By Jim Farintosh – 1st time paddler with CanadaAnuenueKaa – 60+ crew, member of Pickering Rouge Canoe Club (in Pickering) and the Outer Harbour Dragon Boat Club (in Toronto), ON.
The road to Hale O Lono harbour on Moloka’i Island is the first challenge. It is Sunday, October 7th at 6am, still dark and hundreds of dust-covered cars and trucks snake their way down a rough, rut-filled dirt road to the ocean. Like the famous Field of Dreams closing scene, they come – drawn by the special day ahead. In our van I am surrounded by determined men who know a lot more about what is to come on this day than I. I don’t say much – I am lost in my thoughts and very aware of the challenge before me. This is the Moloka’i Hoe, the most important men’s outrigger race in the world and I have been given the opportunity to compete with a top age-class crew and a legendary steersman. Nothing really needs to be said.
I am as ready as I can be, with the preparation time that I was given. I have paddled close to 1000 km on Lake Ontario over the past 8 weeks and much of it at higher intensity than normal. My body has groaned in protest, but I have learned how to manage the warning signs of over-training – I will deal with them after it is over. I have to be ready for 41 miles of open ocean racing for six hours, with water changes every 30 minutes or less. This is the Moloka’i Hoe.
Our team is made up of seven Canadians: Bob, Garry, Ken and Peter from BC, Francis and Alex from Quebec and myself, the lone Ontarian. We are joined by four Hawaiians from the Oahu Anuenue outrigger club: Cappy, Doc, Gaylord and the legendary Nappy who is doing his 55th consecutive crossing. Our final member John, hails from Australia. Other than Francis and I, these men are all veterans in doing the crossing and their experience and support is invaluable to me. This is uncharted water in my life and I am very thankful for their presence and confidence.
On Friday, we fly from Oahu to Moloka’i on a short commuter prop plane right over the water we will paddle on Sunday. “A one way ticket, please”. Next day we went down to Hale O Lono harbour to rig the Anuenue boat – Anona (named after Nappy’s wife), and give it a test run. This small, volcanic, rock-strewn harbour is crammed with over a hundred outriggers and I am surrounded by the best ocean racers in the world. Everyone is here and it is an amazing sight. Kai Bartlett, Danny Ching, Mike Judd, The Foti brothers, Ross Flemer – everyone. The defending champion Tahitian Shell Va’a team is trying for their seventh consecutive win and they are meticulous in their preparation and confident in their chances. They are all very young – their steersperson is going for his 7th win and he is 24! They are staying in the same hotel as Cathy and I back in Oahu and I had a chance to chat with them all. Good guys (I’m a total fan, I got all their autographs). At the harbour I am grateful for some things to do to keep me busy as we unload and watch Nappy rig the boat. It has to be done perfectly and Nappy does the task slowly to his satisfaction. He will do the race “iron”, and he has to be sure that everything is as he wants it. The ocean conditions and race demand no less.
Race day, 7:15am. After all the last minute logistics are completed, there is a group prayer and regardless of religious beliefs there is a common bond among the athletes wishing for safe passage and a good day. The conditions are not favorable, we have high heat and humidity, volcanic fog (known as vog), unfavorable tidal currents and unfortunately a south-west cross-head wind that will be in our faces all day – not the expected trade winds favorable for surfing. It will be a long, tough slug-fest, but so be it. No one is going home – this is Moloka’i Hoe.
I have been chosen to paddle first, so I have the privilege of lining up with the most incredible start field I will ever see. Over a hundred outriggers are on the line and Nappy decides to take an outside position on the start. The tension is high and like a pack of crazed hounds, we are off.
The pace is astounding – the crews blast off as if the race is only one mile. It is flat-out in intensity and there is no regard for the remainder of the day, it’s all about early position. Each crew has a support motor boat with the remaining team mates aboard and they are held behind the OC6’s for the first 45 minutes, so they sit behind the field waiting for their chance to come up through the boats and make the first change. Sure enough, as we reach the end of the island of Moloka’i and head into the Kaiwi channel, the motor boats roar by, which adds to the chaos of waves, effort and emotion. We have been paddling at 64 strokes per minute for 50 minutes and I am ready for the first change. I look up and our team mates are swimming in a line, waiting to pull themselves aboard and take the torch. Some of my biggest doubts centre around the water changes, as this is new territory for me. No time to think, screw it – just do it.
Out I go, leg partially caught on the apron, but now I am clear and swimming for the support boat as we try to recover from the effort. Into the support boat, quickly collect myself, listen to feedback as to pace and execution, grab a water…and then another. Time to re-fuel, then a few minutes to rest, check everything and watch the boys in the boat pounding away on our behalf. We are doing really well and pretty sure we are close to the lead in our age group. Soon enough the five minute warning is given and I get ready to jump back in the ocean. Forget sharks, motor boat props, everything…just do it. We line up treading water and Nappy expertly brings the boat up so we just miss the ama. Only an instant to grab the side and haul yourself in. Adrenaline is flowing, it’s basically one chance or you screw up the whole boat. I did OK on the first change, not the best, but it got the job done. Bail like hell (I am in seat four, my responsibility) then back in stroke with a vengeance.
And so it went, again and again and again…every thirty minutes we repeated the process. Each thirty minutes, a race within a race. The water changes improve, I’m feeling better about that. Soon the vog covers all ability to see land, so we are out in the middle of the ocean with no point of land in sight, just the support boat to guide us. Trust is everywhere, it really is a team effort. Nappy is amazing, the whole package of intensity, skill, endurance and stability. I truly wish that we had some downwind conditions so he could really do his thing, but it was not meant to be. All that matters is the next 30 minutes…
Time stands still and the day never ends, but eventually off to the right the easterly point of Oahu looms. I have been warned that we still have a huge chunk of the race ahead of us, so the mental game of watching an “immovable” point of land begins. Hydration is huge and despite constant drinks and electrolyte tablets, the fingers start to cramp…I am not alone with this challenge. And still we pound away at over 60 strokes a minute, doing our best to get connection on every stroke. I thought of how many times I have implored my athletes back home to stay “open, tall and connected” and now I was taking a massive dose of my own medicine.
Diamond Head looms, but it takes forever, the scale of distance is deceiving. But I know that Waikiki Beach starts after that and Duke’s Beach is the finish. We are down to 20 minute changes now and if anything the effort intensifies as we get closer. A final challenge from a crew beside us, younger and confident they can pass the old guys. Nappy steers us over to the reef off Diamond Head and starts to slide down the back side of the 10 to 12 foot waves that are building just feet to our right. His angled path gives us a shot of speed and the challenge disappears…he is amazing. Final change coming up, the rest of the boys will finish the race with us in the motor boat…we started, they finish. A final dog fight with two other crews and they hold off the challenge by seconds…we are really pumped for them, despite the exhaustion. A right turn and straight to the beach. Crowds, music, jubilation, totally spent. I pick up the belongings for the crew and start over to the beach looking like I have been to war . . . wait, I have been to war.
I sit down and two women reward my effort with leis of flowers and shells, really nice. Cath comes up visibly relieved that I am back and OK. A hug I will remember. Beer, food, beer, pictures, beer, satisfied silence and beer. We hear our result that we finished 43rd out of 100 finishers and 2nd in our age group by two minutes to a Hawaiian crew, really close. Chat about where we could have made up two minutes, but respect for the competition and the effort put forth by everyone. Shell Va’a wins number 7, they are legends now.
The rest of the trip was fun and now Cath and I are back home, life gets back to normal very quickly. Lots to do in the present, but the memory of this race will stay with me for a long time. It will nourish me over the winter months and motivate me when I think of future goals. I thank my team mates for the opportunity and realize that life is all about doing your best every day. On this day, Moloka’i Hoe demanded my best.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!