ve been gaining ground on the entire race, seems to hold still in the distance. Some of this is exhaustion at having paddled so far already but most of it is the water off Oahu. Currents run off the shelf of the island, the tide swirls through the different bays and the refraction of swell off the shore throws the water into chaos. Even on a three-person team, we were tired by this point. Luke was feeling sea sick and falls off the board were becoming more frequent.
We kept at it, past Koko Crater, Hanauma Bay and finally closed in on Portlock Point. Racer’s who have been spread out across the Channel taking their separate lines converge here and pull energy from each other to turn the corner and face the headwinds winds that jump the island and come out to greet you in a sour turn of events. From there, it’s only a mile to go.
Rocky took the last leg and that is where his training paid off. Now on relatively flat water after the chaos of the open ocean, he put his head down and dug deep. His daughter and friends cheered from land, we cheered from the boat and he crossed between the buoys in Maunalua Bay, finishing our Molokai 2 Oahu experience in 7:02.
Molokai 2 Oahu is a sum of its parts, more so than any race that I’ve been a part of. The months of training, finding a boat captain, choosing your team, the logistics of getting you and your board to Molokai, the uncertainty of the forecast, the difficulty of the race itself; all these things converge into a wild yet beautiful mess that leaves you feeling exhausted but satisfied. Year after year it is an unforgettable experience. And that’s what keeps us coming back.
More Molokai 2 Oahu.