Molokai Hoe 2015: “At least we could see the Tahitians this time.”

The Molokai Hoe, the world’s longest running outrigger canoe race having first started in 1952 & regarded as the World Championship of 6 man (3 change) outrigger racing is an event eagerly awaited each year across the globe. This 66km race crosses some of the world’s most dangerous waters – the Kaiwi Channel – Kaiwi meaning ‘the bones’ & not without reason – can be a treacherous crossing.

Pleasingly this year there were 4 Koa outriggers competing – these traditional canoes are hand carved from a single Kua tree trunk after the trunk has been dried for up to 6 years. Needless to say they are expensive starting at around $US35,000 to purchase.

The Molokai Hoe is an event which demands high levels of both physical & tactical prowess. During the running of this course I witnessed one outrigger forced to withdraw shortly after the start due to gear failure, another capsized (but was righted & continued) an hour & a half into the race whilst a further craft capsized & ended its race just metres before the finish in taking a line too close to the breaking surf in the hope of catching a rival team.

The event started at 8am at Hale O Lono on Molokai’s southern coast where less than a fortnight ago waves reached more than 6m & closed out the start of the women’s equivalent to this event the Na Wahine O Ke Kai. As tradition would have it & reflecting the devout beliefs of Polynesians the competition starts with a prayer. It’s a moment that even ardent atheists tell me is compellingly moving.

Tahiti who has won the last 9 consecutive Molokai Hoes was again here in force. If the outstanding team from EDT that won last year’s event was not present to defend their title, Shell Va’a who had won the preceeding 8 Molokai Hoes in a row was here & backed by 3 further powerful crews in the proven Team OPT, the rising stars from Air Tahiti Va’a & a skilfull team Tahaa Nui reduced to only 8 paddlers overall due to a passport problem. The Tahitians were joined this year by crews from Japan, Honk Kong & Brazil down surprisingly from previous years.

Hale O Lono was relatively calm when 93 outriggers lined up at the start. Shell charged immediately to the lead sticking closely to the island coastline & followed by the other Tahitian crews all looking to be protected in the event of any wind; the Hawaiian outriggers were more seawards. Bora Bora Insider & official race photographer, Nick K took this shot of Shell Va’a powering along:

shell-vaa-molokai

The va’a reached the open water that separates the islands of Molokai & Oahu after some 45 minutes of effort – once in open water competitors were greeted by calm seas, around 1.5m of swell & a light 14/15 knot breeze from the SW.

From this point the teams are permitted to start making crew changes (up to 3 paddlers at a time) & it can be chaotic & quite dangerous given the support boats involved. Normally the sweep will  never change – he directs the va’a & his experience is invaluable, something that must be retained in the outrigger at all times. By contrast the stroke – the number one paddler, invariable changes on each occasion as it is equally important to always have a fresh man ‘up front’ setting the rating & maintaining the boat’s glide. As a result the change is usually 1,2,4 0r 1,3,5.

The Hawaiians like to change paddlers regularly every 15 minutes, the Tahitians at slightly longer intervals. The changes are a thrilling spectacle which take a great deal of training to complete in less than 5 seconds as most are so completed – anything more will prove costly at race end.

Shell have over the years built up a close relationship with Bradley Outriggers, indeed they paddle a Bradley Lightning in the event. It can pay big dividends to an outrigger company to have the winners of the Molokai paddling their canoe & Sony Bradley, head of the family company, is an invaluable member of the Shell team from a tactical point of view. This was particularly helpful this year as Shell are in a phase of rebuilding with a number of younger paddlers entering the team & this year was the first year their ‘sweep’ had made the crossing.

Given the ‘relatively light’ conditions Shell decided to take the direct route to Diamond Head. The other Tahitian crews followed with the exception of Tahaa Nui who headed northwards as did the Hawaiian crew Hui Nalu. A couple of favoured Hawaiian crews including Lanikai & Primo made the decision early that simply following Shell would not lead them to victory & they headed south no doubt hoping to pick up a southerly swell & current once reaching closer to Diamond Head. OPT would stick with Shell as would Hawaii’s Na Koa O Kona, but Air Tahiti Va’a soon headed northwards to join Tahaa Nui in search of victory.

An hour & a half into the race Shell were still paddling at an impressive 80 strokes per minute leading by around 500m from OPT with Na Koa O Kona a further 500m back on equal footing with Air Tahiti Va’a & Tahaa Nui to the north & Lanikai & Primo to the south. Crews would hold their courses & relative positions over the next few hours before reaching the waters protected by Oahu’s headland for the charge to the finish line.

Once into the channel, tactics form an essential part of the race strategy & the right choice inevitably produces the event winner. There are many variables to consider – almost the first half of the race is conducted over waters around 60m in depth but this suddenly drops off to 700m making what locals call ‘the washing machine’. Here paddlers are faced with a myriad of telling conditions – the chop created by the change in water depths, a prevailing wind from the north making wind waves pushing the va’a southwards against an underlying current moving northwards in exactly the opposite direction- the ‘washing machine’. Do you head north in the hope of riding the wind generated swell south to victory or head south believing the underlying current will bring you home first. The crews also need to consider the changes in conditions that will face them on reaching Oahu – a northerly swell with the potential of a favourable water current close to shore as they approach diamond head or the prevailing southerly water current & swell that forms in the waters protected by the island as they head towards Diamond Head.

As the crews started to narrow their paths towards Waikiki – Shell led OPT & Na Koa O Kona. Tahaa Nui was moving southwards to join them whilst Air Tahiti Va’a who had held their northerly trajectory were now heading southwards at good speed.

Shell had continued to increase their lead throughout the course & hammered home for a comfortable win. It was a powerful & totally dominant performance.

A great shot from Nick K of Shell Va’a nearing the finish:

shell-victory-molokai

As usual Tahiti Mana headed by well-known Tahitian Manarii Gauthier were there to welcome them as tradition dictates with the sounding of the pu & the playing of toeres:

Air Tahiti Va’a had closed quickly on OPT & their race neck & neck for 2nd place will go down in history as the very essence of what this sport is all about! What a finish as Air Tahiti Va’a clawed their way past OPT in a gutsy performance before OPT headed left to catch a magnificent wave on turning into Waikiki Beach & surfed to within inches of regaining second place. A couple more shots from our photographer on the water Nick K taken moments before the finish after just on 5 hours of gutsy effort showing the thrill & excitement of the great battle between Air Tahiti Va’a & Team OPT for second place:

air-tahiti-opt-molokai

opt-air-tahiti-hoe

Na Koa O Kona was 4th with Primo 5th & Australians Mooloolabah 6th in a great performance. Tahaa Nui finished 9th, a top performance at this level for a team a man short. The performance of the Brazilian team Samu Tam Brazil in finishing 10th was exceptional.

Here’s Hiromana Flores a ‘top 15 in the world’ ranked kayaker & one of the powerhouses of Shell Va’a being interviewed for the world’s press immediately after finishing the grelling course:

hiromana-flores

Ocean Paddler TV did a great job streaming the event this year so herewith their photo of the winning team:

shell-molokai-2015

For the Tahitians victory was sweet. For the Hawaiians it was to some extent summed up by the spokesman for Na Koa O Kona who dryly said: “Well at least we could see the Tahitians this time!”

Many continue to ask why the Tahitians are so dominant (not only in the Molokai Hoe but at every level giving they won almost ¾ of the events at the World Championships in Rio). Some advance that culturally Hawaiians see paddling as a leisure sport whereas in Tahiti there is a real envy to paddle given Tahiti’s dominant position in outrigger racing. I remain of the belief that it is in the paddling technique – the Tahitian’s shallow scoop versus the Hawaiian’s deep pull. The leading Hawaiian crew, No Koa O Kona (mostly former Mellow Johnny paddlers) would tend to confirm this as they are trained technically by Tahitians & their sweep is a Tahitian – of all the Hawaiian crews they paddle closest to the Tahitian style.

That said there was a period of some 20 years when Tahiti could not break through to win. The Tahitians used that time to train their youth & to work on their paddling technique. The Tahitians are now reaping the benefits of that effort……………. & enjoying it!

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