The Aussie Invasion: Molokai 2011

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The Aussies showed up in force, but where were the South Africans? Hank McGregor, Lightie Pretorius and the Chalupsky brothers, who'd combined to win 15 Molo titles, were no-shows, as was perennial top-dog Dawid Mocke. In fact, the field featured just one Springbok of note.

Marty Kenny heads along the famous China Wall before heading for the finish - Molokai 2011
Marty Kenny heads along the famous China Wall before heading for the finish - Molokai 2011 Credits: Bob Coello

Unfortunately, at least from this spectator's point of view, Cape Town's Tom Schilperoort is the anti-Oscar, soft-spoken, humble, unable or unwilling to toot his own horn. (Not only did Oscar win 11 titles in 15 tries but he drank more beer and talked more shit than all the men listed above.) And with Tim Jacobs and Jeremy Cotter -- two very tough outs -- back in Oz, predicting the winner of the world's most storied ocean race (starts with Clint, ends with Robinson) was about as tough as forecasting a rise in gas prices.

Annoying

More annoying still, at least to a surf ski junkie sitting 8,000 km East of Oahu, there was precious little pre-race chatter and surfski.info wasn't providing virtual coverage as in years past. Come race I day was so starved for information I began taking Rob Mousley's name in vain. The bespectacled paddler from Cape Town had lured us in with his tech-savvy coverage only to vanish like a hottie at the bar when you excuse yourself to hit the head.

Then some good news: the race would provide live reports via Twitter. I was eager to see how my man Marty Kenny, a perennial top 5 finisher, would fare on the new lightweight spec ski he'd been testing back in Oz and to see if Dean Gardiner, the 46-year-old nine-time champ, could challenge Robinson who, after five tries, won his first Molokai title last year. Gardiner was second in that race and, according to inside sources (OK, Dean told me), he arrived far fitter this year.

Gardiner

In my mind, Deano's only chance against Robinson was spelled downwind. Gardiner has often called the five-time Olympian the "greatest surf ski paddler of all time" -- after all, 13 of his record 36 Aussie Surf Life Saving Championships were won in the single ski -- but that's a four-minute dash through the surf and not 55 km across a capricious channel where tide, current, and course choice plays a critical role in who gets to the finish first.

Dean Gardiner

Deano - going strong

The first tweets were promising: "Nice full wind," followed by "the wind is picking up."

Soon after the gun sounded we learned that Robinson led, followed by countrymen Dane Sloss, former Ironman Brad Stokes, Sasa Vujanic, a Serbian Olympian living in Sydney, and Schilperoort. An hour into the contest we learned that Robinson had pulled away with Schilperoort, Stokes and Vujanic in second, third and fourth, with Dean, paddling without an escort boat on a more southerly course, fifth.

I had to wait a solid hour for my next fix: "At 2 hours, Robinson is 4 minutes ahead of Thomas who is 20 seconds ahead of Gardiner." And Dean was closing at pace.

Come on you old bastard, I thought.  Not that you'd know it to look at him, but the ever-chilled Gardner wanted a 10th Molo title as much as the ultra-intense Robinson wanted his second.

Marty Kenny in mid-channel

Marty Kenny chases Dean Gardiner and Paul Green

Clint Robinson

Robinson was 16 years old when did his first channel crossing in 1989, finishing 10th. By the time I met him in 2006, the 1992 gold-medalist had done two more, finishing second and third on a custom-built Hayden. Conditions in '06 were classic: big wind and big swell. Robinson spent most of the day banging boats with Oscar and Lightie, both on Epic V10s. The 21-year-old Pretorius finished first, narrowly missing Gardiner's 1997 course record. Oscar was second and Robo, who felt his shorter ski fell off the runs before his competitors', a close third. When Robinson returned in '09, he was on an Epic V12 -- but then again, so was Durban's Hank McGregor. On a hot, windless day, Clint and Hank, a former World Marathon Champ, blasted off the line and for nearly two hours traded wash leads on a mirror-flat ocean in what amounted to a searing anaerobic duel along a thin red line. McGregor, who'd twice finished second in Hawaii, won his first Molokai title with Tim Jacobs second and two-time Molo champion Lewis Laughlin third. Robinson faded to 18th. When the 38-year-old Robinson finally won last year, he'd shaken quite the cumbersome Molokai monkey off his back.

Clint Robinson

Robinson heads home to a overwhelming victory

When the next Twitter post reported that "conditions mid-channel are awesome," I thought should be good for Dean and Marty, who'd told me a few weeks earlier that he'd lost valuable training time due to the flu and was praying for runs.

Updates were as sparse as puddles in the desert, and as welcome.

"Clint is flying," read one post. No surprise there, I thought.

A little later, Dean had moved into second. Fuckin' A! I thought. 

But then, "Dean pulled out," came the sorry tweet. Fuckin' B, I said.

Dean Gardiner

"I got so bored mate...!" Dean Gardiner pulls up and out of the race

And that was it. No results, no nothing. 

Twitter my arse, I thought.

I checked the race website several more times that evening and scoured Facebook -- all for naught. Clint Robinson could have been waylaid by a humpback whale for all I knew. In the morning I saw that in fact he had cruised to his second consecutive victory in 3 hours, 31 minutes and 58 seconds; Schilperoort (3:42:20), was second, roughly 10 minutes back, with Kenny (3:42:59), a solid third, ahead of training partners Stokes and Paul Green.

What happened?

Results may tell you who came where, but I wanted to know what happened. I chatted with Dean, who told me that he was feeling strong when he cruised into second, his sights firmly fixed on Robinson's escort boat. Then the wind died halfway across and with it his hopes of a 10th title. "I got so bored, mate" he said.  It's hard for someone like me, who'd kill to crack the top 20, to fathom forfeiting a place on the podium for a DNF, but Dean, who has achieved all he's set out to do in the sport except win his 10th title, has no interest in smashing himself on flat water for another second or third place finish. In short, if he doesn't like the music, he steps off the dance floor.

 I had heard Gardiner's tale but still didn't feel I had the whole story. Then Marty Kenny and I began a rapid-fire e-mail exchange and I knew my troubles were over -- M.K. may not be Jewish, but he can hang with the windiest of the tribe. Even better, he said he was planning to write something about the race.

Marty and Molokai go way back. He first heard about the race when his older brother Grant won the race in 1979 at the tender age of 16. In 1990, the first year Marty did the race, finishing 10th, Grant had won his fifth and final Molokai title, edging out local Marshall Rosa and a lanky lifeguard named Dean Gardiner. In 1991, the channel was as flat as my ass and Ironman great Guy Leach prevailed; Marty was second -- ahead of Gardiner. This year, the 43-year-old from Mooloolaba was back for the 17th time. Consider his track record: He's finished second three times and third twice and recorded 12 top five finishes.

Kenny did his first 14 crossings on a Hayden spec ski -- Hayden being the company started by his father in 1962.  He switched to a Fenn Elite in 2009 and 2010, figuring, much like Robinson, that the longer ski was more competitive in three-and-a-half hour race famous for its meaty ocean swells. This year, however, he'd switched back to a tricked out, lightweight Hayden.

Martin Kenny

Martin Kenny

Interview

When we spoke on Skype I asked him how his article was coming. He admitted he'd not yet put pen to paper. "Let's do a Q&A," I said,  "I'll take notes." Two hours later my fingers were too stiff to continue.

Here, then, are the highlights of that informative conversation:

JG: It's been 21 years since you did your first Molo. Do you see similarities between Dean chasing his 10th and you your first?

MK: I do. I understand why he wants to get 10 and I think he deserves 10 after all he's put into the sport and done for the event. People always tell me, 'It's your turn to win it!' but that's b.s. You win it when you deserve to win it. You have to be 100% ready to go on the day and race to your potential. In order to win you have to keep it together mentally, take the right course and more. Even if you win by a large margin like Clint did this year it's not a race you ever come across easily. So, yeah, we're probably on a similar page although the only reason I'd pull out is if I were sick or injured.

JG: What did you learn from your first Molokai?

MK: I learned the hard way about course management. It was very windy and we had a big swell; I was third coming into China Wall. I remember seeing [escort] boats running up the wall. I thought that it must be fishermen going home...so I was stunned when got to the finish line and I was 10th. Everyone was hugging the wall to get out of the current and I was way too far out. I haven't make that mistake since.

Marty Kenny

Not making the mistake of taking China Wall wide

JG: In 1991 you finished second to Guy Leech. What did you take from that race?

MK:  Conditions were glassy with a little bump towards the end. I started slow and just sort of paddled through the pack. I caught Deano, who I didn't really know back then, off China Wall. We were on a small run and he lifted his left hand. It was bloody and blistered. I thought, "If I'm going to beat this bloke I have to have a reasonable paddle from here. I was 22 years old and pretty happy to finish second.

JG: Why then do you think Dean's been able to be so successful here?

He's a prick (laughs). Dean is deceptive. He doesn't look particularly fit. His technique isn't pretty, but he's broad and obviously strong. His attitude is very laid back. Sitting on beach before the race, you think 'this guy is here for fun or he's not interested in the whole competitive thing,' but underpinning that is a fierce competitor.

JG:  The last two years you used a Fenn Elite, why switch back to a spec ski this year?

MK:  I hadn't planned on coming to Hawaii this year. But, long story short, the boys at Hayden decided to make a lightweight ski [the PR2] and asked me to evaluate it. After racing in Perth on a Fenn, I did a few sessions with Ben Allen and Nathan Day. They were in LD skis and I was on a regular [18.3 kilo] spec ski. It was a windy day with short steep runs and it seemed that my shorter ski outperformed their longer skis as I finished two minutes ahead of Ben. Ben's a beast on flat water but he's not a great surfer. A few days later, Ben paddled a spec ski and he was just 40 seconds behind me. Read into what you may as it's not an exact science but it certainly caught my attention. Of course, this thought has been around for a while, especially when you consider the course record at Molokai was set by Deano on a Burton spec ski.

JG: How light was the lighter version and how different was it from the heavier version?

MK: It was 10.3 kg and the difference was massive. The problem was it wasn't finished until the end of April and I was only able to paddle it four times before it had to be freighted to Hawaii. Then the first session I did in the boat Brad (Stokes) and Greeny (Paul Green) flogged me. Afterwards I told Greeny that I wasn't going to Hawaii. I had a good drink that night and told myself I'd train a little more before I made my final decision. Then I did a session with Clint (Robinson) and he gave me a reasonable hiding, but I did a little better and decided to train for another week. [Note: Kenny's biggest week was 174 km, including gym and running.]

Mary Kenny

JG: So what convinced you to go if you got your ass kicked twice like that?

MK: Right before the boat was to be shipped I did a 40K downwinder up the coast.

Conditions weren't great but a quarter of the way into it the wind picked up and when I finished I looked at my GPS and said, "This can't be right as I've averaged a 3:50 kph pace." It was May 3 when I decided to go. (The race was May 15.)

JG: Obviously you were hoping for pumping trades winds?

MK:  I was quite apprehensive as I was only guy on the line with a short ski. I thought that if it's flat I could turn up at the finish and everyone would be out standing on dock laughing at me. Although I'm used to that anyway... 

JG: Given the mellow conditions what was your pre-race plan, assuming you had one?

MK: I'd always noted that Dean never went off the line with that mob. Because we weren't sure what sort of lift we were going to get across the channel I knew I had to leave something in the tank for last hour because if wheels fall off they can fall off in spectacular fashion. The front pack had a lot of fast but inexperienced guys, so I was intentionally conservative from the start.

JG: Walk me through the race.

MK: Clint sat in a pack and I slid south with Dean and Cluesy (Michael Clues). We cruised together for a while and were joined by Greeny. There was residual swell left over from the day before but it was hard to tell if it was going to build or not.

JG: Did you and Dean talk once you were on the water.

MK: Not really. Dean's good at taking a good line. I tend to change my mind mid-race, which you shouldn't do. An hour into the race, however, he surfed away from me and I didn't both chasing him because I didn't trust that the wind would last. I kept thinking, I can't start racing yet as it could get worse.

JG: Given the conditions were you surprised you did as well as you did?

MK: I was but I was very comfortable in the boat -- it's a familiar and efficient position -- and except for Dean and Clint, no one was pulling away from me. At the 30K mark I caught Dean, but he'd clearly pulled the pin. With 15K left I saw Tom (Schilperoort) up ahead and Brad (Stokes) was just behind. As we neared Oahu I was closing on Tom but I probably went too far north and hit some crappy water and didn't get any closer. I tried to enjoy the last few kilometers but when I looked back I saw that Stokes was catching me so I had to pick it up to stay ahead of him.

JG: How'd this race rank with your previous 17?

MK: It was satisfying but actually quite stressful with a new boat and losing two weeks to the flu so I was unsure how everything would go. Last year I was fifth behind Clint, Dean, Jeremy Cotter, and Tim Jacobs. I was happy to be race those guys all the way across the channel. This was my fifth podium finish and that's always satisfying. So, yeah, both were satisfying: overall, given the circumstances, this race gave me back a little bit of fire in the belly, a bit more self belief as it shows me there's more than one way to skin a cat....

Podium - Molokai 2011

JG. What do you have to do to win this race?

MK: It's more mental than physical. It's about being a more mature racer, which is probably why Clint Robinson is doing so well. You not only have to do the training but have the belief that you can win. I've not yet won because I have not deserved to win it. I'm aware that for me to win things have to being going well for me and not so well for someone else. I have the speed but it's about maintaining that speed efficiently for 3+ hours. That's something I have to learn. Once you've won a major race it allows you to a bit more clarity of thought. In this race when you're tired it can cloud your decision making. Last year, for example, near the end of the race when we were all hurting I paddled away from Jezz, Deano and Clint. Later, I asked myself, why'd you do that?

JG: Why did you?

MK: I was dropped on my head a lot as a kid. No, in fact I just lost concentration. So I need to focus on a little more and analyze a little less.

JG: Yin Yang man!

MK: Yes Grasshopper.

J.G. Have you ever loved a paddler from New York more than me?

M.K. Yes.

J.G. Thank you Martino!

M.K. You’re welcome Joseph.

Molokai 2011

Event information

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Published in USA

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