Paddle Part 2
Actually it wasn’t REALLY the end of the season. It was just the end of the SPRINT season. I raced in two long distance races this year. The first was an 8-10 mile from Hanalei to Kalihiwai and back which took us about an hour and a half. We finished 7th out of nine canoes in our division. But that was really just a warm-up for the Na Pali Challenge one week later. Those of you following my paddling career closely will note this is the race I skipped last year so I could go to Summer and Graham’s wedding. (Happy anniversary, guys!) The course runs 32 miles from Hanalei to Kekaha along some of Kauai’s most beautiful coastline. It’s a unique race in that each boat has both a women’s and men’s crew who switch every half an hour, kind of like a relay race.
How do you switch crews in the middle of a race? I was wondering the same thing and we never practiced “water changes” at the canoe club until two days before the race. It turned out not to be as hard as it sounds.
The excitement was building in the days before the race. Paddlers who had raced Na Pali before told us we could expect to be on the water, either in the escort boat or paddling in the canoe for between four and five hours so we should bring food and water. Space would be limited on the boat so the coaches told us to bring water only for ourselves, not whole cases to share. When someone asked how much would be enough for one person, “a gallon,” was the recommendation.
The night before I packed two 12 oz plastic bottles and a camel back with water, two one-quart canteens with “electro mix” and water, a pineapple, a papaya, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a granola bar, some crackers and peanut butter, a bag of trail mix, and some dates. It sounds like a lot but bear in mind that the pineapple was pretty small. I had my long-sleeved club jersey, two pairs of padded paddling shorts (worn concurrently), a hat, my camera in a dry bag, wax for the floor of the canoe and of course my paddle, which I never used. I felt as prepared as I would ever be.
I arrived at the pier where paddlers were loading escort boats at 6:30 the morning of the race. There was a lot of activity in the bay and on the shore. Since each of the 20 canoes racing has its own escort boat, there were twenty small motorboats most of them lashed together in a kind of flotilla. Canoe clubs from all over the island had rented small fishing boats and tour boats for the race. The small pier is normally only used for fishing and as a diving platform and couldn’t accommodate so many boats. So when one boat moored to load supplies, other boats simply moored to it instead of the pier. I had to hop across two other boats to get my belongings and myself onto our escort boat.
The captain of our escort boat was a chubby shirtless man with a kind of sideways Mohawk and blood smeared on his stomach (apparently from a cut on his finger). Since the women’s crew was to start the race, we would start by cheering from the escort boat. We could see all the women paddlers gathered on the beach probably listening to some instructions that we would never hear. They got in their canoes and waited for the start. As the flag came up, over a hundred paddlers sprang into action and sped off like a horde of Amazon Argonauts.
Our escort boat scooted along a short distance away from our canoe and we yelled encouragement to the women. Normally, our coaches assign each paddler a seat in the canoe but in all the excitement we had never gotten our instructions so it was up to us. The strongest paddlers sit in the middle of the canoe, seats 3 and 4. The steersman sits in the back and of the remaining crew, I was selected to sit in front, the seat with the responsibility of setting the pace. I had never sat in seat one during a race before, but I was happy to have the opportunity.
After a half an hour, race officials announced by radio that it was time to change crews. Captain Bloody Stomach piloted his boat ahead of the canoe and we all jumped into the water and lined up. The women steered the canoe toward us so that we passed between the boat and the outrigger. At the last second, they jumped out on the right side and we climbed in on the left side and began to paddle immediately. The idea is to change crews without the boat ever stopping.
After taking a few strokes to bring the boat up to speed, I stopped to zip up the nylon cover which formed a seal around my torso and kept water from splashing into the boat. I quickly got back to paddling and settled into a rhythm. The odd thing about sitting in front is that you can’t see anything that happens in your boat. I could hear my teammates calling out when it was time to switch to paddling on the other side and there was a constant banter of encouraging shouts but the only thing in my field of vision was the bow of the boat and the open ocean beyond. As we paddled over waves sometimes the bow would rise so high that I couldn’t reach the water with my paddle. The next moment it would come down so low that the nose was underwater. That’s why I like sitting in front.
While I couldn’t see what was happening behind me I did feel it when another boat ran into us. There were some shouts but the general idea is to keep paddling no matter what. I figured my teammates would tell me if there was some reason to stop. Hours later they told me that the other boat had flipped after hitting us.
We passed at least three boats and soon our half hour was up. I watched the women jump off the escort boat and line up in the water. As we got closer, I unzipped the cover stowed my paddle and ejected myself into the water. We swam to the escort boat and split a bottle of Gatorade.
And so the hours rolled by. The men’s crew paddled four times and the women’s five. On our second turn the swells were coming in right at our backs and we were able to “surf” as we went. Spinner dolphins leapt into the air with irrational exuberance (is there any other kind of exuberance?). And we were exuberant, too, so much so that on one occasion we jumped into the water and switched with the women too early and were penalized ten minutes.
As the men finished our last turn in the canoe one of the boats behind us caught up. They were right behind us as the women, clearly fatigued and beginning their fifth turn paddling, dragged themselves into their seats. The other team overtook them and the last twenty minutes were heated battle, the canoes within one boat length the entire time. The ladies never regained the lead but I guess it wouldn’t have mattered anyway since ten minutes were tacked onto our time thanks to us guys’ blunder.
I haven’t been able to find any results posted on line and the local newspaper hasn’t gotten around to printing them yet so I don’t know how we did, But let’s just say we weren’t first and we weren’t last. It was a great experience and I don’t really care anyway.