EPIC KAYAKS MOLOKAI WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
Top paddlers tackle Ka‘iwi Channel
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It's his passion. His escape. His release.
32nd Epic Kayaks Molokai World Championships, Sunday, 32 miles, Kaluakoi, Molokai to Maunalua Bay, Oahu. First finishers expected around 12:30 p.m.
And for Hawaiian Airlines pilot Mark Sandvold, who knows what it's like to soar with birds, it's a chance to surf with other water creatures -- both human and other.
It's why the 42-year-old is among the top Hawaii paddlers vying for the title of the 32nd Epic Kayaks Molokai World Championship. Sunday's crossing of the Ka'iwi Channel will be the 18th for Sandvold in a surf ski -- he's done many others in a six-man outrigger -- and "I don't think it will ever get old," he said.
"For guys like me, who love to surf, it never gets old. It's why I love it so much. It's my sport."
But it has been a sport dominated by foreigners. The last Hawaii paddler to win this event was Kalai Handley in 1978.
With the exception of Tahiti's Lewis Laughlin last May, the trophy has gone to either an Australian (14 times) or a South African (13). Back to try for that elusive 12th title is South Africa's Oscar Chalupsky, the current Surf Ski World Series leader, one of the favorites.
And Sandvold, who had to pull out last year around Hawaii Kai? He'd be happy to finish in the top 10.
"That's the goal," said Sandvold, the top Hawaii finisher in 2006, when he placed sixth.
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For many paddlers, their favorite race is often the one where they've crossed the finish line first.
With 11 previous victories, Oscar Chalupsky obviously enjoys the Epic Kayaks Molokai World Championships. But the 45-year-old South African has several reasons to continue his annual trek to Hawaii and make the Ka'iwi Channel crossing, the most compelling of which is:
Chalupsky thinks an even dozen has a nice ring to it.
"I'm no spring chicken and I'm very happy about getting 11," said the world's top-ranked surf ski paddler. "But 12 sounds much better.
"I'll retire when I don't think I can win it and I'll give it up one of these days. The younger guys make it hard for me, they don't want an old guy to beat them. But, at the same time, I think it's an inspiration to older paddlers to show that you can actually do it at a high level for a long time."
Chalupsky's dominance has covered three decades, beginning with his first appearance in 1983, when he broke the course record by some 11 minutes -- a victory that began a string of seven straight. His last win came in 2005; he placed fourth last year, when brutal conditions (flat with a stiff headwind) nearly doubled the finishing time for most of the field.
The conditions are expected to be better this year, although most would prefer bigger swells in the channel for better surfing. The course has reverted back to its Maunalua Bay finish -- last year it ended at Kaimana Beach -- and there are fewer OC-1s entered, courtesy of the one-mans having their own Molokai race two weeks ago.
Given the growing interest in both surf ski and OC-1s, the split has allowed for less-crowded waters.
"Originally, this race was just for surf skis," Mark Sandvold, one of Hawaii's top competitors, said. "Then the one-mans wanted to join and we helped them get established. They've got a huge event of their own now.
"This allows for everyone to compete in the craft of their choice and some will want to do both races. I may try next year."
Favorites in the women's field include former champion Maggie Twigg-Smith of Honolulu; New Zealand's Katie Pocock, currently ranked No. 1 in the Surf Ski World Series; and Germany's long-distance queen Freya Hoffmeister.
Hoffmeister, who is planning a 15,000-kilometer circumnavigation of Australia later this year, would become the first person to use a sea kayak in this race if she opts for that instead of a surf ski.
There are also two wild cards who had not registered for the race as of last night but still may enter Sunday's race -- defending champion Megan Quayle and Lauren Spalding Bartlett, both from Hawaii.
Bartlett would be competing in her second channel race in two weeks. She teamed with Cherisse Keli'i Agorastos to win the women's OC-1 division of the Rhino Ka'iwi Channel Relay on May 4.
Sunday's field is expected to draw a record 100-plus entries, with participants from 10 countries, including Cambodia and Japan. The diversity is satisfying to co-sponsor Greg Barton.
"We want to make this a showcase event for the world," said Barton, a three-time Olympian in flatwater kayak, who is co-owner of Epic Kayaks with Chalupsky. "We want the best worldwide to come to Hawaii and promote the sport.
"I think the split (with the OC-1s) is good and bad. It's nice to have everyone together, but I don't know if we could handle 100 canoes and 100 skis at the same time."
Still, for all the competition, many expect the race to come down to a handful of South Africans: Chalupsky, his brother Herman, Dawid Mocke and Hank McGregor. Oscar Chalupsky, McGregor and Mocke were 2-3-4 last year.
Also returning with some motivation is course record-holder Dean Gardiner of Australia, who is seeking his 10th championship.
The event also gives Barton and Chalupsky an opportunity to showcase their Epic-brand kayaks.
"We've spent a lot of time making it fast," said Barton, a double gold medalist (K-1, K-2) at the 1988 Seoul Games. "It handles well in surf conditions but is stable. It's lightweight (as low as 18 pounds) combined with a superior design."