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.

A more innocent time, before Kolohe-mania.
A more innocent time, before Kolohe-mania.

Fame: Kolohe Andino may never be able to walk anonymously in public again!


With the Olympics still one year away, weird talk is reaching a fever pitch. As you well know, surfing, skateboarding, breakdancing and rock climbing will be included for the first time in history. Surfing has also made it onto the Paris 2024 ticket and looks a good bet for Los Angeles 2028 too.

Opinions differ on how our Pastime of Kings will be affected.

There is the sensible conclusion that absolutely nothing will change. That people in Idaho Falls and Sofia, Bulgaria may accidentally catch some hot two-foot wiggle action then wonder when competitive kayaking is on.

And there is the wildly optimistic conclusion that all surfing ever needed was the Olympic stage in order to rocket into the public’s heart, turning Kolohe Andino into an international megastar overnight and let us turn to the Los Angeles Times for more.

Kolohe Andino is currently the top-ranked surfer in the world, yet early Tuesday morning he roamed the Huntington Beach Pier without fanfare or autograph seekers, as though he was just a regular dude.

His relative anonymity, however, may be short-lived, considering one year from now, the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan will include surfing for the first time.

Though Andino and other world-class surfers who are vying for Olympic spots are celebrities in the surfing world, the Olympics bring in a mainstream audience that is sure to change the way some surfers go about their daily lives. Simply strolling the pier, any pier, may never be the same.

Kolohe goes on to give a fine interview and I don’t think he’s delusional about his potential Q score but, my goodness, do people really do believe that the Olympics… the Olympics… is going change anything?

Do you think the World Surf League really believes?

Do you really believe?

Are you preparing for Kolohe-mania in case your wrong?

Debate: Is there a link between the explosion of surf-cams and surf photographers and crowds?

Embrace change and enjoy the dance or switch off from the grid and move to that shack somewhere southwest of Ceduna?

July has been kind to the Australian east coast. First, an abnormally sustained ENE fetch peppered the Queensland/New South Wales stretch. Nothing massive, unless you were behind the rock at Snapper, but still a week of four-to-six-foot groomed lines.

North swells, you gotta love them.

Then, a series of solid pulses from the south filed in with their usual polar intensity. Combined, they’ve lit up every good spot in one way or another over the last three weeks with hardly a break between.

Plenty of waves to be had. The assault continues as your correspondent types.

But in the post-Dickensian industrial caldera that is my hometown, there have been rumbles of discontent online as a result. It’s a particularly new age problem; a first world surfing worry. And it delights with the sort of semi-detached voyeurism one feels watching two cousins kissing at a Christmas party.

Sorta my problem, but still fun to watch!

Situation: there’s a Facebook group called Local Surf Photos. It members around 4,600 people. About a dozen or so amateur photographers regularly upload their action shots. Old crew who no longer get in the water. Delightful tuck shop nannas who have picked up photography as a hobby in retirement. Average Joes who point and shoot the lineup on their smart phones and upload in real time.

On a day when the waves are on you can have 100+ photos uploaded from a fifteen-kilometre stretch of coast before the sun’s gone down. Some spots well known, others less so.

If you’re so inclined, and know which break to surf at what time, you can even be assured of having two or three good pics of yourself posted, often by the time you get home for breakfast or to the office.

If surfing’s a selfie sport, as Dave Parmenter says, this is surely its golden era.

But, as the size of the group and number of photographers has grown, so has the backlash.

Oversaturation, say the grumpy locals.

Some older, some younger. Spots shouldnt be named, they say.

Or there should be a day’s wait before uploading, at least.

On the other side of the fence are a predominantly younger generation. Many newer to the sport.

You can’t control the line up, they retort.

Localism is dead. These are public spaces. There’s no such thing as secret spots any more!

Expletive-laden, punctuation-devoid rants ensue.

Fighting on the internet is fun to watch, yes. But, like, poor grammar ‘n that aside, it’s modern life writ large: The democratisation of the internet versus its desecration of longstanding cultural norms.

It’s so easy to check the surf now.

Most spots have two, sometimes even three cams pointed at them 24/7 (hint: suss out your local surf club website). The more industrious and digitally literate of us can even do things like check recent Instagram stories from content-rich spots like Snapper, Pass, Crescent, Bondi etc to get a look at what the waves are doing behind the kawaii pouts.

We also know crowds are getting worse.

I used to look to a tree, or a flagpole, or the clouds to guess what the waves were doing. Now I just check my feed. And there’s nothing like a shot of your local doing its best Ulu’s impersonation from an hour ago to get the juices flowing. I change plans. Come up with excuses. The car’s sick and I gotta drop the baby at the mechanics. I rush back in for a forty-five-minute power session when otherwise I would have been sitting at work in semi-ignorance.

Fact. Is there a causal relationship with the explosion of surfcams and surf photographers and the number of people in the water? It’s hard to say. But there’s no doubt more lenses pointed to the horizon equals more attention on the surf.

I’m part of the problem. I pay for Swellnet Pro. I love a FB notification on where’s pumping while I’m punching keys at work. Spot a few friends getting bombs. Sometimes even my own mug.

I used to look to a tree, or a flagpole, or the clouds to guess what the waves were doing. Now I just check my feed. And there’s nothing like a shot of your local doing its best Ulu’s impersonation from an hour ago to get the juices flowing. I change plans. Come up with excuses. The car’s sick and I gotta drop the baby at the mechanics. I rush back in for a forty-five-minute power session when otherwise I would have been sitting at work in semi-ignorance.

But, I’m still a misanthrope at heart.

I scowl at unknown faces in the lineup. I cling to my low rung on the surfing ship and anybody below me trying to get on I kick square in the face. Burn the life jackets, too.

I don’t want no more surfers taking me waves.

And I know the karmic price we will ultimately pay for this life of #content #saturation we’re currently wading through will be high.

So how do I reconcile that with the perks of the digital world I so fully enjoy?

Do I embrace change and enjoy the dance?

Or switch off from the grid and move the family down to that shack somewhere southwest of Ceduna?

Yeah, fuck it. I’ll just continue the hypocrisy, extolling the virtues of a tribalist neo-luddite while feeding the beast I say I’m rallying against.

At least I’m not the only one doing it.

PS: Don’t come surf Newcastle or I’ll shit on your windscreen wipers.

"If I ended up sleeping in the dunes at J-Bay or holed up in Morocco: somewhere with lined up Points that regularly get strafed by howling offshores the Vector-Cuda would be the indispensable one board quiver. No question." Here, we see the author at home in Lennox.

Board review, Aleutian Juice Victor-Cuda: “Transformative. Will heal the injured and comfort the elderly!”

More importantly, "mid-lengths won't fuck your shred…"

God, I’ve changed so much since I started writing for the Grit. Pushed out of my comfort zone so far.

Wearing Italian flat caps, getting in beefs with local enforcers and Murfer hubbies who take umbrage at what I write. Derek Rielly is always sending me provocative little ideas with a “You got this?” And seeing as I got the arse from bus driving I don’t have any choice, if I want to keep the bills paid, then to sit down and grapple with concepts that are deeply uncomfortable and will involve clear blowback.

To put out there, as the old French cock Sartre said, “Confused, vaguely questioning ideas that then fall apart.”

The old days of surf media seem so paradisiacal and sure footed by comparison: bit of advertorial, bit of hagiography, paid trip to the Tuamotus with some B-grade pros. Heaven.

I know a lot of modern surfers feel the same discomfort about mid-lengths, which is why today I bring a custom 7’3” Parmenter shaped Aleutian Juice Vector-Cuda into the classroom for show and tell. It is appropriate given Greg Webber’s 7’3” for sale and the stunning mid-length surfing laid on by Torren Martyn in Mexico, which I’m sure you have seen.

The chief argument against the mid-length is that it destroys the ability to shred on high-performance equipment. A subsidiary argument is that the mid-length identifies one as a hipster and that may not be appropriate; because either one is incapable of making the cut (too old, too fat, too ugly) or feels too much self ridicule at the potential mis-identification.

Despite these substantial concerns, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

One thing that has never changed in me is easy access to a mid-length. I can’t even remember how far back it started; finding a Mitchell Rae Outer Island seven-footer somewhere in a shed and adopting it for baby food out the front of a friend’s house on the Sunshine Coast is where it officially began, but I’m sure it goes back further.

That was before mid-lengths became fashionable and acquired a serious step up the value chain.

The old slur of mini-mal still resonates in Australia, if not elsewhere but the name change to mid-length came with a major increase in cache.

Who knows why?

As part of a continuing push back against pro surfing by a new generation who weren’t scared of being labelled pseudo-hippies or looking like victims of boomer nostalgia would be my best guess. The pay-off for the skilled becomes immediately apparent for anyone who has seen footage of Terry Fitzgerald at J-Bay: early entry, line drive, logarithmic momentum by laying trim line on trim lines.

At the other end of the scale, gliding on petite peaks or joining the dots on disconnected short-period rubbish removes the need to generate speed through monkey pumping.

The big step up the value chain is a major disincentive.

Previously, I’d surmounted the problem by acquiring a hipster board from a Byron Bay factory. Enough laps on a Friday afternoon with a six-pack of Coopers would see a second-handy in mint condition that needed to be liquidised.

A returned custom that had the wrong spray, in this case.

That resulted in a beautiful 7’1” that I passed over to my gal as a gift, and she shredded on it. A day before we were due to leave on a surfing/camping holiday I ripped a fin out rocking off at the Point and the middy was still in the car. Half-an-hour later, a freak set landed on my head and the board was in two. That was three years ago and the opportunity to replace it had not come up.

The opportunity to replace the offending husband, very much so.

Around about then or before or later, don’t cross-examine me on the timeline, there was a secondhand Parmenter Aleutian Juice in a Byron surf shop with Jeff Hakman’s name on the stringer. The Holy Bible has no injunction about coveting surfboards and I did covet it, a lot. Seven-three with an outline that was half-Hawaiian seventies shortboard and half double-ender. Pulled in nose, diamond tail. Widow maker fin set-up.

I wanted that board so bad. As a retirement plan, to put under the house and pull out when I’m 60 or my shoulder carked it or something else happened.

The following sequence of events was pure serendipity.

Parmenter was coming to Australia in Feb to hang out with Andrew Kidman and was taking shaping orders. No chance, I thought. A wonderful board builder from Oregon named Bryan Bates, who is a spitting image of Chas Smith, also from Oregon, and who now makes boards in Byron Bay, made contact with me.

I’d helped him out and now he had a deal for me. A real great deal as Jerry from Fargo would say. Dave would do the shape job and Bryan would glass the boards. Bryan has the full skill-set of resin tints, deluxe glass jobs etc etc. My last pay packet from the buses had just enough cream to cash out Bryan for the deal and wait. The board would be presented to my gal as a birthday present.

Email exchanges with Parmenter ensued.

It’s one of the great blessings of an Aleutian Juice custom. He remembered the Hakman board, put it straight into it’s historical perspective and intended usage which from my perspective was a board that could, “paddle like a barracuda and still have easy turning off the template and rocker curve, as well as the ability to lay it over off the bottom on a wind-ribbed double overhead Point wave at maximum velocity”.

For my gal I desired, “easy paddle-in, nice glide and something that turns freely and without complication and can build speed on speed if she snags an offshore set wave that runs down the sandbank”.

He named the resultant design a Vector-Cuda.

It was a great deal.

Parmenter shaped the blank and Bryan made it deluxe. The steep-angular rails were from the Brewer school, the template was tits and the widow maker fin cluster was glassed in.

For a Parmenter custom I had it in almost record time. My pal wasn’t so lucky. Shite can go pear shaped when OS shapers outsource boards to glassing houses which then get lost. His board got lost in the system and took months to get done.

A good paddler. Sometimes I wonder if people even understand the meaning of that phrase. Its transformative power. Its ability to heal the injured and comfort the elderly.

I had to patiently wait for my wife to put the first ding in it before riding it and when she ground the tip of a side-fin off on a mistimed rock off it was time.

A good paddler. Sometimes I wonder if people even understand the meaning of that phrase. Its transformative power. Its ability to heal the injured and comfort the elderly. The Vector-Cuda is glassed heavy, to last. Heavy boards follow the most basic laws of physics. Momentum = Mass times Velocity squared. Momentum joins the dots on disconnected point surf, cuts through wind, glides on little peelers. Momentum is a gal’s best friend.

I get to see a lot of insane mid-length surfing. Torryn Martyn, Joel Fitzgerald, Dave Rastovich all live in the hood and frequent the Point. Some is performative, with cameras at the ready. Seventies posing will never go out of style.

Sometimes though you’ll see Rasta at the Point on raggedy swells with no-one around. The lines he draws on a middy are pure function. A single haiku from start to finish. Completely wasted lateral surfing by CT standards.

I don’t ride it all the time. Don’t need to. Sometimes if a swell cycle is imminent it’ll get used as a deliberate strategy invented by Derek Hynd to upshift and then downshift through a quiver. You ride a 7’3” for a day or a session and then go down to a 6’0”. Your legs feel like steel springs.

And, here, the author scrambling down the rocks at The Point, the photograph showing the distinctive outline of the surfboard and the glassed-in fins.

I doubt Dave Parmenter would approve.

Being Catholic with board choices is a luxury for the few.

If I ended up sleeping in the dunes at J-Bay or holed up in Morocco: somewhere with lined up Points that regularly get strafed by howling offshores the Vector-Cuda would be the indispensable one board quiver. No question.

The takeaway, as Derek would ask for?

1. Mid-lengths won’t fuck your shred.

2. Good deals can turn bad but great deals can be awesome.

3. A good middy can be a reliable and trusted ally to help you negotiate the stormy vissicitudes of life.

4. You won’t find one on the rack.