CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Women's OC-1 winner Lauren Bartlett rolled off her canoe after completing the Molokai World Championships yesterday.
Top paddlers tough it out
It may be hard to imagine one of the toughest tests in endurance sports getting any tougher.
But, in fact, many of the elite competitors -- including most of the winners -- at the 31st annual Epic Kayaks Molokai World Championships paddling race yesterday called it the toughest thing they had ever done. By far and bar none.
A relatively flat ocean and a stiff headwind made the race from Molokai to Oahu across the Kaiwi Channel especially difficult. In addition, about 5 more miles were added to the course this year to make the race that is considered the world championship of solo surfski and canoe paddling now a 37-mile marathon.
While the first competitor overall in past years regularly finished in under 3 and a half hours, yesterday Lewis Laughlin of Tahiti won the open men's surfski title for the first time and was the first overall finisher at 5 hours, 20 minutes and 6 seconds.
A surfski is considered a faster craft then a solo canoe (OC-1). Maui's Kai Bartlett won the open men's OC-1 title for a third time at 6:07:56. Wife Lauren Bartlett (6:54:59) made it a family sweep by taking the open women's OC-1 for a record fourth time, while Megan Quale (6:39:39) -- also from Maui -- won the open women's surfski in her first attempt at the race.
"That was tough duties out there, that was hard work," said the 31-year old Kai Bartlett, who also won the OC-1 division of this race in 2002 and 2005 but only made his final decision to enter this year the evening before because such poor conditions were expected. "Every hour I thought about pulling my (canoe) up onto my escort boat and watching the race. But you can't pull out when you're in the lead; I was stuck."
Said the 37-year-old Laughlin: "There wasn't anything out there (in terms of swell action), really. But I didn't think about fatigue, cramps -- I just put my head down and went."
The Molokai World Championships began at Kaluakoi Hotel on Molokai and finished at Kaimana Beach in Waikiki, instead of its previous Koko Marina endpoint.
There were 138 total entries from 15 nations in the race, with 61 in surfskis and 77 in canoes. One from each discipline pulled out before the race even started, and both were considered top contenders (nine-time surfski winner Dean Gardiner of Australia and OC-1 paddler Danny Ching of California).
But many joined them before it was done. Mark Sandvold pulled out at Hawaii Kai, a disappointment after last year, when he was the first Hawaii surfski finisher at sixth overall.
"This will go down as the hardest race ever," he said. "I've never pulled out of a race before, but I was cramping. The story of today will go down as one of survival."
Laughlin not only survived, but won $3,000 for taking the men's surfski division and then $3,000 more for crossing first overall. Conceding he likely gained an advantage in the conditions that were much like what he experiences every day training in Tahiti, he overtook the lead pack of South Africans that included defending champion Clint Pretorius and record 11-time winner Oscar Chalupsky around Koko Head, and never trailed from that point.
Pretorius (5:47:00) ended up finishing fifth, and Chalupsky (5:42:20) fourth. Fellow countrymen Hank McGregor (5:22:16) and Dawid Mocke (5:25:27) placed second and third.
Kai Bartlett won $3,000 for taking the men's OC-1 division, and then $500 more for also being the first local paddler in the discipline to finish. Greg Long (6:14:24, Australia) was second. Defending and record six-time champion Karel Tresnak Jr. (6:25:03, Oahu) finished sixth.
"I'm just glad I was able to finish, really," Tresnak said. "Kai had a great run, and he beat us all."
Quale, 31, received $500 for her victory. Defending women's surfski champion Maggie Twigg-Smith of Oahu finished second in the division yesterday at 6:45:41.
Lauren Bartlett beat the women's OC-1 runner-up and 2005 winner Lisa Curry-Kenny (7:04:22) of Australia by about 10 minutes.
"I will never do this race again if it's an upwind paddle," said Bartlett, 27, who also won $500, said. "That was the craziest, hardest thing I ever did. Normally when I do Molokai, I hit one or two walls; I must have hit about 15 walls today. Anyone who did this race today, I give them credit."