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Molokai Hoe island-to-island outrigger canoe race happens Sunday. Watch it live online.

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With the open-ocean portion of the race largely inaccessible to most spectators, Molokai Hoe fans typically gather at Hale o Lono Harbor for the competition’s start and along O‘ahu’s southeast shore to catch its finish. The canoes depart en masse from Molokai at 8 a.m., each with six paddlers completing an intense 20- to 30-minute sprint before switching places with paddlers waiting on an escort boat. The switch, known as an “ocean change,” repeats several times until canoes reach the finish line.

The ocean change is one of the most dangerous parts of the race. Radically shifting ocean swells coupled with the wakes of hundreds of other canoes and escort boats can limit paddlers’ sight lines and make it extremely difficult to complete the switch.


“The first change is absolute chaos,” Dolan says. “Last year, (Kauai native) Luke Evslin got cut up by a motor prop.” The expert paddler had jumped from his escort boat just as a wave hit it, sending the boat over him. The propeller struck his back, deeply severing his skin and nearly killing him. He has since recovered.

As paddlers adjust to the day’s conditions, subsequent change-ups are considerably less chaotic.
Some four hours after start time, the first wave of canoes passes spectators on Oahu as they move past Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head and Waikiki toward the finish line. Crews take anywhere from 4.5 hours to eight hours to complete the race. Last year’s winning team, Shell Va‘a from Tahiti, finished in 4 hours, 38 minutes, 50 seconds.

Competitive crews typically save their biggest adrenaline rush for the finish line. Because the canoes steer varying routes on the Kaiwi Channel, paddlers often see rivals for the first time on the race’s final stretch. That’s when, Dolan says, the “burn” really starts setting in.

“Diamond Head is where a lot of the race begins,” he says. “It’s a grind to the finish for the last few miles. By the end, you’re dying tired.” 

But what an end it is. At the finish line, paddlers are greeted by hula dancers and cheering crowds. “There’s so many people on the beach,” says Peter Caldwell, a multirace finisher and author of the book, Molokai-Oahu: Through the Years, a history of the Molokai Hoe. “We get lei and food. Everybody has stories.” Not to mention, even more respect for the race’s rugged, unpredictable Kaiwi Channel venue, which most paddlers concur no one ever really conquers.

Says Caldwell, “The ocean and channel are way stronger and more powerful than you are. You are at the mercy of the ocean and the conditions each time you’re out there.”

Molokai Hoe
Start: 8 a.m., Oct. 9, Hale o Lono Harbor, Molokai. Finish: Midday, same day, Fort DeRussy Beach, Waikiki, Oahu. Live online streaming of the Molokai Hoe at www.molokaihoe.com

(A version of this feature was originally published in the September/October 2011 issue of HAWAII Magazine.)

To subscribe to HAWAII Magazine, click here.

Photos: pg. 1 (top), pg. 2, David Croxford; pg. 1 (bottom), courtesy Molokai Hoe

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