By Carol Hogan
Each May the world's best surfski paddlers enter the ocean at Molokai's Papohaku roadstead to compete in the Starbucks Molokai Challenge --the World Championship of blue water surfski racing, and the only open ocean surfski race in the world. This year's race is on May 22 and begins at 9 a.m.
The Starbucks Molokai Challenge, originally named Kanaka Ikaika, is the ultimate final examination of surfski skill, endurance and knowledge of ocean surfskiing. It tests a paddler's ability to maneuver a surfski against unpredictable weather conditions in the Kaiwi channel. The Kaiwi, more often called "The Moloka`i Channel" is an expanse of open ocean beginning at Laau point on Moloka`i and ending off Diamond Head on O`ahu. It is considered one of the roughest ocean channels in the world.
The solo invitational event begins in the waters of Papohaku Roadstead off the Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club near the west end of Moloka`i. It finishes inside the marina in front of Koko Marina Shopping Center on O`ahu, 32 nautical miles distant.
The 1997 race is the 21st annual crossing, counting the 1976 solo effort by Kailua physician Dale Adams. Adams called his crossing: "The challenge of the day," but it has since developed into the premier long-distance, open ocean surfski crossing in the world.
In 1976 Adams paddled for seven hours 30 minutes in his first effort. He repeated the crossing a year later with Dean Hayward, a marathon runner and coach at Kamehameha Schools and Jorgen Hansen, a veteran international surfski paddler. Hayward finished first in six hours 45 minutes.
"I think it's not one of those things where you have to be a youngster to compete. Rather, you have to have knowledge of how to catch waves and how to pace yourself," Adams said. "We'd prefer 10-foot swells and no storm warnings, obviously, but we'll go in anything that's reasonable for the escort boats to go in. We feel we're more seaworthy than either canoes or escorts because we have closed decks."
Before the 1977 crossing, Adams consulted Hawaiian linguist Pilahi Paki, who described the effort as "Kanaka I` Kai Ka," which literally translated means: "Mankind's respectful challenge of the great, mighty ocean." Paki's name for the race also became the name for the organizing club.
Kalai Handley of Kailua, O`ahu won the 1978 race and since that time no other Hawai`i competitor has finished first.
In 1979, 18 entrants made the crossing, including the first international competitor, Grant Kenny of Australia, who won the race in 5:37.05. In 1980 Eve Anderson was the first female competitor and Chuck Bennett, a paraplegic, was the first handicapped entrant.
The 1988 race attracted 45 competitors from Australia, Hawai`i and South Africa. The 1989 competition drew 67 entrants and South African champion Oscar Chalupsky posted his seventh straight victory with a time of 3:39.47. Included in the prestigious international field was America's Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton and several other outstanding surfski challengers. There were 44 finishers.
After an eight-year hiatus and two trips to the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, bronze medalist Kenny made a successful 1990 return to the winner's circle, crossing the channel in 3:44.45 for his fifth win. Tahiti-born Lesline Conner of Waimanalo has won the race four times. A field of 58 contestants finished the race. Not among them was seven time winner Chalupsky who could not participate because of Olympic sanctions against his country's apartheid policies.
Yet for a decade, Chalupsky's record of 3:27.31 over the current course was not broken. In 1993, three time women's winner Jane Hall, from Sydney, Australia, set a new woman's record of 4:14.23.
Australia's Dean Gardiner won the 1993 race and won byPat Erwin, who beat his own time in 1994, (4:23.24).
The number of 1994 finishers grew to 74, and the men's and women's surfski times were smashed and so was the one-person outrigger time. Gardiner crossed in 3:24.08 crossing and Kelly Fey broke Hall's record in 4:12.34 for the women's division.
In the interest of growth, an international team competition was added in 1994. This is a race-within-a-race. Each country selects four competitors to represent it, but only the finish times of the first three finishers are combined. The country with the lowest combined time is declared the winner and receives the McCabe Hamilton & Renny perpetual trophy.
After battling one another across the channel in 1995, brothers Oscar and Herman Chalupsky conferred shortly before the finish and decided to cross together. A tie was declared when the two held onto one another's surfski to cross the line. Kelly Fey kept the women's title in Hawai`i for the second time and Kauai's Steve Cole won the outrigger canoe division.
In 1996, Dean Gardiner led the kayak competition, winning his fourth race in five years with a time of 3:38.27. Followed by fellow Aussies Brad Kane (3:41.41) and Martin Kenny (3:43.09), second and third place respectively, the Australian team easily captured the international team title. The defending champions, the Chalupsky brothers, did not participate, instead choosing to compete in a lifeguard competition in South Africa.
Nalu Kukea, son of the late Kala Kukea, was the first Hawai`i finisher and fourth overall with a time of 3:45.00. A new trophy, donated by Ocean Promotion was created in 1996 in memory of Kala Kukea, a rescue captain with the Honolulu Fire Department who died of an apparent heart attack while surfskiing on the Ala Wai Canal in February 1996. The Kala Kukea Perpetual Trophy was presented to Bob Rocheleau, the first Hawaii finisher in the 50 and over division.
In the solo canoe division, Mark Rigg triumphed in his first solo crossing with a time of 4:17.35, beating out 1994 winner Pat Erwin (4:25.15) and shattering the record time by five minutes. John Foti edged out Courtney Seto to take third place by less than a second. Taking fifth place was last year's winner Steve Cole.
In the Women's Open Division, Sonia Lambert and Loretta Toth became the first women ever to cross the Kaiwi channel in a solo canoe. Lambert won the race with a time of 5:30.35.
Because of the nature and difficulty of the race, participants are carefully screened for their level of surfskiing skill. Mandatory safety rules require each paddler to carry specific U.S. Coast Guard approved safety equipment and be accompanied by an escort boat during the crossing.
The race boasts an admirable safety record. In the 18 years paddlers have been crossing the channel there has never been an accident. Probably the most serious condition experienced by any entrant has been mild sunburn, some dehydration and - after 32 miles of non-stop paddling - fatigue.
Hele On Back