Longtom’s mid-year wrap: “G-Land back for 2020; rookies and sophomores slaughtered!”

Grajagan's back on the circuit. Best thing since coloured undies or worse than the Enola Gay circling your favourite surf spot?

Ever since I pioneered data driven surf journalism in 2016 after a bass fishing accident with Nate Silver from 538 blog I’ve noticed copy cat journalists coming out of the woodwork to “claim the numbers”.

WSL site itself being the worst offender.

Problem is: when it comes to analysing pro surfing the numbers do lie, or at least they don’t tell the story you think they do. Only one that doesn’t (lie) is the rankings and I think it’s appropriate, at this half way point in the Tour, to run our eye along the ruler and see how the numbers are stacking up.

The back half of the Tour is brutal for anyone on the slide. Judges smell blood and the whole thing plays out like a slow motion execution. Even the great Jeremy Flores who it seems has been in the top ten forever couldn’t make up the ground in the back half of the year after a bad start and had to back himself up on the QS in 2016.

Very badly, as it turns out, for the rookies and sophomores of the Tour, with scant exceptions. Deep on the wrong side of the cut is the worst place to be with Teahupoo dead ahead followed by Surf Ranch, Europe and Pipe. It’s not quite abandon hope all ye who enter here, but it ain’t far off

The back half of the Tour is brutal for anyone on the slide. Judges smell blood and the whole thing plays out like a slow motion execution. Even the great Jeremy Flores who it seems has been in the top ten forever couldn’t make up the ground in the back half of the year after a bad start and had to back himself up on the QS in 2016.

It’s a cruel sport. Maybe the cruelest.

The longer I watch it the more impressed by that inherent cruelty I become. It’s not the cruelty alone but the false positivity that frames it and makes it even starker.

You can see a competitor slowly spinning like Virgina Woolf’s Dying Moth while Rosie and Pottz wax lyrical about how grand life is for them. Only in pro surfing has such elaborate artifice been erected to make losing seem like winning.

My favourite examples have been Ethan Ewing (hopelessly undercooked to surf at CT level), Keanu Asing (truncated skill set- woeful in heavy water and OH point surf), Matt Wilkinson (bad luck, bad judging: a vortex that led to a self-fulfiling prophecy).

Still, it would be disingenuous to suggest or even hope that the bizarre fantasy world the WSL has created and showcased, where losing seems a secret shame that somehow defies even the most basic transparency, would ever change.

Anyone on the wrong side of the cut post J-Bay is doomed, barring a red hot run that not a single surfer in the last five years has managed. Even random good results that might offer hope, like Mike February’s fifth place at Teahupoo last year and Asing’s French victory in 2016,  end up being mirages in the desert.

Anyone on the wrong side of the cut post J-Bay is doomed, barring a red hot run that not a single surfer in the last five years has managed. Even random good results that might offer hope, like Mike February’s fifth place at Teahupoo last year and Asing’s French victory in 2016, end up being mirages in the desert.

The five cruellest events lay ahead.

Nowhere to hide at Teahupoo. Even less so at Kelly’s Tub. It doesn’t make the viewing anymore exciting but the undeniable precision of the cut and the way it ruthlessly dispenses with the backmarkers has to be admired. Europe is luck, even the great Kelly Slater ends up on the wrong side of thirty minutes of close-outs and Pipe is Pipe.

Seth Moniz looks safe, a rookie’s best chance is a strong start at the Gold Coast, traditionally the best chance for a rookie to stampede through. Ryan Callinan’s rejigged campaign looks solid, if unspectacular. He’ll rue letting Medina off the hook at J-Bay but luck went his way in France last year so even-stevens.

The injury wildcard will be the major X in the 2020 equation.

John John Florence is a guarantee, obvs.

Who gets the other one? Mikey Wright? Leonardo Fioravanti? Adriano De Souza? I see three round pegs trying to squeeze into one square hole. A great, if over-used plot-line for adult cinema, a recipe for tragedy in the world of pro surfing.

The TLDR version: no surprises this year. Colapinto stuck in the swamp of the sophomore slump but is on the road to pull himself out via the QS. Everyone else unwilling or unable to learn the lesson from your 2020 Olympic Gold Medallist Kanoa Igarashi: discard the cult of likeability, no matter how pantomime and back your motherfucking ass up on the Q’ey.

Now, G-Land. It’s back on the tour.

Where do you sit?

Best thing since coloured undies or worse than the Enola Gay circling your favourite surf spot?

Me: horrified but excited as hell. I got the 6’6” Desert Storm packed, a half pack of Gudam Gurangs in the carry-on.

I’m going, even if I have to beg Ricardo Christie for his email list so I can personally shakedown his crowdfunders for a gold coin donation to get there.

You’ll chup in cuzzy bro, eh? I mean you Neg.

I hear you like bad girls.

Hot numbers: WSL reveals potential worldwide audience of 410 million!

What happens when advertisers realise the audience actually consists of, say, Russian bots, or a family in the central Mongolian highlands that will never see the ocean in their life?

Did you, like me, drop your monocle in your martini when the WSL casually claimed in its recent IKEA missive that there are 40 million surfers in the world, with another 370 million ‘interested’ in our sport?

It’s a bold call that seems to be as ambitious as it is unsubstantiated. Three hundred and seventy million people interested in surfing across globe?

Where did that number come from?


I love hyperbole as much as the next fake internet persona.

But one only has to turn to the daily papers here in Australia to learn of the dangers inherent in duking the stats.

Cricket (national sport of Oz, England, India, Pakistan; like baseball on heroin) found itself in hot water recently when the governing body, Cricketing Australia, was caught out lying about the sport’s national participation numbers… by a cool couple hundred thousand.

Centrist rag The Sydney Morning Herald revealed CA’s claim that 1.65 million Australians play the sport was a “significant overstatement… (that has) been inflated for several years” and is based on nothing more than a “guessing game” on their behalf.

‘Cricket has already been struggling to maintain sponsorship levels and questions over the claim of “1.65 million Australians” could further diminish Cricket Australia’s credibility.’

In terms of scandals for that particular sport, it’s not quite as salacious as the underarm bowling incident of ‘81 that almost sparked a trans-Tasman war between Australia and New Zealand, or the time Australian Test player David Boon drank 52 beers on a single flight from Sydney to London.

But it does serve as a warning to Santa Monica’s high tower.

What happens when the advertisers realise the audience actually consists of, say, Russian bots, or a family in the central Mongolian highlands that will never see the ocean in their life?

So just how many surfers are there in the world?

The ISA puts the number at 23 million, but as Matt Warshaw has already pointed out, it’s all guesswork at best. Counting leaves in a wind tunnel.

Nick Carroll said in the comments the other day that surfers have always made an art form of scamming money from the corporate world.

Is this the Woz sticking to this time-honoured tradition?

Or do they have a peer-reviewed, scientifically-rigorous data set they just haven’t shared with the rest of us yet?

Over to you, E-Lo.

Sobering: Surf legend floored by massive heart attack!

The creator of modern pro surfing reveals the three steps that saved his life…

A couple of weeks ago, July 13 if you wanna be specific, baseball-bat swinging, send-the-king-of-the-Hui-to-jail hell-raiser Ian “Kanga” Cairns was floored by a heart attack while surfing at Laguna Beach.

Kanga, a man with the physique of a comic-book hero who ruled big waves and who was pivotal in the creation of a world tour, had what’s called in the game, a “widow maker” heart attack, a total blockage of of the left anterior artery, which supplies blood to the heart.

“If we had not done things right in the first half hour, this would be an obituary,” says Kanga, sixty-seven. “It’s very surreal actually, you’re in the emergency room in dire straights, with a foot in the grave and an hour later, you wake up after surgery and feel great. In retrospect, I did have warning signs, I’ve been getting winded walking up hills, which I passed off as getting old. I had some chest pressure similar but milder than the attack, but it quickly passed, I did have an episode walking up the stairs after surfing, where I felt winded and a little dizzy and sat for a while. This last episode should have been a wakeup call that something weird was up, but we’re invincible and we don’t really want to admit to bad health problems.”

Kanga says he did three things that saved his life.

“One, when I felt something wrong in my chest very different to anything ever, I said I need help now. Two, we did not drive, we called the ambulance. They started treatment immediately and called ahead to the hospital who were waiting to immediately admit me, Three, we chose a hospital that was not the closest, but we knew had an excellent stoke/heart department and I was quickly into surgery, getting a stent that opened up the blood flow again.”

Importantly, says Kanga, “Act. Don’t brush it off.”

(Buy Kanga’s 340,000-word, two-volume tell-all memoir, Kanga, here.)

Rejoice: Do you hate pro surfing contests? Pro skating contests are worse!

It's glass half full time!

I just came home from a Street League event in downtown Los Angeles and I truly hope you have no idea what I’m writing about. I can only pray that your eyes have never seen the horrors. Street League is to skateboarders what the World Surf League is to surfboarders except instead of being entertaining and laughable at the same time it is only crushingly boring.

Like the worst three hours anyone could ever spend doing anything.

Now, in the wild, skateboarding (and please forgive me for calling it skateboarding but I am not part of that tribe so prefer awkward language instead pretending I belong) is not only dynamic, not only magnetic, not only compelling but very fun to watch. I take my daughter to the local skate park often and am so happy to do so. Not only because she is kicking around (goofy not mongo) and having fun but because the commitment, action, skill of those around is undeniably attractive.

Skateboarding is fantastic… unless it is at a Street League event then somehow it becomes more tedious than watching water boil.

I don’t know how the creators did it. I don’t know how they took an activity that regularly stops random people on the street, standing, watching some complete unknown try to do… something… over a set of stairs and turned it into the least interesting thing on earth but they did.

Street League may well be the worst live events I’ve ever been to and that includes the Coos County Fair, the Point Break 2 premier and Bob Mould in concert.

I’ve been going to them for a decade now, don’t understand the scoring, don’t understand the format and can’t begin to care because it is honestly, slow, dumb, fake and pointless.

Not funny dumb like ’89 World Champion Martin “Pottz” Potter but really dumb.

Dumb like an Elizabeth Warren stump speech.

You don’t agree?

I dare you to convince me otherwise.

Which makes me think our World Surf League ain’t so bad.

Not only not so bad, when compared to Street League, but positively fantastic.

Is it possible we are sitting on one of the greatest live sporting spectacles on earth?

That Dirk Ziff was right when he called us “a few grumpy locals” who don’t worship at his horsebit loafers for gifting us “The Show?”

That the Olympics really will bring millions and billions of new fans on board?

That professional surfing really will be bigger than the NFL?


French people call orgasm “the Little Death”. Well, in my opinion, getting to the end of the Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race is way too close to the Big Death. Past the finish line you come into a tiny bay, where a very nice man gives you a bottle of water and offers to carry your board up onto the grassy verge. Slumped against a tree and temporarily speechless, I watched people homing on in the finish. Paddlers arrived on Oahu in one of two states: either hyped on adrenalin, or almost unable to walk.

Long read: Nick Carroll on the “crazy fucking ultra-marathon” Molokai-to-Oahu paddle race!

Think you could nail the thirty-two mile paddle without weeping like a baby?

(Editor’s note: Tomorrow morning, the writer Nick Carroll, who just turned sixty years old, will be competing in his seventh and, possibly last, Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championship. In 2001, Nick wrote a long-form story, which was first printed in the Jamie Brisick-edited magazine Big, about his adventures in the race with his little brother Thomas. Almost two decades later, the story still elevates the heart-rate. Think you could nail the thirty-two mile race? Follow Nick and other paddle notables such as Kai Lenny here.)

It was about four hours into the whole crazy fucking ultra-marathon, and Oahu was finally beginning to loom up close enough for us to count the houses lining the cliffs behind Sandy Beach, when I stuck my right arm into a patch of unusually cool water, and immediately knew we were in serious trouble.

“We’re fucked!” I yelled, before a chunk of North Pacific came flying in from the right and slapped me silly for about the 540th time that day.

“What?” screeched Tom from the boat rail.

“We’re” – slap! – “fucked!”

“You’ve got another ten minutes!”

“Yeah! But – “ Slap! Didn’t the fool understand? Seven miles still to slug in before turning the corner for the last sprint to the finish line, and already we’d encountered The Current. The satanic Ka’iwi Channel Current of island legend; the one that sucks along the eastern rim of Oahu and blows north like an express train, dragging anything mad enough to get trapped in it way the fuck up to Kahuku 30 miles away. The Current that’s supposed to be a mile or two wide – but today, of all days, had decided to fatten itself out by a multiple of five. And now, after 25 roaring, burning paddle-miles, we were expected to cross the fucker??

Ahh, what the hell, I thought. Let him find out for himself.

Allow me to explain something. Tom and I had absolutely no reason – on the surface of things – for putting ourselves through this blistering aquatic torture. Weren’t no misplaced nostalgia, that’s for sure. We’re fully fledged hardcore modern waveriders, as likely to own a museum-style collection of 1950s redwood-balsa guns or a set of mint-condition Endless Summer posters as we’d be to deliberately cut off most of our limbs. We’re about as sentimental as a couple of woolly old tiger sharks. Our surfing language is fricken digital, bro.

But in truth, the sheer inanity of modern professional surfing had finally begun to wear on us. Apart from anything else, it seemed now to be almost entirely divorced from the sport’s core philosophy, the thing that’d fired every great surfing achievement of the last 100 years, from Duke Kahanamoku’s resurrection to Mike Stewart’s first big pits at Teahupo’o: the legendary tradition of the all-round Waterman – the surfer who, alone with his board, was at home in any ocean, anywhere. Once upon a time, for instance, the ocean paddleboard race was surfing’s keynote competitive pastime; indeed, for many years prior to the Gidget Decade of the 1960s, a top surfer was in essence a Paddler.

The challenge of paddle racing harked directly to Duke’s Olympic-swimmer background, to the classic Hawaiian inter-island canoeing tradition, and to the burgeoning lifeguard movements in California and Australia, where many surfers of the 1930s and ‘40s found employment for their unique blend of water skills. Paddleboarding drove the great American surfer Tom Blake to re-invent the ancient board design of kings, the olo, during the ‘20s – chambering the board for reduced weight and eventually attaching the first ever surfboard fin. Blake forced other surfers to pay attention to his invention by destroying them horribly in paddle races, setting sprint times that paddlers were still striving to break 30 years later.

In 1953, Blake coached his protege, California’s Tommy Zahn, in a crossing of the Ka’iwi Channel, only the second time it’d been done on a paddleboard in modern history (the first was by Gene “Tarzan” Smith in 1938). Zahn trained for months, paddling up and down Oahu’s east side and finally doing the crossing one late October day with Blake watching from the rail of his escort boat. He made Diamond Head, a nice straight downwind run, in nine hours and twenty minutes; three years later, Zahn’s paddling skills took him to Australia for a lifeguard demonstration associated with the Melbourne 1956 Olympics, where he, Greg Noll and a couple of buddies introduced Australian surfers to balsa-fibreglass boards, laying the foundations for the next 40 years of surfing progress.

By any standards, it was grand, sweep-of-history stuff… High Macho, perhaps, even High Camp when peered at in some lights, but real and raw enough to survive the planet’s weirdest ever century… Yet in the face of this spectacular, Olympian background, pro surfing – especially in the past five years or so – had shrivelled into a near-parody of the Waterman ethic. Far from being the regal call to arms that core surfers have a right to expect from the sport’s supposed Top Gun Academy, it was looking more and more like an obscure, juvenile crapshoot, a college for brilliantly talented rich kids constantly on the lookout for the Soft Option … to the point where many of the pros now insisted on being escorted out the back by jet-ski during major tournaments at places like Bells Beach in Australia, to spare their aching limbs the torment of a 200-yard paddle.

Towed out, for Christ’s sake! Were these the depths to which Hawaii’s Sport of Kings had sunk?

In any case, by the turn of 2001 Tom and I were restless fuckers, ready for some sort of new adventure to mark the century’s change, and the Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race – 32 straight-line miles of the world’s most chaotic water – seemed to offer a chance at that … and a chance to pay some overdue respect to an era and a group of surfers worthy of the name. Partly it was the appeal of the complete unknown: was it even possible for a couple of witless surfers to paddle that far, that fast? Partly it was also pure ignorance of the torture involved in that vast grinding journey across the Ka’iwi Channel.

Of course, perhaps it was also a sign that three decades of saltwater had won out over our braincells, and that we’d finally lost the freakin’ plot.

If you’re a surfer, you go to Hawaii in winter. But Hawaii in the summer is a different place. The light is brighter and a little harsher. Driving across the fields above the North Shore, your view down to the ocean is unobscured by the big green sugarcane crops, because in July the cane is dead. Withered and dry, it lies half-flat in golden yellow rows, the tradewind pinning it to the red earth. The water is clearer than the air, and sailboats anchor smugly in Waimea Bay, secure in the knowledge that no sensational bomber of a north-west swell is going to arrive overnight and blast ‘em into atomic particles.

The Carroll brothers awoke blinking in the unaccustomed glare, surrounded by piles of giant slaughtered ants.

We’d flown in from the depths of a Sydney winter to a Honolulu midnight, and by 2 a.m. were rummaging around the back of our friend Hornbaker’s North Shore hideout. “Just break in,” Horny had assured us. “I’ll be there in a day or so … I’m warning you, I don’t know what it’ll be like – I haven’t been in there for three years.” The house was in fact full of ants – big, amiable Hawaiian sugar ants half the size of your thumb. The ants seemed a little stunned that human beings even existed, much less came crashing into their private universe and trying to lie down on the beds. They weren’t stunned for long.

Like some stupid insects were gonna be able to resist trained athletes.

Oh, yeah! We trained! In fact, we started serious training for the race sometime in early April, with a bunch of paddle-swim sprint sets around a buoy anchored off our home beach, Newport, on Sydney’s northside. Sure enough, out came all the vicious sibling rivalry that’d typified our dealings ever since little Tommy had stolen my tricycle off the back deck of the family home at the age of three.

At first I gave Tom such a severe thrashing around the buoy he was convinced I’d been taking Nandrolone or EPO. “You’re on the gear, aren’t you?” he’d snap accusingly. “Look at you! It’s not natural!”

“Nonsense,” I mocked. “You’ve never been able to swim. Remember at the swim school? You’d just flail like a lunatic and sink to the bottom. Want me to go easy on you? I can, you know, if you want.”

The buoy’s name was Kylie, or at least that’s what was painted on its outer rim. After a while, Kylie became known as “that bitch”, or just “bitch”. Pre-training conversations might start with something like: “Three sets of the bitch?” or “Let’s do the bitch.” After about a month of the bitch, Tom was beginning to pick up the pace. He almost beat me in one swim leg.

Of course, he was wearing flippers at the time.

After a couple of months we canned Kylie and started some longer paddles, cruising up or down the coast with the prevailing winds for six or eight or ten miles at a time – an hour or more of intense, tail-chasing effort, in and out of rips, the backwash off headlands bouncing us around like a couple of little boats in a storm. This gave us our first taste of “running”, the use of wind-waves to glide at speeds beyond those achieved by mere paddling, and it freaked us out. You could surf doing this! Maybe, thanks to all those years of wave-riding closer to the beach, we had some sort of hidden advantage … but would it be enough?

This did not at any time confuse us as to our status in the paddleboarding community. Put simply, we were (and still are) complete Paddle Kooks. The art of paddleboarding survives in unique fashion within the surfing world’s oldest and most respected homelands: In Australia as an offshoot of the surf lifesaving clubs’ Iron Man competition circuit; in California as a cultish remnant of the great Santa Monica lifeguard scene, supported by the annual Catalina paddle race, the oldest continuous such race in the world. In Hawaii, it’s a natural extension of the world’s ultimate hardcore surf culture, a culture afficted by a perverse coastal torment – for six months of the year it’s smashed with the planet’s best and most challenging surf, and for the other six months it’s flat. F-L-A-T.

Like Dave Dailey, Dave Kalama’s tall, mellow racing partner, told us: “We paddle all the time, all summer long. Hell, man, what else is there to do?”

The top paddlers have been working on technique and equipment and psyche for years, sometimes generations. Aaron Napoleon, Hawaii’s big hope for the race, grew up in a great Waterperson family; his dad Nappy was a top paddler in Tommy Zahn’s day, and mum Alona was a great outrigger paddle racer. Sleek as a greyhound, Napoleon had some lethal backup in Dennis Pang, the renowned North Shore big wave rider and surfboard shaper. Dennis had prepared the most gorgeous looking craft for Aaron’s shot at the title, a hollow superlight 18-footer. We surprised him one afternoon while he was tuning the rudder mechanism – a rotating skeg, controlled by the paddler’s feet from the deck using a short fibreglass stick.

“You gotta get it just right,” he muttered, tightening the controls with aircraft-engineer precision.

“Are you guys ready for this?” Dennis asked Tom. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” was the little bloke’s brave response.

Dennis fixed us with the steely look of a man who’ll turn and paddle for closeout set waves at Waimea. “Paddle racing’s all about technique, man. Get the technique right and you can beat anybody. I’m an OK paddler, but Aaron will get me every time these days because he has the technique down.”

Technique?? What the hell was that?

The afternoon following the Great Sugar Ant Massacre, we went for a test paddle down the North Shore with some of the gnarly Aussie paddlers. Mick Dibetta, chief lifeguard at Burleigh Heads in Queensland, holds the race record, a phenomenal five hours 22 minutes 38 seconds, which he set in 1997. That record drags him back to Molokai each year. “I dunno if I’ll be the one to break it,” he said at the race press conference, “but I do wanna be there when it gets broken.” At 5 p.m. we met Mick and two other Aussies – tall rangy Jackson English from Avoca Beach, and Aaron Bitmead, a large quiet solid character who lifeguards with Dibetta – down at Sunset Point, paddled a half-mile or so out to the tradewind line, and ran down the four or five miles to Three Tables near Waimea Bay. The three of ‘em had big 17-foot concave bottom boards designed by the legendary Australian shaper Dick Van Straalen, and they kicked our arses with such ludicrous ease I wondered if we should perhaps just get back on the plane and fuck off home to Newport Beach and forget we’d ever heard of the Silver Edition Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race. We weren’t even remotely in the same league as these big strong bastards.

But then I recalled that being Stock Team paddlers, we weren’t really in the same race. There are numerous divisions in the Molokai to Oahu, mostly based on age, but the most significant difference between racers is their choice of craft. Stock is anything up to 12 feet; Unlimited is anything bigger, usually something in the 16 to 18 foot range, which provides a hell of a lot more leverage against most kinds of water. In paddling, as in some other areas of life, length is an advantage.
And after all, despite our Complete Kook status, everyone was willing to help us out. This is one of the coolest things about the race – the sheer camaraderie among all involved. Race organizer Mike Takahashi spent patient hours outlining the race track and possible tactics we might use. Oahu’s Greg “Mighty” Quinn, a stock solo entrant, offered to take us for a run around Koko Head, where racers theoretically first encounter land in the race’s dying stages. We met the Mighty Quinn at the actual finish line, loaded our boards onto his car and roared off around to Sandy Beach on the other side of Oahu’s eastern peninsula. “It’s kinda choppy,” warned Greg, and by God it was … but it also bore a strong resemblance to Sydney’s windy reverberating coastline. Bring it on! I thought as we bounced around Koko Head on the wind-waves, buffeted by the trades. This was the kind of shit we understood.

Another of the coolest things about the race is that it’s a don’t-look-back kind of deal: you go to Molokai with nothing you can’t stick on an escort boat, and paddle off the island without leaving a trace except maybe your footprints in the sand.
This naturally requires some planning, and the way in which it occurs is classically Hawaiian – you put your faith in friends, cross your fingers, and trust it’ll all work out somehow. Jeff Johnson, the great North Shore veteran waterman, had promised us he’d hook up a good escort. He put us in touch with the escort fleet boss, LJ Benson, who in turn connected us with boat owner/driver Wendell Suto. LJ told us we should send our racing board – a slick 12-foot pintail made by California paddleboard designer Craig Lockwood – over on a special boat he’d organized, equipped with cushioned racks to withstand the bouncy crossing. “Just drop it off at Ricky’s place,” he said, giving us an address in Honolulu.

Despite all the tourist gloss along the Waikiki fringe, Honolulu is really a working port town, raffish, messy, and cool the way only a good Pacific port town can be, with side-streets full of dubious looking storage facilities and dusty half finished industrial bays. “Ricky’s place” turned out to be one of these – a big steel enclosure with a painted sign stating RICKY’S UPHOLSTERY running above its double-garage entry.

I parked the car and Tom walked over to examine the scene. He came back convulsed with silent laughter. “Fuck, mate, it’s like something out of Hawaii Five-O,” he whispered.

Unable to resist, I leaped out and strolled over. Ricky turned out to be a mellow gentleman of some 50 years. He was hanging out with a buddy in a small office area on one side of a big open space which was filled almost to capacity with old couches, chairs, bits and pieces of wooden framing, and rolled-up drapery. What little space was left was filled with a beautifully restored, freshly spray-painted U.S. ‘60s muscle car.

“Pretty nice, guys,” I said, gazing approvingly at the vehicle.

“Well, we gotta put an engine in her now,” said Ricky’s colleague. He ran a loving rag around the bonnet.

“So, errr,” said Tom, feeling driven to change the subject, “where should we put the board?”

“Just stick it over there,” said Ricky, waving at three or four other paddleboards that’d somehow been fit into a corner near the office, “we’ll take care of it.”

Yeah, OK … we’ve only trained for four months and flown from Australia. With 48 hours to go before takeoff, why not just leave our key piece of gear in a Honolulu upholstery warehouse??

It seemed like madness … But truth to tell, madness of one kind or another had lurked in the background of this Watermanly endeavour from the start. There’s nothing normal about surfing: it’s a dangerous, crazy, fucked-up sport, full of unstable bastards who’ve seen too much sea and sky to be trusted. But there’s really nothing normal about paddleboarding. All those hours out there on the ocean, thrashing away, counting the strokes, lost in a haze of sweat, with nothing but the sound of water slapping the board’s underside and the occasional whale or shark for company … at times, it really does feel like you’re walking a little too close to sanity’s edge for comfort. And if there’s one lesson we’d carried over from surfing into this wacky new realm, it was this: when you’re feeling mad, go with it.

“There’s no stores where we’re staying on Molokai,” Takahashi had warned. “If you want breakfast on race day, you’re gonna have to take it with you.” Armed with this information, we’d gone to a Costco warehouse store and bought up big – vast slabs of energy bars, 32 litres of bottled water, a vat or two of fruit juice – and left it at Ricky’s Upholstery for Wendell to pick up the night before the race.

Suddenly, we were done. There was nothing more to do but get on the plane and head for Molokai.

Hornbaker came with us. Horny had finally made it back from a photo shoot he’d been doing on the Big Island with this ridiculously sexy French model named Julie, who took one look at the piled sugar ant corpses and the two half-naked unshaven Australians and quickly booked a flight back to Los Angeles.

“I’m looking forward to this,” Horny grinned, meaning the race. “Maybe I should bring my flippers. Just in case one of you need rescuing.”

The whole point of the last couple of days before the race is drinking water, huge pools of the stuff – that, and eating disgusting, uninhibited amounts of food … the theory being that by race day it’s too late to pack in the liquids and calories you’ll be forced to draw on in the fever of Battle. Therefore, the first thing we did upon landing on Molokai at 7 a.m. on Race Eve was head for the nearest restaurant. We found it in Kaunakakai, a small town almost right in the middle of the island which almost fit a tourist brochure description of a Cute Island Village, except nothing in Hawaii is really cute – it’s beautiful, or it’s bloody dangerous, or it’s just kinda … hanging around, marking time. Kaunakakai fit into category three.
It does have a cool little breakfast place, where Tom instantly sat down and ordered the most horrible meal I have ever seen him consume: Three hamburger patties, each topped by a runny fried egg, the whole thing swamped with a couple of pints of grey-brown gravy. “What the HELL are you doing?” I demanded, aghast.

“Just felt like a bit of protein,” he said primly.

Good God, this was my partner. We were going to die.

A tall man wearing an old North Shore Lifeguard hat came over to watch the feast. This was Rick Williams, who guards Ehukai Beach Park, otherwise known as Pipe. Rick was a race entrant in the solo division.

“Mind if I tag along with you guys?” he said.

No problem. At least he knew where we were supposed to be going.

It only took a few minutes for us to realize that Rick was very serious about this race — so serious, in fact, that he’d decided to eat nothing except poi. This is a paste-like substance made from ground up taro root and water, the dietary opposite of Tom’s hideous breakfast. It tastes exactly like raw mashed potato.

“Pure carbohydrate,” boasted Rick, hoisting a couple of two-pound sachets over his shoulder. “I’m gonna suck this stuff down all the way back to Oahu!”

I began to feel better. Rick was obviously as fucked up as we were.

Rick guided us out to the west, across an extraordinary dry landscape. Windward Molokai is a green tropical paradise, but over here on the leeward side, it looked like the NASA probe photos of Mars: all red dirt and black lava chunks, moulded into weird half-animal shapes. For a while the ocean lay hidden behind this spacey geography. Then the road snaked over a ridge, and we pulled over to take in the view, and saw just what we really had to deal with.

From up here the ocean looked gorgeous – light green close into shore, falling to a deep, rich blue offshore, the trades spattering whitecaps away across the channel like daisies in a vast azure field. Far, far away on the other side of that field loomed Oahu: the big dark slab of cliff at Makapu’u, the sharp peak of Koko Crater, the saddle and smaller blob of Koko Head, and way off in the distance, its dimensions meaningless as some child’s toy model, the celebrated postcard image of Diamond Head.

The Ka’iwi Channel awaited our pleasure.

“That’s a … long … fuckin’ … way,” breathed Tom.

“FUCK it!” I snarled back. “It’s a piece of cake! We’re gonna break the record!”

“No, you are not,” said Hornbaker quietly. “You’re going to find out the true meaning of humpback.”

We gazed at him uncomprehendingly.

“Well,” he continued, “you don’t think they call humpback whales humpbacks because they’ve got humps on their backs, do you? No! That’s not it at all!”

His voice rose slowly to a screech.

“They’re called humpbacks because that’s what they do! They HUMP BACKS!! And tomorrow you’re gonna be out there in the middle of the OCEAN and one of them is going to LEAP on you and…”

He waved his arms in a horrible pantomime of the seemingly certain inter-species buggering that awaited us mid-channel. Rick tried to back away, keeping his eyes fixed on Hornbaker.

“You know,” he said, “if you go to the north side of the island, there’s this big rock up there somewhere. It’s round and tall and shaped kinda like a penis. They call it Dick Rock. Maybe you should go visit it.”

They were clearly affected by paddle madness. Ignoring them, staring at the Channel instead, I began to see just how much a good tradewind could save your bacon in what lay ahead. The trades were pushing from the east-north-east, slightly across the race’s line; yet even so, at 15 knots or stronger, they’d put enough bump on the channel to leave a solid paddler awash with runs – and during a run, you get to rest. Sort of.

We headed down to the coastline and the Kaloa Koi Hotel, where everyone stays the night pre-racing. Or I should say the Ex-hotel – its bankrupt owners had closed the hotel area, and the condos were suffering an invasion by 80 or so nervy, slightly manic paddlers, who by this time were lolling around on the lawns in front of the weirdly deserted complex.
It was great to see all our fellow psychotics gathered in one place. We were stunned to come across Dave Parmenter, the great surfer/shaper who now lives in Makaha; none of us had seen him in years. Parmenter was in excellent form, pondering Tarzan Smith’s channel crossing in ‘38: “No boat, nothing,” he muttered. “No bottled water…you can just see him, grabbing seabirds out of the air and ripping their heads off and drinking their blood.”

Everybody kept saying: “It’s gonna be fun tomorrow!” This worried me more than almost anything so far on the trip. Would it? Crazy, yeah… impossible, maybe…but fun?

Takahashi had told us we’d toss and turn all night out of nerves. I slept like a slaughtered sugar ant and woke at 5 a.m., feeling sharp and rested. It was cool, even chilly, and the tradewind was still flapping the palms.
We’d been wondering what the hell Wendell would be like in person. “He’s gonna be … big,” Hornbaker declared. “A big Hawaiian. With enormous calves.” In fact, Wendell turned out to be a very cool-looking, suave, unflappable individual of relatively normal human dimensions, which were more than made up for by his friend Bob. Bob’s calves were big enough for both him and Wendell.

Wendell brought the boat, a 22-foot open cabin Boston Whaler named Hoku, in near the shore, and Tom and Horny scrambled onboard. Having volunteered for the first paddle set, I wandered around on the sand with the board, purposely averting my eyes from the daunting vision of far-off Oahu, now almost invisible behind a tradewind haze. Racers stood or sat alone or in their teams. Nobody was talking about fun anymore. They were shaking each other’s hands and murmuring, “Good luck, bro,” like Allied soldiers about to charge Omaha Beach.

With a few minutes to go, I paddled out near the starting line. All sorts of tricksy jostling was going on – some paddlers deliberately heading up to the north buoy, some pegging out the south, a lot trying to shuffle into mid-field, and a few blundering around not sure where they should go. Confidently, I sauntered up and parked right in the middle, sneering like I knew exactly what the fuck I was doing. Then someone in a boat just to the northwest blew a loud horn, someone else in the same boat waved a flag, and we were off.

I had this half-formed plan in mind to try to sit us into the middle of the pack. Just as well I didn’t plan to take the lead. Aaron Napoleon took off like he’d seen a tiger shark. He vanished off into the blue, spray flying everywhere while almost everyone else in the race sorta watched him go.

The first 20 minutes of a big paddle are some of the hardest. Your body is trying to squeeze blood through the muscles of your back and arms and get a clean flow of energy established. Your lungs are trying to suck oxygen and blow CO2 at a new, grinding pace. Five or ten minutes into it, you’re stiff as a board and feeling every stroke. Then slowly, everything starts to smooth out; the muscles soften and stretch, the breathing settles into a rhythm, and you’re gently hypnotized by the simple alternation of the stroke: one-two-one-two-one-two-one-two-one

Your mind drifts away and cruises a few feet above it all, making small decisions about pace and chop-runs, and watching the body almost incuriously as it begins to chew into its energy reserves. In a strange sort of way it’s almost restful. Unless your brother and your best mate are in a boat next to you, yelping, “Smile! Smile for the camera!”

Paddlers spread out across the field, trying to draw one line or another toward the thin line of land out beyond all that water.

Back on the boat, Wendell was revealing himself as a master strategist. “We wanna go up, man,” he said as I crashed into the boat after the first half-hour set. “Up and across the wind. Get dat wind in line with where we’re going. Then turn down and run with it. All dose other guys, dey look like dey’re in front … but eventually dey’re gonna have to turn and come back in. It’s pay now, or pay later.”

OK. Let’s pay.

The half-hours ticked over. Well, they ticked over if you were in the boat. If it was your set on the board, they dragged out into a long welter of rhythmic charging sprints across the windline and deceptively difficult runs downwind, sharpened every few minutes by a glimpse of tiny Oahu or a yell – “Eight minutes! Smile!” – from the boat.

Between sets, downing another litre of water and trying to eat an energy bar, I watched my little brother admiringly. His stumpy arms were whirring away, his shoulders impregnable, his gaze focused forward into the task. All that training was really paying off. But then…oh, no!…as the board lifted for another downhill run, something in me sensed a horrible change in the short powerful frame…some glimmer of an ancient reflex calling to little Tommy’s soul from a long-past, energized moment…and sure enough, with the board accelerating comfortably into its run and the need for power paddling briefly put aside, he cast away sense and intelligence, and jumped to his feet.

Ten miles out, in the middle of the ocean, and Tom decides to go surfing.

“Paddle!” I screamed.

“Yeahhh!” Wendell screamed.

“Do it again!” Hornbaker screamed. “I’ll get my camera!”

“Yeahhhh! Like Waimea Bay!”


“Like Pipeline!”


The energy bar stuck in my throat as I watched, waiting for the inevitable stumble, the 10 pointless minutes that’d be spent retrieving the board, the lifetime of recriminations. Horny clicked away, Wendell grinned, Bob chortled, I pounded my head against the cockpit.

In the end we were saved by a fish. A flying fish as big as a goddam kookaburra. It must’ve seen the short terrible form of Carroll the Younger bearing down on it from the east, and panicked. The silvery beast sprang into the air and rocketed right across Tom’s bows, eliciting a frightened screech from the former two time world surfing champion. I knew exactly what he was thinking: The Humpback!

In the end we were saved by a fish. A flying fish as big as a goddam kookaburra. It must’ve seen the short terrible form of Carroll the Younger bearing down on it from the east, and panicked. The silvery beast sprang into the air and rocketed right across Tom’s bows, eliciting a frightened screech from the former two time world surfing champion. I knew exactly what he was thinking: The Humpback!

“OK, you guys,” declared Wendell in his best Hawaiian Waterman tone, “time to go downwind! Time to make some ground, man!”

Instantly we sobered up. No more tomfoolery. Let’s just get through this.

You lose perspective out there in mid-channel. It’s as if you slowly fall away into your own little hole in the ocean, your own strangely euphoric, endorphic world of pain. By now, we were way upwind and out of range of almost all the other racers. Off to the south, a dozen or so boats stood out near the horizon; some were even tracking behind us. One was floating tantalizingly about half a mile in front, and one was hanging off to the north on a similar track. The tradewind was pushing at a consistent 10 knots, stronger in gusts, and windswell sets of four to six feet rose around us, a beautiful foam-flecked late morning blue.

We shortened the sets down to 20 minutes and I went out furiously hard, wanting to kill off the paddler to our north. It worked. By the time I flopped back into the boat, Oahu was visibly closer and the northerly boat had dropped off the pace. But at what cost? For the first time in the race – for the first time since any of this whole paddle madness had started, months before – I felt sick and drained, shivering with exhaustion, coming to the end of my physical resources.

Swallowing water was a serious effort, and a bite of a power bar nearly made me throw up. Out on the board, Tom looked like he was fighting the water, his arms rolling over slower and slower between runs. How long before they just stopped altogether? I tried to recall something Jamie Mitchell, a young race veteran from Queensland, had said the day before while we flopped around in front of the Kaloa Koi.

“You’ll hit a wall,” he warned. “Round the 20 mile mark. Team or solo, it won’t matter. The thing is to just keep going, and you’ll come out the other side.”

As I jumped overboard for the next set, I clung to that thought like a straw in a whirlpool.

And the thing was, Jamie was right. Halfway into the set I began feeling an odd sensation – an unexpected freeing and loosening of the muscles, as if an old stiffened skin was burning, peeling away. I’m sure there’s a valid biochemical explanation for this, some predictable bodily shift to a long-term energy source … but out in that channel, focusing on run after run, sickness receding and fresh heart pouring in to take its place, I got the distinct impression that I was being literally re-born.

Of course about then the water turned cooler all of a sudden, the telltale ribbing of a riptide flickered across the downwind line, and I suddenly realized: Oh, Crap! This is where the race BEGINS.

Perhaps I’ll spare you the rest of this horrendous tale: the crabwise grovel across the mighty current; the Viking-like lust overcoming us upon reaching Koko Head; the five-minute sprint sets to the finish line; the last-minute death battles with fellow paddlers. The boat that’d tantalized us from a half mile in front turned out to be the Mighty Quinn’s. We caught and passed him just at the final turn toward home: “I’m never doing this race again,” he muttered.

French people call orgasm “the Little Death”. Well, in my opinion, getting to the end of the Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race is way too close to the Big Death. Past the finish line you come into a tiny bay, where a very nice man gives you a bottle of water and offers to carry your board up onto the grassy verge. Slumped against a tree and temporarily speechless, I watched people homing on in the finish. Paddlers arrived on Oahu in one of two states: either hyped on adrenalin, or almost unable to walk. Everyone had a story, but most were just too buggered to tell it.

Eleven paddlers pulled out during the race, among them Aaron Napoleon. His early pace had left him shattered by cramps on the rim of the Current – that, and by the relentlessness of the other Aaron, Bitmead. Takahashi, who’d watched the whole drama from the official boat, told me the young Aussie lifeguard never let Napoleon out of his sight, and eventually hit the front about two and a half hours into the race.

“It was one of the best demonstrations of wave-riding that I have ever seen,” was Mike’s call.

Bitmead didn’t say much – just lay around under one of the tent-shades that’d been set up at the finish, and ate a very large plate of spaghetti. He won $1500, which might just have paid his travel costs. (Nobody actually makes money doing this! Making money is a pursuit of sane people, not mad ones.)

Hornbaker thought it was all too funny for words.

“You’ll never know how near that humpback came,” he said grimly.

Tom seemed to spend a lot of time in the toilet; I doubt he’ll be eating hamburgers with eggs and gravy for breakfast again for a while, or energy bars, for that matter.

As for me… well, just before the race I worked out in my head that I’d given up 200 surfing hours training for the Molokai to Oahu…and now it’s over, I’m gonna go get ‘em back.