By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph courtesy of
It’s 32 miles from the Hawaiian island of Molokai to its northwestern neighbor, Oahu. In order to get there, you have to cross the Molokai Channel, whose Polynesian name, Ka’iwi, means “the channel of bones.” Widely considered one of the roughest ocean channels in the world, the Molokai is rife with changing currents, tidal effects, strong winds, and open ocean swells that can reach up to 30 feet. It has claimed the lives of watermen and fishermen for centuries, including that of the legendary Hawaiian big wave surfer and waterman, Eddie Aikau, who tried to paddle across the channel, on a rescue paddleboard, in a storm to get help for a capsized boat.
Paddleboarding, (not to be confused with its more popular cousin, stand up paddling –SUP) is a Hawaiian tradition that developed along with surfing but didn’t become a competitive event until the early twentieth century surf ambassador, Tom Blake, helped to re-popularize it, both in Hawai’i and in the Mainland. It involves lying or kneeling on what looks like a very long surfboard, and paddling what are often long stretches of open ocean. Although it fell out of popularity in the 70’s and 80’s it is currently seeing a resurgence.
The Molokai to Oahu Race, generally considered the world championships of the sport, has been held annually since 1996. Since 2002, one man has unquestionably dominated the event, Australian big-wave surfer and waterman Jamie Mitchell. After winning the race on Sunday, he upped his number of consecutive wins to nine, an accomplishment that may even eclipse the speed record he set in 2007 of 4 hours, 48 minutes, 23 seconds. When he isn’t out-paddling the competition, Mitchell is is being nominated for Billabong XXL big wave riding awards, stand-up paddle surfing 25-foot waves, or riding large Hawaiian swells in a four man surfing canoe. Adventure got Mitchell on the phone after his win on Sunday to talk training, tactics, and the worst part about paddling 32 miles.
How did you start competing in the Molokai to Oahu?
I’ve always been an ocean guy who loves to challenge himself, so when I heard about this race is seemed like a good challenge and a cool thing to try. The Molokai Channel in particular is one of the most challenging stretches of water to paddle so when you cross it on just a board it feels like a real accomplishment.
What makes it so challenging?
It’s the unpredictability of it. There all these different currents, wind chop, the sun is really hot, and as you get closer to Molokai the waves hitting start bouncing off the cliffs and you get a bad backwash that pushes you around.
Through all of this, you have to more or less maintain your line, which we do with GPSs on our boards, and also, occasionally, help from our escort boats. It’s a real challenge to navigate through all of the things I just mentioned without getting sucked off course by winds and currents. Of course, Oahu is pretty hard to miss, but we have to finish in Muanalua Bay (South shore) so getting sucked a few miles of course can really ruin your day.
Is there any strategy or technique to it?
Technique is everything. Paddling the Molokai, for instance, is a lot different than just taking a board and paddling out at your local beach. You are catching swells, try to milk them as long as you can, dropping into bumps, getting pushed side to side…luckily the swells in the channel are predominantly heading with you. Yesterday, there were periods where I caught a couple quick successions of swells and went, maybe 150 yards with just five or ten strokes.
What’s the worst part of the race?
The worst part is the last mile. When you are paddling into Muanalua Bay, there is usually about a twenty knot headwind that you have to fight against, after you have been out paddling for about five hours.
You also have to deal with sunburn, and all types of rashes and abrasions (from wet skin being in contact with the board). I probably spent seventy percent of the race paddling on my knees, in order to get more leverage and strong strokes. I’m looking at my toes right now and they are pretty torn up.
How do you deal with five hours of that kind of discomfort?
Sometimes you don’t really feel it until you finish. But if it starts to bother me, I just tell myself that everyone is in hat position, and I need to man-up and finish the race so that I don’t have to feel it any more.
What is your training regimen like for this event?
I start following a serious training regimen in April that includes lap swimming three to four miles three times a week, paddling about the same distance three times a week, stand up paddling, and strength training sessions.
I also eat a standard, healthy diet and avoid any type of processed foods. I don’t have a strict regimen or a dietitian or anything like that. But I will drink protein shakes and carbo load in the days leading up to the race. I just think of my body like a car, If I put sh*tty stuff into it, it won’t run very well.
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To someone who has never done it, paddleboard surfing sounds a bit arduous. How do you stay motivated?
I just love paddling and the challenge of going across the channel. It’s not about winning. It’s about coming to Hawai’i and spending time with my good friends in a place that I love. It’s a cool holiday.
For me, paddling is just about being out in the ocean, in the fresh, clean water surrounded by wildlife, and enjoying that feeling of being away from from everything and having no one else around. I love catching open ocean swells and gliding across the ocean and being able to paddle from one island to another. Its the whole the whole package: good workout, fun, fresh, clean, healthy.
You are also well-known for your big wave surfing, stand up paddling and ocean canoeing. Can you talk about your diverse approach to enjoying the ocean?
I try to learn from from the old school watermen who didn’t just surf one type of board, or do one type of thing. These days, it seems like its all about glory and money, but the older guys took a much more mellow, relaxed approach. For them, it was all about having fun and respecting each other.
Plus, I get bored easily. I could never just ride one type of watercraft. If it’s windy I go paddling, if it’s small, I ride a long board, if the waves are goo, I’ll ride a short board. Why limit yourself?