The ocean water is the scariest part, a frigid ink that consumes all light. The sun is penetrating, the salt corrosive, the wind unremitting. All the elements are demoralizing. Nicholas is paddling in a 32-mile race between the two Hawaiian islands of Molokaʻi and Oʻahu. He is in the Ka’iwi Channel, which means “Channel of Bones” and is 2,300 feet deep. Those who love him are thrilled and more than a little apprehensive.
This is Nicholas’ fourth year competing in the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. The previous years were laden with troubles. Three years ago, Nicholas’ escort boat blew an engine on the way to Molokaʻi, and the team stayed up all night attempting to fix it. The results were mixed. The crew still used the double-hull cat, but it was sinking right at the start, and required constant hand-pumping of the bilgewater. Nicholas says “Getting to the starting line is half the race.”
Last year was the worst yet: the ocean was just against everyone, Nicholas included. No wind and swell, a lot of strenuous paddling, a lot of chunder, and a lot of going nowhere. Hours were added to race times, making it a frustrating, hopeless, dark experience for just about everyone involved.
The week before this race, Nicholas’ mother went into surgery for aggressive breast cancer, soon to be followed by vicious chemotherapy. I am afraid to ask him about this, concerned that it will add to the challenges of the race, possibly even be a costly distraction. I am afraid my voice might break. I don’t ask.
The ocean is favorable this year. Nicholas is toward the front of the pack for the whole race, and rounds the China Wall into the final stretch. He really digs in, and passes three other competitors. The entire crew of the chase boat is astounded by his surge of energy after almost six hours of non-stop paddling. Nicholas crosses the finish line and places third in his class. Amazing.
The escort boat captain drops off the team and everyone convenes on the grass. The team is elated. All the preparation and experience really paid off this time. As everyone is recapping the long day, I look down at Nicholas’ paddleboard at our feet and notice something written in pink duct tape: “MAMA.”
I feel fortunate and hug everyone. One deadly race down. One more to go.