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Climate Change Is Sabotaging the World’s Most Dangerous Canoe Race
Hurricanes, erosion, and hot, windless doldrums threaten to upend one of Hawaii’s most revered athletic events
Only three canoes dared to put in for the first Molokaʻi Hoe in 1952. The race was not yet the spectacle it would become more than 50 years later. It’s the Super Bowl of canoe paddling and a staple of the Hawaiian sports scene in which over 1,000 participants from across the planet compete in the more than 40-mile race from Molokai to Oahu. But the Molokaʻi Hoe — pronounced ho-eh, so that it almost rhymes with “boy” — has always been extremely dangerous. The treacherous Kaʻiwi Channel has been locally infamous for a lot longer than the Hoe has been internationally famous. Kaʻiwi translates to “the bone,” a reference to the collection of human remains strewn across its depths. Just a few miles down the coast from the Molokaʻi Hoe’s finish line, corpses of fishermen and sailors regularly washed ashore from Kaʻiwi’s torrents.
The channel’s most well-known casualty was big wave surf pioneer Eddie Aikau, who in 1978 disappeared there when his double-hulled canoe capsized. But Hawaiians have always been well aware of Kaʻiwi’s dangers. A traditional legend, translated in 1902 as “The Wind Gourd of Laʻamaomao,” described the channel like this:
The winds will turn before you and find you.
You’ll be overwhelmed.
The winds will gather.
The leaves will bend.
You’ll be swept ashore,
caught in a fishing net.
Your thigh bone and upper-arm bone
will be made into fishhooks.
Your flesh will be without bones.
The black crab and the shearwater will eat your remains.
The life from your parents will be broken off.
Listen to my life-giving words:
A storm is coming.
When you sailed yesterday, it was calm.
The legend speaks to the unpredictable and wildly variable conditions in the channel, where violent wind and rain can materialize in minutes. Completing the Molokaʻi Hoe is a man-versus-nature feat that has inspired risk-taking athletes for centuries; it also imbues the race with special local heroism, the bravery that inspired ancient Polynesians to explore their vast oceanic horizons thousands of years ago. The Hoe is no less daunting in 2019, but it has also become something else in recent seasons — a crucial example of how climate change is affecting our world.
Pat Dolan is a soft-spoken titan in the world of canoe paddling. He currently holds the world record for the Molokaʻi OC-1 race, a slightly shorter version of the Molokaʻi Hoe in which paddlers compete individually; the full race is performed in six-person canoes with three additional substitutes on escort boats. Dolan first paddled through the channel when he was 15 and was given an age exemption to compete in the Molokaʻi Hoe two years later; you had to be 18 to participate at the time. “Climate change is definitely something in our heads as paddlers,” Dolan told me recently. “I fear the sport I love could be changed, and not for the best.”
One of the most obvious examples of how climate change is ruining the Molokaʻi Hoe is also the easiest to overlook: the shoreline.
“Lanikai during the 1950s was so big there was an ironwood forest and beach volleyball courts before you got to the water,” said David Daniels, who has paddled in the Molokaʻi Hoe 12 times and won it twice, in 2004 and 2005 with the powerhouse Lanikai Canoe Club. These were the last all-Hawaii teams to win the race before Tahitians started their current reign of dominance; only three teams have won since then, two of which consisted entirely of paddlers from Tahiti, the other a half-Tahiti, half-Hawaii team.
Daniels has watched his club’s beach erode dramatically over the years. “Now, the wa’a [canoes] have to be pushed up nearly into the yards of the homes that line the beach,” he said. “[This creates] hostility between homeowners and the canoe club. Soon, the canoe club may have to move to a new location outside of Lanikai.”
This possibility isn’t a minor inconvenience for a canoe club, especially on an island with increasingly limited coastal space. It’s one thing for an NBA team to move cities because some rich asshole can make a few more millions through gigging the tax code, but it’s something entirely different for a team to relocate because nature itself is devouring its athletic infrastructure.
Completing the Molokaʻi Hoe is a man-versus-nature feat that has inspired risk-taking athletes for centuries.
But the race’s real ruination is most drastic on the water. The Molokaʻi Hoe takes place during early- to mid-October, near the end of Hawaii’s hurricane season when storms are most likely to come within striking distance of the islands. In recent years, climate change has not only amplified the intensity of hurricanes but also put Hawaii more squarely in the crosshairs of these increasingly powerful storms.
“Around the world, the zone of tropical cyclones is expanding,” said Chip Fletcher, PhD, an associate dean at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology. “Whereas tropical cyclones used to largely pass south of Hawaii, we’re seeing more of them now along the same latitude as Hawaii. That means more tropical cyclone storms in Hawaii because they’re shifting their pathways.”
To be clear, it is extremely unlikely that a severe hurricane will form in the middle of a race and put paddlers in danger. Race organizers keep tabs on the weather with satellite monitoring and are mindful not to put paddlers into any more danger than is baked into the course itself. What this does mean, however, is that cancellations and delays could become much more common. It took 28 years for the first cancellation to occur; the women’s race was called off in 1980 due to 30-foot waves in the channel, but the last decade has seen a spike in last-minute schedule changes.
In 2012, the women’s race was delayed and nearly canceled due to 12-foot waves at the starting line that injured competitors and destroyed a canoe. In 2015, the women’s race was canceled for the first time in 35 years due to 20-foot swells and 35 mph winds. This year’s men’s solo race in May was canceled for the first time when, during the week of the race, winds whipped up to 30 mph with heavy rain and lightning.
“The Coast Guard said, ‘if you guys get in trouble, we aren’t coming to save you,’” Dolan recalled. “Never happened before. If people did that race, they wouldn’t have been able to finish.”
For an event like this, cancellations can be devastating. Canoe paddling is not a lucrative sport, and the closest its athletes come to making money from it is to work for a company that compensates the team. This is the structure of Tahiti’s Shell Vaʻa, winners of 12 of the last 14 Molokaʻi Hoe. Since 1996, Shell Oil Company has sponsored the paddling team, granting them time off to compete and also paying them their normal wages for hours spent training. The athletes have to hold down day jobs with the company, and for almost everyone else in the sport, paddling has to work around their work schedules.
Last-minute schedule changes could force some of the world’s best paddlers to sit out the Molokaʻi Hoe. In any other sport, this would be scandalous. Imagine if the Patriots had to forfeit the Super Bowl because the date was only tentatively set, and Tom Brady couldn’t get anyone to cover his shift at the docks.
The race is also imbued with special local heroism, the bravery that inspired ancient Polynesians to explore their vast oceanic horizons thousands of years ago.
Most people think of apocalyptic turbulence when they think of climate change, but it also can include swampy doldrums when there should be cool breezes. Hot, windless humidity has become the norm in Hawaii of late — 2019 has already seen over 113 new record high temperatures in the islands. “We don’t have trade winds as often,” Fletcher said. “Their occurrence is less, their direction is different, and their speed is slower. The average speed has declined roughly 5 mph which may not sound significant, but the difference between 10 mph and 5 mph when you’re paddling is a big deal. They make significantly different seas.”
Climate change has also increased the frequency and duration of El Niño seasons—when warm water surges around the Pacific. This causes trade winds to die and evaporation to increase, which leads to intense rainfall. Those muggy, wet, low-wind conditions make an already difficult race more physically strenuous and exhausting; weathering the Kaʻiwi Channel is difficult enough if you don’t feel like you’re paddling through a warm bowl of oatmeal.
“The number of days with heavy trade winds producing strong seas where there’s a lot of surfing involved in the race is going to decline,” Fletcher said. “The race will start to take on a completely different characteristic.” Pat Dolan can attest to this. “Now you always hope for the trade winds, but people are preparing more for a flatter paddle,” he said.
This shift in conditions also partly explains the recent dominance of Tahitian paddlers. “In Hawaii, we train in rough water conditions with winds normally in the 15 to 20 mph range,” Daniels said. “Paddlers from Tahiti train in hot, flat oceans due to their proximity to the equator. The races they historically have won have been in those types of conditions. Whether it’s from climate change or bad luck, many of the Molokaʻi Hoe have not been as rough as they have been in the past, almost mimicking the types of conditions you see in Tahiti.”
“It will be interesting to see,” Fletcher added, “whether any more record times are set. If the number of days where the race is dominated by heavy trade winds is declining, have we now passed the era of record-setting times?”
The standing record was set in 2011 when Shell Vaʻa finished the race in 4 hours, 30 minutes and 54 seconds. This current eight-year dry spell is the second longest without a new record; the longest was 10 years, from 1996 to 2006. But climate change is most evident from a macro perspective. From 1952 to 1995, the race never went more than four years without a new record. But the era from 1995 to present, as the race has seen better athletes with better equipment and better training start to compete, has seen the two longest stretches without a record; new records have been set only four times. And in a sport like canoe paddling, the record books are the competition, much more so than the other teams.
It’s a cruel contradiction that the smallest places in the world bear the largest brunt of climate change, but Hawaii’s smallness also allows the creeping effects of climate change to be more readily evident. The Molokaʻi Hoe is a brightly plumed canary in this particular planetary coal mine — an appropriate metaphor for the long battle ahead. In the race as everywhere else, conditions change from violently adverse to inspirationally favorable from one moment to the next. The challenge is to be ready for what’s coming.
“It’s about understanding the ocean and using it to your advantage instead of having to fight against it,” said Dolan about what it takes to complete the Hoe. “And when you hit resistance, you have to be able to use your energy that’s there to get through it.”
The spirit that drove the original paddlers into one of the most treacherous channels in the world is not extinguished; it’s what sends otherwise reasonable people out in this unreasonable pursuit to this day. It’s the same reason that thousands of young people have become climate activists, whether despite or because of the scientific community’s dire projections about the climate’s future if things do not change dramatically. In both cases, the course ahead is dangerous and may well end in disaster. That is why it’s absolutely necessary to paddle out anyway.