Big, heavy, powerful water.
Standing on the beach, we hear the impact of each wave and feel the reverberation through the sand. Fifteen-foot waves are rolling into the mouth of Hale O Lono Harbor, Moloka‘i.
We are one of 70 teams who have gathered to paddle 45-foot-long outrigger canoes in the Na Wahine O Ke Kai from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu – a relay race with six women in each canoe and an escort boat that carries relief paddlers and coaches.
We’ve been up since 4 a.m. fueling; we’ve checked our hydration and nutrition systems, selected our paddles. We drove the dark, dusty dirt road down to Hale O Lono and got chicken skin seeing the canoes sleeping just before sunrise. We knew something was wrong, even then, as we heard the rumble coming off the water in the dark.
Typical race conditions include lots of downwind surfing – making this the unofficial world championships – but these big waves closing out the harbor mouth are far from typical. When we join hands for the pule, wishing us a safe and swift crossing, the sound of the waves is unrelenting. As 420 anxious paddlers take to the water, it’s clear that the quarter mile to the starting line will be a test of our collective ambition. After months of preparation – years, really – will we even get to the start?
We hold our breath as the first canoes paddle out. One punches through a wave and the last 10 feet of hull is suspended 12 feet above the water, the steerswoman’s paddle just grabbing air. The crews immediately behind deal with the full force of the set: Some canoes swamp, some huli (capsize), one even goes bow over stern, narrowly missing a canoe beside it.
The canoe to our left rubs against our ama (float), squeezing us against the canoe to our right. There are more canoes ahead and behind. We’re trapped. We begin to count after the last wave of the set, and a surge of energy runs through the canoes around us. We hear our steerswoman say, “Go! Go! Go! Go, now!”
We’re exactly where we don’t want to be, but we dig our paddles in, and the canoe surges forward. Two canoes in front veer left; the one on the right drops back. Yes, open water! We finally have space and sprint the quarter mile to beyond the break.
Several canoes are caught by the next set and huli behind us, but the crews right their canoes, bail them dry and try again to get through the surf zone. Eventually all the boats but one make it to the start line.
We line up pointed toward O‘ahu in the far distance. But the energy in the channel is against us: big, sloppy water and lots of crosswind. We survived the launch, but the channel isn’t done with us yet.