CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kikaha O Ke Kai canoe club will be paddling in the 54th Annual Molokai Hoe today. Team members are Russ Woosley, front left, John Richardson, Gordon Martinez; Ricky Magaoay, second row left, Rocky Lam; Douglas Miyata, third row left, Robert Keliinoi; Robin Sarner, fourth row left, and Scott Moody.
41 more miles for Kikaha O Ke Kai
Russell Woosley knows firsthand what it takes to be an elite paddler and qualify for a top crew. So, what would make him pick up a paddle again for the first time in more than 25 years and commit to the hellacious training necessary for the single biggest challenge in his sport?
54th Molokai Hoe
WHAT: 41-mile race from Molokai to Oahu considered the world championship of men's long-distance outrigger canoe paddling.
WHEN: Sunday, 7:30 a.m. start, with first finishers expected shortly after noon.
WHERE: Starts at Hale O Lono Harbor, Molokai, with finish at Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Waikiki.
WHO: An international field of more than 100 crews is expected. Most will compete in the open division, but there are also masters 40-older, masters 50-older, masters 55-older and koa canoe divisions.
HOW: Nine-person crews and an escort boat, with six paddling at a time and rotations made with open-ocean changes (Masters 55-older division can rotate 12 paddlers).
There is his love for Hawaii, and a thirst to reconnect with it as much as possible though he lives more than 2000 miles away. There is the task he left unfinished nearly three decades ago, and, most importantly, his crew of eight other dedicated men from a canoe club in Washington state all desperately wanting it, too.
Today, Woosley and the rest of Kikaha O Ke Kai will be one of more than 100 international crews expected to participate in the 54th annual Molokai Hoe, a 41-mile race from Molokai to Oahu across the Kaiwi Channel that is considered the world championship of men's long-distance outrigger canoe paddling.
"I started paddling with the (Waikiki) Beach Boys when I was 15," said Woosley, now 45. "I eventually made the elite crew, the freshmen men, and last raced in the Magic Island Ironman in '78 before I joined the military. I've never done the Molokai race before. I probably would have done it the year I left, but I had to go."
Currently a resident of Lacey, Wash., and having only started paddling again after joining the Federal Way-based Kikaha of the Pacific Northwest Outrigger Racing Canoe Association this past March, Woosley is once again ready for his first attempt at this race.
"The desire has always been inside -- I love to compete," he said. "I saw an ad for a canoe club in a local (Hawaii food) restaurant up here, and I haven't stopped since."
Woosley was initially an alternate on this, Kikaha's first-ever Molokai Hoe crew, but earned a coveted spot in the nine-man rotation when one dropped out.
Ten years old, the club has participated in other international long-distance races, like the big annual one in Catalina, Calif. Before the start of this year, head coach Gordon Martinez decided the time was right for the biggest one.
"Last Christmas, I wrote a poem, inviting everyone to do Molokai," laughed Martinez, also a paddler in the crew. "All the responses were, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' We've been talking about it for years -- since we started. It's been our dream."
Excited like kids, pumped full of adrenaline already and having a hard time sleeping the last week, their dream will become reality today. The rigorous training that included practicing in as many different types of water as they could find in Washington, trying to simulate the temperamental Kaiwi Channel, is done.
Others in the Kikaha crew are: Ricky Magaoay, Robin Sarner, Scott Moody, Doug Miyata, John Richardson, Robert Keliinoi and Rocky Lam. Most have paddled together since the club's earliest days, and all have direct ties to Hawaii save Miyata, whose wife was born and raised in the Islands.
Like Woosley, most of the crew is older than 40 and could have qualified to compete in the masters division. But, because just a few of them are younger and the club wanted to stick to its own members rather than hand-pick outside all-stars, the crew will race in the open division along with all the top contenders, including defending champion Lanikai of Oahu.
"Our expectations are to finish, be together, and have a wonderful and deep experience to bond our group," said Richardson, who is also Kikaha's chairman of coaches and the only one to have paddled in the Molokai Hoe (1982, '84) before. He and Woosley played Pop Warner football together as kids in Hawaii.
"This is not the end-all for us," he added. "It's part of our bigger journey to get better. We're very, very competitive here, but we understand the bigger calling of the sport. (The Molokai Hoe is) a way to connect our kids and family with the sport, a way to connect back to Hawaii and the culture."
There are still the practical matters that come with this competition, however, like making flights, and getting a canoe to race in and an escort boat. Kikaha will be borrowing a newly refurbished canoe from Oahu-based Koa Kai.
And then there's also the matter of where and when the crew hopes to finish. This is a race -- and the premier one, at that.
We want, "of course, to win it," Martinez said. "But, if not, we hope to do it under 6 hours, or (within) an hour of first place."
The race starts at 7:30 a.m. at Hale O Lono Harbor, Molokai. First finishers are expected shortly after noon at Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki.