Changes Out In The Channel

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - October 19, 2011
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Shell Vaa of Tahiti crosses the finish line in a record time of 4:30:54 for its sixth consecutive Molokai Hoe title. Lono Goo photo, Makai Ocean Lifestyle Magazine

As I settled into my canoe seat at Hale o Lono Harbor on Molokai, my heart began to race in anticipation of the day ahead. I knew we were physically and emotionally prepared for the 41 miles that separated us from the finish line at Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki. But there’s something incredibly intense about the Molokai Hoe that ignites an adrenaline flow like nothing else I’ve experienced in life ... and it feels so good.

This was the culmination of 10 months of training and sacrifice; the day to cash in on our investment. Pain is inevitable when you’re paddling from Molokai to Oahu, but so is the feeling of accomplishment.

Our crew was silent as we paddled out to the starting line that stretched nearly a mile long. As I reached out and planted my canoe blade into the ocean, I looked over the field knowing more than 1,000 men were on the verge of pushing their bodies and minds beyond their comfort zones. I quietly said a prayer for everyone’s safety.

It was at that moment my mind drifted back to the 2010 crossing when the paddling community nearly lost one of its own. The horrific moment happened 30 minutes into the race off Laau Point. Kailua Canoe Club paddler Luke Evslin was accidentally run over by his escort boat after leaping into the ocean to relieve a fatigued teammate. The vessel’s propeller hit him five times, splitting his pelvis, severing a muscle in his right leg while breaking off three spinal processes. In Luke’s words, “The prop was less than an inch from ending my life or paralyzing me on nearly every pass it made through my body. But it didn’t. I can walk, I can paddle and I’m alive.”

His story reminded us how dangerous it is out there and also prompted changes in the channel in 2011. In the months following the near-fatal accident, Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association board members huddled with some of Hawaii’s most experienced boat captains and paddlers to address safety issues, particularly the anxietyfilled first change.

For years, Laau Point was the scene of chaos. Visualize more than 100 motorized escort boats weaving through a maze of fastmoving canoes. Once a crew is spotted, relief paddlers are dropped into the raging ocean to replace tired teammates.

The amazing Tahitian team Shell Vaa. Lono Goo photo, Makai Ocean Lifestyle Magazine

The wake generated by dozens of vessels concentrated in a relatively small area combined with whipping winds, strong currents and open ocean swells create conditions that resemble an enormous washing machine. But instead of clothing being tossed around like rag dolls, it is human beings in the midst of the mess. It had long been a recipe for disaster, and in 2010 the formula was nearly fatal.

In 2011, race officials adopted new rules for the first change. Escort boats were alerted where their canoes were on the course about 20 to 25 minutes into the race. After 30 minutes, boats were allowed to approach their canoes, but changes weren’t allowed for another 15 minutes.

The idea of holding the first change an extra 15 minutes would allow the field to separate even more. It also would give escort boats extra time to find their canoes without weaving and speeding through traffic causing unnecessary turbulence. The changes were implemented in the women’s race and many applauded the results.

Our sprint to Laau was quick. I glanced at my watch as we approached the 30minute mark, knowing the first change was not happening yet. By then our escort boat had found us but stayed off in the distance. Fifteen minutes later, I could hear boats moving in, but there were few obstacles. The chop was mild as I jumped out of the canoe into the ocean and my teammate quickly climbed into my vacated seat. The transition was smooth, and we were off and running, making new memories.

I couldn’t help but think about Luke as we raced across the Kaiwi Channel. His horrific accident led to real changes that made a difference and ultimately may have saved a life. Thankfully, he’s still here to witness it.

Note: All I saw were the Tahitian paddlers’ backs for about 20 seconds and they were gone! They beat us by more than an hour and 17 minutes.

Unbelievable athletes. We (Kailua Masters) finished in 41st place overall in a time of 5:47 just short of our goals of top 35 and 5:30 finish time. We finished sixth in our division (40’s) ....


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