The Unpredictable Kaiwi Channel

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - May 12, 2010
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Manny Kulukulualani heading toward Oahu

The stretch of ocean that separates Molokai and Oahu is only 27 miles long, but on some days it can seem like eternity.

Kaiwi Channel (aka Molokai Channel) is one of the most feared and respected bodies of water on this planet. Strong winds mixed with ocean currents and large swells generated by winter and summer storms often produce punishing conditions. But, in a matter of hours, Mother Nature can turn off the big fan and turn the raging channel into a lake.

The Kaiwi has been called many things over the years: treacherous, grueling, challenging and unforgiving. The late Rell Sunn may have described it best when she said, “It is simply unpredictable.” Who can forget 1980, when the Na Wahine O Ke Kai was canceled because of strong winds and 30-foot surf?

It is because of this unpredictable reputation that canoe paddlers from all across the globe come to Hawaii to take part in “world championship” events. To compete here means you’re facing the world’s finest. To win here means you are the world’s best.

The “best” recently competed in the Kaiwi Channel Relay, a 41-mile race from Kaluakoi, Molokai, to Magic Island on Oahu. And the Kaiwi did not disappoint. Competitors were unkindly greeted by light southeasterly winds and an unfavorable tide. The wicked combination created one of the toughest crossings in recent memory.

“It started off great, then the current switched and the swells showed up from all directions,” describes competitor Wendell Balai. “The ocean was sloppy!”

Jimmy Austin battles the channel

Race officials actually saw some of this coming, alerting supporters and the media that the first finishers would take about an hour longer than usual. The Kaiwi made sure of it.

The team of Manny Kulukulualani and Jimmy Austin finished in five hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds, nearly an hour off the record.

“There weren’t much bumps out there, and whatever there was, wasn’t giving us any free rides,” says Kulukulualani, who also serves as the race director. “You end up questioning yourself, why are you putting yourself though hours of physical and mental torture.”

Lauren Bartlett and Andrea Moller of Maui won the women’s division with a time of 6:25:49, while the team of Raven Aipa, Carlton Helm, Bill Pratt and Evan Rhodes won the OC-2 division with a time of 5:32:30.

During the crossing, several rain squalls formed out of nowhere, blurring the vision of many paddlers. And if that wasn’t enough, a heavy dose of vog clogged expanding lungs and interrupted breathing patterns. The volcanic ash from Halema’uma’u Crater also contributed to visibility issues.

“There were times we couldn’t even see Oahu,” chuckles Balai. “It was challenging but so much fun.”

Chances are a majority of the 99 teams that completed the race would agree, despite the conditions, the race was fun. It’s always fun. The Kaiwi has a way of bringing out the best even when conditions aren’t the best.

“I’m aware of how fortunate we are to be involved in a sport where Kaiwi is literally in our backyard, when people from around the world travel all this way to experience it,” reflects Kulukulalani. “It is never the same twice and that is a big part of what makes me so curious about it every time I cross.

“For me, my mind always wonders in the channel, it is a good reality check. My crossings make me step back from everything that’s going on in my life and remind me of what matters. Maybe the more times I cross the better I can live my life!”

It’s strange how 27 miles of ocean can have such an affect on people. It’s a shame only a few have experienced it. We should all be so lucky.

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