You can be forgiven for not having heard of The Molokai Challenge, despite the event being steeped in historical surf culture.  Its small field of competitors and unique difficulty have resulted in it only gaining the attention of the most hardcore watermen and women ocean culture aficionados.

The event has unsurprisingly caught the attention of a group of Cornish surfers, including one of our team here at C-Skins HQ, looking for relief from summer flat spells.  Although crossing the Molokai Channel may still be out of reach for the time being, the newly minted virtual Molokai competition is allowing paddlers from all over the world to prepare their own paddle races, replicating the classic event on home turf.

The Molokai Challenge itself is steeped in history, the first official event taking place back in 1978 in a time where surf culture looked very different, however the competition has stood the test of time and made its way firmly into waterman folklore.

Starting on Molokai, an island in the Hawaiian chain sitting between Honolulu and Maui, the race is an all-out sprint across the 32-mile span of the Kawai channel.  It’s an open-ocean crossing that had a fearsome reputation even before this gruelling race was established.

Image Credit: Dana Edmunds

The race is an extreme endurance paddling event open to prone paddlers, stand-up paddlers, surf skis and OC1 one-man outrigger canoes. Due to the remoteness of Molokai and the limited ability to service the event with support boats and accommodation has for the last several years remained invitation only. In its 44-year history the competition has developed a reputation amongst extreme endurance athletes with a particular taste for the ocean. The Molokai challenge as it stands today is seen as a true test of even the most hardened of watermen.

Where the Molokai challenge differs from other extreme endurance events, and any ocean user worth his salt will understand this, is the extreme unpredictability of open ocean. The Molokai runs in the summer months, providing a useful physical outlet when the ocean is calmer and the more restless of surfers are looking for an alternative challenge. It is difficult to argue that flatter conditions make for a more appetising challenge, however; a 32 mile paddle with ocean swell to ride can provide more than just an added push, but also an opportunity to shake off the strain of repeated paddling. On occasion the race has had long sections of calm water, where the endurance required to paddle with no help from the ocean increases the physical challenge.

The reality of the Molokai challenge is seven hours out on the open ocean, and repetitive movements in salt water drenched equipment. There is no opportunity for shelter and the ability to refuel is limited. Not only is this incredibly gruelling to undergo, but it is incredibly difficult to train and prepare for. The central channel can hold currents and swells that have challenged mariners for generations, and the inability to predict how the strong ocean conditions will affect the journey makes intense training, blind stamina and a certain degree of fool-hardiness arguably the only strategy of approach.

Another indication as to the physical limit that the Molokai challenge can stretch participants to was evidenced in 2007 when the race distance was extended by 8 km to finish in Waikiki on Oahu Island. 44 of the 136 invited competitors pulled out. It is worth noting that individuals do not undertake this challenge lightly and 44 of some of the top ocean endurance athletes on the planet ending with DNF should evidence that this is a challenge that pushes athletes to their limit.

A quick google search of the Molokai Ocean Challenge will show evidence of it being a significant and respected event, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Endurance events have become more popular in the last couple of decades and to the uninitiated, the extent to which Kawai channel poses an unmatched challenge is not obvious. Look a little further however, and the stories begin to emerge of an event that tortures its participants for fun and has led it to becoming a test for serious watermen and women the world over.

Kai Lenny, the most high-profile waterman in the world right now talks about competing in the Molokai in the same terms as he does surfing Jaws.

“In the winter, the most daunting thing I do is surf Jaws,” Lenny says. “In the summer, the scariest thing I do is the channel. I know I’m going to push myself to my physical limit, the highest level that I can ever do.”

Stepping back from the sheer extremity of the event, competitors speak about the race as deeply entrenched in Hawaii’s ocean legacy. The Ka’iwi channel (also now known as the Molokai channel) is where Eddie Aikau, iconic Hawaiian surfer, lifeguard, and waterman disappeared following his attempt to paddle for help from the foundering traditional ocean-going Polynesian voyaging canoe that he was crewing in 1978.

Many, of the competitors reference this connection to Hawaiian ocean culture. Sonni Hönscheid, the then SUP champion stated in 2016:

“Paddling has been a part of Hawaiian heritage since the Polynesians navigated through the open ocean, guided by the stars, currents and wind, I feel very honoured … to experience a little part of that history, navigating using the wind, waves and current to make it to Oahu.”

All this history, culture and physical determination combine to make a truly unique event, and for the first time this year it’s being opened to a new field of international competitors. The virtual Molokai challenge has opened the race up to broader audience, empowering competitors to undertake their own 16-mile race on their own coastline.  

As plans for a Cornish crew to compete in the challenge develop, we plan to keep you up to date with their training and progress.

Image Credit: Dana Edmunds