Ten time world champion Jamie Mitchell calls it the “Waterman’s Super Bowl”. For me, it was a chance to realize a dream of being one of the legendary people that have successfully crossed the infamous channel.
The Ka’iwi Channel, a.k.a Molokai Channel or the “Channel of Bones”, has a centuries old reputation for being one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world. It traverses 32 miles of rough, shark infested waters from the North Shore of Molokai, to the South Shore of Oahu. The channel covers a depth of 2,300 feet and is subject to open-ocean swells of up to 30 feet. Wildly varying open-ocean conditions challenge a paddler’s surfing skills. Top paddlers can ride swells for hundreds of yards.
The Molokai to Oahu Race really began for me last fall. The notion of attempting the “Channel of Bones” as a team was conceived at the Battle of the Paddle in southern California with good friend Norm Hann. As the very first Canadian SUP team to attempt the channel, we held no false expectations. To be accepted to race was a privilege, to just finish was an honour. We were aware of what we were up against, top athletes from Hawaii, Australia, California and Central America who train and race in like conditions every day of the year.
Spring 2011 in B.C. was the coldest on record, another obstacle in an already short pre-race training schedule. When it’s three degrees Celsius and pouring rain, on the water training takes on an entirely new meaning. The flat water at Heffley Lake was a far cry from Molokai’s open ocean swell, current and winds.
Add to this the logistics of travel and fundraising for the charity we chose to support. Founded by Norm, Stand Up for Great Bear aims to raise awareness of the significance of the Great Bear Rainforest in northern B.C.
Two days before the race, I heard a “pop” while training and felt excruciating pain. With only 48 hours before the race, I couldn’t paddle on my right side. Local doctors delivered my only option, maximum doses of Ibuprofen and a torso sling to stabilize the muscles. Not a perfect solution, but I wasn’t about to quit now.
Five a.m. came fast on race day. To look out at over 100 escort boats was nothing short of a spectacle. Loaded with Ibuprofen and a hearty morning breakfast, we were ready. Norm would start the race, me on the escort boat until our first exchange 30 minutes in. We would each take 30-minute intervals, then 20 and finally 10 for the final few miles.
The traditional “Pule” or Hawaiian Prayer had all of the competitors hand in hand in a large circle on the beach. The channel had taken the lives of many courageous watermen. The local Hawaiian elder asked and prayed for a safe crossing for all competitors.
Eight a.m. was game time, and it was time to “bang” as Norm coined it. Norm was out of the gate and paddling hard. My heart was pounding right out of my chest as our escort boat raced ahead of Norm about 100 meters. As it slowed, paddle in hand, I leapt from the rear of the boat and we swapped out.
The wind was blowing hard at 20 knots out of the NE with a strong current running south, perfect conditions given my injury. We had to stay on our planned course, maintaining a north line, otherwise we risked getting too far south and a long run back upwind at the finish. In the end, of the estimated 7,850 strokes, I paddled less than 50 on my right side to maintain course! Our boat captain and crew were amazing. Johnny maintained a perfect course while Justin and crew assisted by throwing a buoy out to drag us back into the boat, saving energy between exchanges.
Many times during the race I dug deep, recalling the support and well wishes from friends and family in Kamloops and Sun Peaks to keep me on pace. This wasn’t just for us; it was for all of Canada!
Several exchanges later I looked at the boat’s GPS and couldn’t believe we were already over half way! I grabbed my cell phone to call my wife Brenda. Over the past 24 years of marriage, she’s been completely supportive of my endless adolescence, extended surf trips, motorcycle trips into Central America, and now this. Brenda had sacrificed as much as I had for this race and it was as though she was right there with me all the way.
Despite the enormous headwinds that awaited the final miles in Oahu, along with them came calmer seas. Still much larger chop and current than Norm or I were accustomed too, but much closer to the conditions we trained on. Seeing the two huge red buoys at the finish line was a dream come true. I’ve never paddled harder in my life. As I crossed the line to a roaring crowd, I could see our time on the clock, 5:49:23! I paddled back to the boat to pick up Norm so we could both paddle through the finish together. It was a triumphant finish for the first Canadian SUP team—55th out of 163 competitors.
In the days following the event, Norm and I chased waves in Waikiki. At one of the local surf breaks, we were hassled by a couple of locals. That day, another Hawaiian we’d made friends with stepped up and said, “Hey, these guys just paddled the Channel brah!” The locals offered us the next wave.