Molokai!

3 months 1 day ago #34254 by PSwitzer
Molokai! was created by PSwitzer
Anyone here doing the race, or have friends in Hawaii gearing up for Sunday?  The energy has been building for the last couple weeks, and now that the forecast is looking favorable, it is ramping up big time.  

The Makapuu warm-up race went off 2 days ago, in a building NE wind and south swell that made the run to Portlock really light up, everyone drank deeply from the downwind chalice, yet the thirst only builds!

Pat Dolan was the only big name on the start line and he romped through his local playground in typical fashion, crossing the line at the Hui Nalu boathouse a half mile clear of the competition in a new forest green 18 pound Vega.  Aussie James Porter took out second place four minutes later, winning the "not Pat" division in front of locals Kai Bartlett/ Borys Markin and Durban challenger Tyron Maher.  

The international field got a small taste of the complex near-shore Oahu waters, as the racers were shunted around a turn buoy perhaps a half-mile into the Kaiwi channel that forced a critical decision early in the race:  Stay wide in the bigger surf and shoot the rhumb line to the corner of Hanauma Bay?  Or use the swell angle to head in towards Sandy beach, then work the rebound off the cliffs to sneak an inside line in hopes of staying out of the current?

I chose the latter, and felt pretty good about it 15 minutes later when I spotted race director/local legend Jim Foti hauling ass across Sandy's on an OC2 with youngster Luke Kaminskas in the front seat, who may not be old enough to have a driver's license!  The inside line was paid an unexpected bonus crossing the mouth of Hanauma bay, where a massive eddy briefly flattened the bumps into a cauldron of boiling froth that slung the paddlers out into the final downwind stretch down "The Wall" from Hanauma to Portlock.  This section is always lively, but it can be hard work on a more easterly tradewind direction when the reflected waves are bouncing more directly back out to sea.  In those conditions every wave is hard work as you must punch over and through big chops, like skiing down a mogul field.  Sunday's run was exceptionally fun and easy with steep paddles-up holes criss-crossing at perfect angles allowing for endless linkups and dry cockpits.  

The last section of the course from China Wall through the reefs of Maunalua Bay has infamously crushed the dreams of countless paddlers over the decades.  Like Homer threading the needle through Scylla and Charybdis, the homeward bound Molokai racer must choose between two monsters:  Option A is to swing wide in relative safety but at the price of a longer course, worse current and often stronger headwind.  Option B is to stay tighter to the shoreline and enjoy exhilarating surf runs, with the dark cloud of destruction hanging over one's head.  A word of caution to those who may cleverly decide to seek a middle compromise:  As Mr. Miyagi counseled us, if you do not commit to one path or the other, you may find yourself squished like grape. 

And speaking of getting squished, a shout out here is in order for the tireless dealer reps and local repair guys that make this race happen.  Thank you so much for making sure we have these amazing toys on which to paddle this incredible race, and thank you for only briefly cursing under your breath when we break stuff doing dumb things before fixing it for us in the nick of time and sending us on our way.  Really, thanks a million.  At the start line Sunday, the low tide coral heads claimed one paddler's rudder, and Epic rep Kenny Howell was able to run back down the road to his truck, swap the rudder and get the paddler to the start line, although he himself was not able to make the gun.  What a guy!

Thankfully for the Makapuu dash, our Scylla was taking a rest day, probably saving up her energy for the main event.  Playful chest high waves lined up perfectly through the inside, making it an easy choice with no sacrifice required for the competitors who had done their homework.  I certainly enjoyed the view watching the surf battle between the Jim/Luke OC2 and OC1 vet Mario Mausio as they charged right through the heart of the reef system, rooster tails flying!  

So now all eyes turn to the big day on May 26- even with a favorable forecast (east trades, 15+) it is impossible to say what exactly we will find in the channel.  The tide is minimal on the half moon, so racers will need to look elsewhere for the extra push to claim the huge cash purse offered by the sponsors for a record breaking crossing.  On the ladies side, we've got only 10 women so far taking a crack at the title and massive payday.  Calling all dark horse crushers! 

There is an interesting swell pattern forecast with medium sized south and northwest crossing paths in the channel, combined with the tradewind swell it will be anything but straightforward for the paddlers, with great opportunity for the open water veterans to connect the dots.  The pros will be linking it up all the way home, but the mid packers have to take an honest look in the mirror and ask ourselves  "Do I have the power and endurance to chase down the bumps for four hours?"  It's easy to be a surf hero closing on Portlock during a Makapuu run, but it's a totally different story with 3 hours  of hard work already sapping the body, mind, and spirit.  Especially since the channel has so many different sections, with the runs being easy rarely, hard mostly, and forget-about-it at the moments when you desperately wish it were otherwise...  It is a big chessboard out there and not at all obvious when and where to apply your precious physical energy and mental focus.

I want to extend a warm welcome to everyone that comes over for this race, especially to the scores of Australians that save up and make the trip often enough to keep the thing afloat.  It is a big deal to commit, especially since we've been skunked for wind more often than not over the last 15 years.  Here's hoping everyone has a terrific crossing, and all around excellent vacation.  Long live Molokai!
- Patrick Switzer



  
The following user(s) said Thank You: Watto, MCImes

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3 months 1 day ago #34255 by Scode
Replied by Scode on topic Molokai!
Where can we find the start list for this years ra e? Should be another cracking race with Pat in fine form and the Aussies and Saffas battling it out once again. 

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3 months 1 day ago #34256 by Epicpaddler
Replied by Epicpaddler on topic Molokai!
Some day.

Definitely a bucket list item. Have fun and good luck!

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3 months 1 day ago #34257 by zachhandler
Replied by zachhandler on topic Molokai!
Great write up Patrick. Reminds me of the commentary we used to get from Glicker. 

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3 months 1 day ago - 3 months 23 hours ago #34259 by M.v.E.
Replied by M.v.E. on topic Molokai!
Very well written Patrick ! I really enjoyed it ! Thanks ! It also reminded me of the late Joe Glickman.  His gripping article in the Seakayaker Magazine about Molakai was my first introduction into Surfski paddling long before I began with it myself.  Even though I can only dream of participating in a race like this.
It´s a pitty that there is not so much media coverage. At least I couldn´t find a decent video about last years race.
Hopefully there will be more about the upcoming race.
 

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2 months 3 weeks ago #34291 by RedBack
Replied by RedBack on topic Molokai!
Hey Patrick,
Great write-up and well done in the race!
Anything under 4 hours is a great achievement.
Looks like the conditions made it interesting.
Obviously, we expect a full race report when you return... :-)
Cheers

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2 months 3 weeks ago #34292 by tve
Replied by tve on topic Molokai!
Congrats on the time and for just plain doing it! Would you do it again ;-) ?

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2 months 3 weeks ago - 2 months 3 weeks ago #34328 by PSwitzer
Replied by PSwitzer on topic Molokai!
Everyone now has seen the results and heard a bit about the race:  There was wind, big surf at the finish, athletes at the top of their game and when you add those things together, you get smashed records, again.  

And that's true, but not the whole truth. There is a lot of texture and nuance in this race that escapes the highlight
reel, so I will share with you my little slice of the action, a working class perspective if you will.

Ninety minutes to the start horn, I was standing on the side of the road in the already-intense sun, peering down at the
business end of a battered Honda Civic.  The radiator overflow tank boiled and frothed over into the dirt. The water pump had crapped out, forcing the weak and decades-past-its-prime engine to shut down or die.  My escort
swimmer looked at the foamy mess, then at me, then back at the Civic puking it's hot little guts out onto the ground.  The similarities between the car and me were inescapable, and it certainly felt like an omen.

This race carries a certain gravitas for a reason.  The history, the people, the consequences of success and failure are legend, and more than anything the Kaiwi channel itself is quite an intense spot on the earth in which to spend a few hours in a little boat.  On May 4, the Paa OC1 solo race was scheduled to run across the same course.  The days leading up to that event literally grew dark as the start time neared, and on the morning of the race the organizers were forced to cancel in the face of near gale force winds and rain heaving up from the southwest.  One skipper returning home to Oahu was in quick succession: holed by debris, swamped, capsized, and flung into the drink where he bobbed with his first mate, clinging to the flotsam for hours before eventually getting scooped up by the Coast Guard helo zeroing in on his PLB.  Think about that for a minute the next time you consider haggling over the price of the escort.

The shark vibe is always present in the deep waters, although the actual threat to human safety probably doesn't even crack the top 20 list.  That being said, in March a channel swimmer donated a pound of flesh to a cookie cutter shark, and the day before the race a swimmer was killed by an unidentified species in Maui's tourist playground of Kaanapali
beach.  Add to those incidents the numerous tiger sightings off Waikiki during the previous week by the swelling surfski crowd and you would be forgiven for stealing a second glance at those shadows ghosting under your boat during the race.      

Even the sun is bigger for this event. Because Hawaii sits within the northern tropic, the sun crosses from the southern sky to the north in May, and back again after the solstice.  So on two days per year the sun is directly overhead, as strong as could possibly be, casting zero shadow at high noon.  This phenomenon has been given a moniker by the Bishop Museum of a "Lahaina Noon".  Sounds languid and relaxing, but translates to "Cruel Sun".  I actually think the original Hawaiian name for the phenomenon is a bit more fitting: kau ka lā i ka lolo or "the sun rests on the brains".  Now, the Hawaiian chain stretches quite a ways north and south, so the precise day varies from island to island.  Any guesses on where the sun bores directly down onto our brains on May 26?  Of course it's Kaunakakai, Molokai.  Honolulu is the day after, to put the finishing touch on your hangover.  Whether this is coincidence, or evidence of a deep state conspiracy between title sponsor Maui Jim sunglasses and race front man Jim Foti, I will leave to the readers' judgment, but in any case it sure makes it a pain in the ass to see the GPS screen through the middle of the day.  You can point North, South, turn the damn thing back towards Kepuhi beach if you want, and the cheeky sun just keeps glaring those numbers right off the screen.

All in all, the channel was pretty darn tame this time around.  There was wind, but not the strong adrenaline/sweaty
palm type.  The tide was supposed to drop from 1100 on, but only a little bit.  The northwest swell was tossing head high dumpers onto the beach at the start line, but there were long lulls allowing for mostly dry hair and calm exits.  Yes, lining up for 32 miles is a serious matter, but holy smokes, there goes 12 time champ Oscar Chalupsky paddling by in a stubby double ski painted up like a zebra, how can you not smile at that?  The race sponsors had huge money on the line for a record breaking run, which everyone laughed about prior.  After all, it's a pretty clever move to gin up some corporate P.R. on a day with only moderate wind and a semi-foul tide, hah hah...

The conditions built up nicely and by the time the worst of the escort wake mayhem cleared up an hour into the race, I was executing my plan a little ways north of rhumb line, linking up the shoulder high bumps on a pace that felt sustainable.  But alas, if you could just take your best mile split of the day, and repeat it over and over, it wouldn't be the Kaiwi, it'd be the Maui to Molokai!  As you creep out into deeper water, the speed of the fast bumps coming over your right shoulder get bigger and faster, leaving less room for error.  For the pros, this doesn't change the ball game very much, since the fast swells, for them, stay well within the link zone.  This fact was demonstrated to me in graphic detail during a training paddle on the course last month with Borys Markin and Pat Dolan.  After each piece started, Pat would lope along with us in solidarity, then boom, the gas pedal drops and off he goes on a freight train- left, right, left, then gone.  See you again in 25 minutes.  In a more pedestrian environment, say the Kamalo run in the M2M race, or the Gorge, or a cooking San Francisco bay run, the fastest bumps are pretty easily linked by an expert- but- non-elite paddler.  So the pros go faster, but at the price of using more power to punch through/over the dominant energy pattern.  Open water is a different beast, in which speed begets speed, and the clever but weak mid-packer suffers mightily to maintain a high enough gear in the sideways space between the long runners to keep the linkup train going.  It is a thin line between flying and floundering, and any blip in the equation such as a boat wake, or a fleeting thought of self-doubt, will flip the odds in favor of the house.

Everyone, at some point will hit a wall in the race.  It's the stuff that makes for the stories at the after party.  After you've done enough long events, you learn this is normal, and then it isn't so scary when it happens.  Because after you capsize, or have a full body cramp, or puke/shit yourself, or watch your training partner/ friend/ arch enemy competitor disappear over the horizon, you figure out a way to sort it out, slap yourself around a little bit, and finish the race.  Usually.  For me, the low point was a slow burn closing in on Portlock watching the splits drop waayyy down as the water grew glassy, sticky, and shaken around by a booming south swell and a convergence of escorts from the 0930 and 1000 starts all joining forces in the last couple miles before the final turn home.  I was really getting into the groove of feeling sorry for myself, what with the bad current, escort wakes, cramps, and giant bag of excuses dragging behind the rudder slowing me down.  But then like a rifle shot on a quiet night, the reef guarding the east side of Maunalua bay exploded a quarter mile ahead with a set cracking off hundreds of yards wide, stretching from the cliff at China Wall well over towards the outside entrance of the boat channel.  The pity party evaporated in a flurry of flawed reasoning and intense desire to get the race over with. 

At the time, my reef-crossing plan seemed bulletproof.  I would lollygag towards the break, waiting for the set to finish, then sprint to safety on the inside.  After all, the real boat-crushing zone only takes a minute or two to get through, less if you can snag a smallish-for-the-day wave.  In hindsight, there is no way you can know how long the lulls are by watching a single set.  But in the fog of battle, the mind can easily convince the body to take the path of least resistance, so off I went straight to the takeoff spot where head high waves rear up on a normal-sized day.  One of the OC1 racers seemed to have the same plan as we edged into the minefield, trading glances with each other, then over the shoulder, back at each other and so on.  Thirty seconds later an in-between sets “Jesus wave” came through right on schedule, ushering me out of the kill zone in style.  I tried to claim it, and wave my paddle around with one arm like those dudes in the Gorge videos but as soon as I let go with my right hand it cramped into a tight fist, which hurt like hell and worse, made me look really dumb trying to brace with one hand while hooking the fingers of the other on the edge of the cockpit to unclench the fingers so I could grab the paddle again.  Luckily I got it opened up and back onto the paddle right before the wave finally backed off and forced me to go back to work. 

When you ask people why they keep coming back for this race over the years, they will tell you all kinds of stuff, but it really boils down to a simple behavioral principle.  It’s pretty easy to train a rat to press on a bar to receive a piece of food.  What the behavior nerds have found is that if the rat gets a reward every time it presses the bar, then he learns it is a sure thing.  If you then change the rules and don’t give any food, the rat gives up pretty quickly and stops trying.  So a better way to train a behavior is to use a “variable reinforcement schedule” which means the rat is rewarded sometimes after 1 press on the bar, sometimes after 5, or 10, and so on.  This is why gamblers have a hard time quitting; the variable reward might be just around the corner…..   So for us, the Molokai race delivers something different every time, and every now and then it is really, really good.  The fact that the race is hard even when conditions are excellent make those fleeting perfect moments crystallize in our memories.  It’s like going on a date with the person of your dreams that you’ve planned for the whole year.  It might go great, or terrible, but at least at the end of the night you got to hang out with them for a few hours. 

The war stories at Kona Brew were rich, detailed, and heartfelt.  Everyone, after finishing the crossing needs to spill their guts a little bit.  The people clocking in sub 3:30 seemed to feel that conditions were pretty darn sweet, while those pushing the 4 hour mark and beyond felt that it was much harder than last year.  The fact that both camps were correct is not a contradiction.  One man you might think would have an axe to grind is Dolan; coming across the line behind two champions, again, third fiddle to the Hank and Cory Show.  But when I crossed paths with him and his wife out in the parking lot, he had a big smile on his face.  His race was great, he went faster than ever and broke the record for the third time.  Simple as that. Whatever the outcome of your crossing, the experience changes you.  It is impossible to come away from the race without a boost of humility and gratitude for living a life in which it is possible for humans to get together and take on these sorts of things. Even a crummy day of surfski racing is still pretty damn good!  Thanks everyone, see you out here next May. 
- Patrick Switzer 
The following user(s) said Thank You: Jimi, zachhandler, RedBack, Scode, Watto, MCImes, Henning DK

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2 months 3 weeks ago #34329 by zachhandler
Replied by zachhandler on topic Molokai!
Wow Patrick. Awesome story. Sounds like something you will never forget.  

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2 months 3 weeks ago #34331 by Epicpaddler
Replied by Epicpaddler on topic Molokai!
Great story. Thanks for sharing. 

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2 months 3 weeks ago #34332 by tve
Replied by tve on topic Molokai!
Very nicely written and informative race report, thanks so much for taking the time, it's very inspiring!

I love the passage about "For the pros, this doesn't change the ball game very much, since the fast swells, for them, stay well within the link zone". That's exactly how I have felt over the past year in almost any DW conditions. Am I right in the impression that it's half skill and half fitness?

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2 months 3 weeks ago #34336 by PSwitzer
Replied by PSwitzer on topic Molokai!
Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read my piece. 

Tve, regarding the balance between skill/fitness going downwind, Nick Murray has written a nice article about this in his blog:
https://tcsurfski.com/2019/04/24/context-is-everything-when-interpreting-downwind-paddling-instruction/


But yes, to do well in downwind races skill isn't enough.  There are certainly places where you can go quite fast using very little energy, linking bumps with skill alone.  There is a video floating around of Boyan cruising downwind in Tarifa without paddling at all, just shifting his weight back and forth, and using his paddle as a sail.  But you wouldn't do well in a race in those conditions without going max effort.  And there are plenty of places where you can't link anything without lots of skill and fitness, like the Kaiwi.

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