Editor's note: Christopher Parker (aka SUPracer.com's "Boss Man") follows standup paddle racing obsessively. So with his finger firmly on the sport’s pulse, we asked him to preview the big one: Molokai-2-Oahu.
Photo Dana Edmunds
This Sunday, July 28th, the best open ocean racers in the world will compete for the 2013 Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. It is, undoubtedly, the most competitive SUP field in the race's history. Last year we saw an epic battle across the 32-mile Ka'iwi Channel between Dave Kalama and Connor Baxter, however this year, with Danny Ching finally committing to race the channel standing and Kai Lenny entering the unlimited field, the competition is amplified. Add a healthy Travis Grant (AUS) to the mix and we're left wondering why there isn't a live webcast? Unfortunately, Kalama, citing a lack of training time, is sitting this year's race out.
Connor is the 2011 and 2012 Molokai champ and deserves the status of race favorite. He’s in better form than last year and has been almost unbeatable the past six months. The young gun will be driven by a desire to keep his winning streak alive but also to defeat arch-rival Kai Lenny.
Also, unlike the rest of the top names, Connor will be paddling an unlimited board he’s used to. Most of his challengers will be on new and largely unproven prototypes, which could give them an advantage but may also bring them unstuck. The fact that 2013 is the most competitive field in history will give the two-time winner even more incentive: Molokai is the one, and this is the biggest Molokai yet.
The challenger. Kai claimed third in the 2012 Molokai and was only nine minutes behind Connor on a stock 14-footer. He's stepped up three feet to race Unlimited this year.
Kai has opted not to face off against Connor in any of the Hawaiian downwind races over the past month. My guess is he didn't want to beat Connor right before Molokai and give his rival added motivation, and he certainly didn't want to lose and give Connor bonus confidence. The only recent head-to-head match-up in Hawaii was the OluKai Ho’olaule’a two months ago where Connor won easily.
The SUP poster boy has also been training the house down recently: rumor has it he did five back-to-back Maliko runs while Connor and company were racing Maui-2-Molokai. And on a 12'6" no less. The theory is it’s harder to catch bumps on the shorter board and therefore a better workout while also making the unlimited seem easier. This could also backfire: Kai will be racing a Naish prototype that only recently saw the light of day. If the Channel throws up some washing-machine conditions, he may wish he’d spent more time training on it.
Despite virtually never losing a SUP race, ever, Danny goes into this weekend’s Molokai as some kind of bizarre dark horse (ala BOP 2012). But I’m not buying it. Danny has crossed the Molokai Channel over three dozen times, albeit sitting down rather than standing: he won the Molokai Solo Outrigger World Championship (an event on par with the M2O SUP race) twice, including just a couple of months ago, so he knows the water and how to spend four hours paddling hard.
Danny rarely competes with Connor and Kai but one comparison is the Battle of the Paddle Distance Race, the most competitive ocean race in the world and an event Danny never loses. It's held in relatively flat conditions and is a much shorter course than Molokai, but the way he blew apart the field at Dana Point in 2012 (he won by over three minutes) counts for something.
Danny is also a supremely confident athlete. I don’t think he’d enter if he didn’t feel he could win it. He and his image are taking a risk by challenging Kai and Connor in their own backyard, but I bet it’s a very calculated one. Look for Danny to possibly cause an "upset" on Sunday afternoon. However the question mark will be his new prototype unlimited board, which he will have had a whole five days to get accustomed to before the race.
Travis is the most underrated paddler in the world. The Aussie is a Battle of the Paddle winner and World Champion, who comes from an outrigger background that’s given him plenty of time in Hawaiian waters. Travis definitely has what it takes to win Molokai this year, however I think the odds will be against him.
For one, the conditions might not suit Trav’s paddling style. After last year’s “all time” wind and tides allowed records to be smashed, the 2013 Molokai could be set for the opposite: the winds might not be great and the tides will apparently be pushing the wrong way. Travis loves the downwind bumps but doesn’t really enjoy races that are an all-out slog.
Travis is slightly off Connor’s pace too, with the Aussie finishing four minutes behind in the recent Maui-2-Molokai race (though he still finished second). Like Kai and Danny, he'll also be on a new board.
If the wind turns on and there are any decent bumps (and the Molokai forecast is hard to predict, so it could very well be firing by Sunday) then Trav will find them better than anyone, which will make him a serious threat. If not, I think he’ll lose sight of the top three.
Scott Gamble: Was leading the 2012 race before retiring injured. Lives on Oahu and has the ocean experience and skill to win. While the “Big Four” above have the name recognition outside of Hawaii, all the
locals know Scotty could easily win Molokai, and that he’ll be a pretty safe bet for the Top 5. I actually feel bad about having him as an outside chance because this guy really deserves to be one of the pre-race favorites.
Livio Menelau: Livio has experience but lacks the pace of the big names.
Jeremy Riggs: Safe bet for the Top 10.
Young Guns: Travis Baptiste, Kody Kerbox (who'll be challenging Andrew Logreco for the Stock Class win) and Mo Freitas will likely finish Top 10.
Last year Talia Decoite (née Gangini) stole the crown from Downwind Queen Andrea Moller (above). She didn’t just win, she smashed it, breaking the record and finishing well ahead of the pre-race favorite.
But Talia is out this year due to an unfortunate reaction to antibiotics. So the Queen wants her crown back and has been in fine form, absolutely dominating Maui-2-Molokai and the Maui Paddle Champs. Andrea definitely starts as the favorite this year.
Annabel Anderson, the 2012 BOP champ, registered for the event but for various logistical reasons won't be taking her spot. That means the women’s challengers will be the likes of under rated Devin Blish, Aussie dark horse Terrene Black and perennial podium getter Jenny Kalmbach. Sonni Hönscheid, who has won some big races this year and who competed very well last weekend on Maui will also be a Top 5 threat along with Rachel Bruntsch, who is paddling the Stock Class but should still grab a fairly high overall position.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Connor, Kai or Danny win on Sunday, but I would be surprised if anybody else cracked the top three. So while my heart says Travis or Scott, my head says Kai or Connor and my gut says Danny. In the women’s, I don’t think Andrea will be matched.
No matter what happens, we can expect this to be the most exciting M2O SUP race ever. There’s just too many good storylines.