The Annual Pailolo Challenge-Canoe Race from Maui to Molokai

September 19, 2011 · Print This Article

Early Saturday morning marked the annual Pailolo Challenge Canoe Race between Maui and Molokai scheduled for a 9:00am start at D.T. Fleming Beach. I arrived at 730 am, along with 2 greyhound busses of paddlers from the Westin Villas. Hundreds of paddlers fly in from all islands for this event. It is one of the last canoe races of the season that runs from the end of May until the beginning of August. Paddlers train all year for this 26 mile race. Last year approx 100 teams participated in the Challenge.

Driving my little car down toward Fleming beach, there was a light mist in the air - the Hawaiians would call it a blessing, I looked out onto the water, there was a rainbow - I think the blessing is in the rainbow.

As I was setting up my little mat on the hillside to ensure a great view, I began talking story with an older Hawaiian gentleman resting at a picnic table. I asked him if he ever paddled the Pailolo channel - oh sure yea he says, “Back in ‘58 it was just a bunch of us guys getting together, nothing organized like this, just guys having fun. We later formed the Lahaina Canoe club in about 1960.’” Someone asked him if the 1st place team in the Pailolo challenge won any money, he replied, “No, but they give choke prizes, its done for sport and good times.”

There were a few hundred people on the beach and grassy area, team members preparing their canoes, family and friends wishing safe passage and a general excitement in the air. I spotted an old friend of mine that was in the race, he shared that in an effort to prepare for this race, the paddlers have already spent the season racing against the other dozen or so Canoe Clubs around the islands. Also they’ve paddled quite a few practice runs for the 26 mile race by paddling their one-man canoes over to Molokai, then hopping onboard the ferry for the trip back to Maui. The Molokai ferry allows paddlers to carry a one-man canoe onboard, stacked in the back of the ferry.

I’ve also learned, each team consists of 9 - 12 members. Each canoe is assigned an escort boat (most of the escort boats were small commercial fishing boats) that carry the extra paddlers on board as there are only 6 seats on each canoe. It takes an average of 3 hours or more to paddle across the channel. The paddlers change out 1 seat every 10 minutes thereby allowing each paddler to paddle for an hour, then take a break and watch the action from the comfort of the escort boat. He continues on that It’s pretty much a straight shot from D.T.Fleming Beach to Kauanakakai Harbor. Just paddle to the Kamalu Buoy and turn toward Molokai.

Pailolo Channel is one of the windiest channels in the Hawaiian Islands. The tradewinds blowing between Maui and Molokai funnel the waves into perfectly spaced bumps that offer a great ride virtually all the way from Fleming Beach to Kaunakai Pier 26 miles away.

As 9:00am was fast approaching, the canoes were carried down to the shorebreak, everyone sporting their team colors. There were lots of spectators milling about, taking pictures and generally getting in the way. As the paddlers launched their canoes across the waves breaking on the shoreline, the first 6 paddlers climbed aboard their canoe and began paddling out to meet up with their assigned escort boat. The rest of the team members jumped in the water and began swimming out to meet the escort boat as well. The canoes lined up on the horizon, the gun sounded and the race began - 26 miles to Molokai…..

Of course I was still on the beach on Maui but I knew when the race was over and everyone was safely in, all of the teams would be greeted with flower leis, hugs, ono grinds, cold drinks and lots of aloha - next year I’ll need to plan ahead to meet the canoes and share in the good times on Molokai. Ahh life on an island in the middle of the sea….

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