Molokai 2014: We Came, We Saw, One Conquered

Wednesday, 28 May 2014 19:03 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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A group of five broke away at the start... A group of five broke away at the start... Credits: Vince Bechet

Thirty minutes into the Maui Jim Molokai Challenge, first-time participant Jasper Mocke led a five-man conga line of Clint Robinson, Hank McGregor, Cory Hill and Jeremy Cotter. When Mocke sprinted for a wave that shot him across Robinson's path, the five-time Olympian admonished him like a state trooper confronting an unlicensed driver. Mocke thought nothing of his move. "That's how we race in South Africa," he said. "It was just aggressive."

Back in Hawaii for the first time since winning here in 2009, McGregor seized the moment. "When they stopped focusing on the runs," he said, "I decided to go alone."

Just 10K into the 52K crossing, the leaders were spread out in a V-formation, like a flock of five geese: McGregor 50-to-100 meters ahead of Mocke and Robinson, out to sea to his left, while Aussies Cory Hill and Jeremy Cotter were closer to Oahu to his right. Sitting up front in Hank's escort boat, a 22-foot Boston Whaler named One Kai (One Ocean), I turned to skipper Mark Sandvold and Zsolt Szadovski, the former Hungarian sprinter turned Hawaii's fastest ski paddler. "Do you think he's gone too soon?" Zsolt shook his head. "He looks comfortable."   

And extremely focused. Paddling an Epic V14 for the first time in an international race, Hank wore a translucent long-sleeve top that revealed just how fit the three-time World Marathon Champ was for this race. He clenched his drink tube in his teeth and gazed ahead like a Buckingham Palace guard, acknowledging our encouragement and instructions with barely a nod. Though he glanced over his left shoulder to check on Robinson and Mocke every so often, he was totally dialed in: driving with his legs, adjusting his cadence and paddle placement to the modest bumps rolling in from his right. Despite the daunting distance to the hazy outline of Koko Head 40K away, Hank was out front, chasing runs, just where he wanted to be.

Hank McGregor

Hank McGregor, mid-channel, focussed

"Fuck-all wind"

The fact that there were any bumps in the Kaiwi Channel was a welcome surprise. In a bit of cruel timing, the trades that had been delivering for weeks had disappeared two days earlier. Dorian Wolter, a former member of the German National Wildwater team, had joined Greg Barton and Oscar Chalupsky for a long training paddle off Makapuu five days before the May 18th race. Wolter, who trains on a lake in Ohio, headed into the heaving channel with the confidence of a man with a broken zipper on a first date. Three kilometers off shore, he grew more shaky still when he saw a wave lift Oscar like a tooth pick from a sandwich and catapult him off his ski. In a blog report titled "Big, Bigger, Huge" he described a wave in the "Channel of Bones" in reverential terms: "...looking down either side was like looking down one of the smaller pyramids in Giza." (For the record, the uber-fit paddler finished 14th at the ICF Ocean Racing World Champs in Portugal last year.)

But then the wind was gone and the game changed. Nine-time Champ Dean Gardiner canceled his flight. Szadovski, a former Hungarian sprinter turned Hawaii's fastest ski paddler, pulled the pin for the same reason. Heading to the airport to catch a flight to Molokai on race morning at 5:30 AM, Oscar eyed windguru on his cell and delivered the verdict: light and variable wind between 2 and 4 knots or, in Oscar parlance: "Fuck-all wind!"

Praying for wind

Praying for wind...

2009 "glass off"

Had I been racing I'd have been just fine. I crossed the channel each year from 2003 to 2008, and when the trades were firing I wobbled mightily. In 2007 -- the first of Lewis Laughlin's two wins here -- the sea was as flat as my backside and I cracked the Top 20. But since I was attending this time as a journalist only, I pined for a classic downwind race.  In big conditions, Deano and Oscar would be relevant, as would five-time Molo champ Grant Kenny and his buff brother Marty. And the confrontation that interested me most -- a rematch of the 2009 mirror-flat contest between Hank McGregor and Clint Robinson -- would be far more compelling with serious runs, which make skill, concentration and strategy paramount.  

I saw that 2009 "glass-off" from Hank's escort boat. Since then I'd started work on a book about the culture and characters in my favorite sport, and McGregor -- by my estimation the greatest all-around paddler South Africa has ever known; and Clint Robinson, Oz's greatest waterman -- were two of my featured players and were now meeting again the first time. Back in 1992 a wide-eyed McGregor, then 12, watched the 18-year-old from the Sunshine Coast upset Knut Holmann and Greg Barton in Barcelona to win Olympic Gold in the K1-1000.

Hank McGregor and Clint Robinson

2009: McGregor leads Robinson on glassy flat water

McGregor's own Olympic dream never materialized, the lone disappointment in a paddling career that's off-the- charts brilliant. So in 2009, while Hank was intent on winning the iconic race that he’d placed second in twice, his father and coach Lee McGregor advised him to make it personal. “Forget about the win," he said, "just beat Clint Robinson!"

From the gun, the pace was on. Hank fired first; Robinson, in an identical Epic V12, responded in kind and for the next 2 hours and 18 minutes the two traded leads with an intensity that varied from "fuck that's fast" to "holy shit, did Hank just throw down a piece at 15.8 km..." Indeed he had. Robinson, crippled by cramps in the oppressive heat, was done and the three-time World Marathon champ had his first Molokai win.

2010, Robinson wins

In 2010, Robinson came back to win the ocean-distance ski race that he first attempted at the age of 15. In 2011 he won again. He was 16 seconds beyond Oscar in 2012, and won his third title in 2013.  When I learned that Hank and Clint would both be back in Hawaii for the first time since 2009, I aimed to be there.

Clint Robinson and Dean Gardiner

2010 runner up (and 9 time previous champ) Dean Gardiner congratulates Clint Robinson on his first Molokai title

No more Gorilla

In January I started training with Molokai in mind -- no easy feat given the tenacious winter that gripped the East Coast.  In March I was fit but feeling punk. I'd been experiencing gastro-intestinal discomfort for months, and when the pain grew too intense I finally headed to a specialist. A barrage of tests followed.  The long minutes I spent lying like a mannequin inside a space-age MRI machine were as tension-filled as the start of any race I’d done, without the prospect of a party at the end. At the end of March, a doctor with a decorated resume and somber baritone voice informed me over the phone that I had cancer.

One of my first thoughts was: There goes Molokai. No more Gorilla coffee, sushi or sex (although not necessarily in that order).  Underneath all that ran the thought that pained me most: telling my 17-year-old daughter that her old man might be toast.

I felt sorry for myself for a week and then got busy getting better. With a full schedule of chemo and surgery ahead, in mid-April I finally told Oscar that I wouldn't be able to make it to Hawaii, and why. His IM leapt off the screen: "You will beat this you #$&* Jewish #$*#!" The next day he told me to keep training and that he and I would race the channel in a double.  (I could picture the movie: Brian’s Song rated R for obscenities.) Over the next three weeks he wrote me daily, sometimes sounding like my Grandma Hattie and sometimes like an evangelical preacher. A week before the race Oscar asked if I'd booked my ticket yet. I said no. The next day he wrote, "Sorted! Epic will foot the bill!"

Resistance was futile.  I flew to Honolulu two days after finishing my second chemo treatment. Minutes after I'd checked into my hotel room, the phone rang: Oscar of course. "Where the hell are you?" he shouted. "We're having beers at Outrigger!"

Chalupsky and the Glicker

The Glicker and the big O

Watching the sun set over the South Pacific 12 hours after driving through the Holland Tunnel from Manhattan to New Jersey is a heady contrast, especially after weeks of waiting rooms and doctor's offices. Over the next three days I paddled, swam, ate, and talked crap with the mob. By the time I swam off the beach towards Sandman's boat rolling in the beefy south swell, I was a breathless, pasty-white man filled with gratitude towards the many old and new friends who’d been extending such good cheer and concern my way.  Now the spotlight shifted to Hank and I looked forward to focusing on someone else’s drama for a few hours.

Then there were three

An hour after Hank surged to the front, the five-man pack was trimmed to three; Jasper Mocke, who'd been sparring with Robinson, had faded. Jeremy Cotter appeared to be floundering as well. But two hours into the race, Cory Hill, who'd been 300-to-400 meters behind, closed in a hurry.

Cory Hill

Cory Hill

Zsolt, a formidable figure with a shaved head and ripped torso -- Mr. Clean with a tan -- leaned over the rail. "Cory Hill is just 120 meters back and coming hard on your right!"

Hank nodded and linked three runs. Fifteen minutes later, the ultra-affable 24-year-old Ironman from Adelaide had dropped back.

Paddling with machine-like efficiency, the 36-year old McGregor carried on catching the short, steep lactic-acid-producing runs that were slowly tearing apart those bold or foolish enough to keep pace. Later, Clint would tell me that he began cramping with an hour and a half to go. "I was unable to make my push for home in the last hour as I could hardly pull strokes over 75 percent -- if I tried I had to stop to stretch out my arms." 

Still, roughly 5K from the finish, the three-time Olympic medalist made a charge. This time Zsolt delivered a most unusual soliloquy.  

     "Glory!” he screamed.

     Huh? I thought.  Hank didn't respond.

     "There is no greater thing than standing victorious in the arena!"

     Now I was really confused.  Later, Zsolt told me that he and Hank had been glued all week to the TV Series Spartacus; at the time I assumed the sun was getting to him.

     His fist raised, Zsolt screamed: "Stick your #$@& up his %&#, or you will find a sword in yours!" 

Finally a smile flashed across Hank's mug and, boom, he powered left onto a run, surfed right, linked another bump and padded his lead. Sandman accelerated One Kai towards the point as the three of us screamed like a heavy metal band with Tourette's syndrome.

McGregor's escort boat

McGregor's Escort

Final Sprint

From the end of the wall at Portlock to the finish in the marina in Hawaii Kai can feel like the longest 3K of a paddler's life. Given the large south swell, Sandman instructed Hank to go around the reef and not risk what appeared to be a solid lead.

Hank didn't go inside but he didn't quite go around either. After wending his way through two dozen surfers waiting for the next set, he caught one wave, missed another, slewed down a third and, holy shit, Robinson, the greatest around-the-cans paddler of all time, was right there, rating like he was in an Olympic final. 

Halfway to the bridge, Robinson was just 100 yards back. Did Hank have enough left? Did Robinson have more to give?

Heading under the bridge, roughly 300 meters from the finish, the press boat that had been following along dashed behind McGregor, leaving Robinson a stretch of shit stew to negotiate. Would Robinson had pulled even? From where I sat it appeared not, but he would have been closer than 19 seconds behind at the finish and far less aggrieved.

Clint Robinson

Clint Robinson rides the wave at China Wall a few days before the race 



Afterwards, I caught up with Hank and Cory (3rd), Jezza (4th), and Jasper (5th), and, finally Clint. Focused, principled, intensely driven, Robinson, 41, is an extremely disciplined man with little patience for large groups, small talk or bullshit. Spend any time with him and it's clear that he's made uncommon sacrifices in his pursuit of excellence.

Soon after I began asking him about his race, he cut me off. "Mate, here's the thing. What shits me about Hawaii is I'm always cramping. I want to win a race when it’s big to show my ability. That’s my dream." Pointing to me, he paused. "But this is nothing; it's just a game compared to the battle you've got on your hands. That's the real deal, mate, all the rest is shits and giggles. Take care of yourself and we'll meet again here next year."

It’s not a practical form of therapy, I know, but I wish every cancer patient could spend a week with a group of driven, big-hearted jocks who have to believe, as part of what they do every day, in the human ability to persevere.

There is no greater thing than standing victorious in the arena.


Rachel Clarke

Rachel Clarke (NZ) won the women's race in 4:33:02


2014 Molokai, positions 1-5 (L-R): Hank McGregor (SA), Clint Robinson (Aus), Cory Hill (Aus),

Jeremy Cotter (Aus), Jasper Mocke (SA)



Overall Results

Overall Place Craft FIRST NAME LAST NAME FIRST NAME2 LAST NAME2 FIRST NAME3 LAST NAME3 Country Division Overall Time
1 SS-1 Solo Hank McGregor         SOUTH AFRICA MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 3:35:17
2 SS-1 Solo Clint Robinson         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 3:35:40
3 SS-1 Solo Cory Hill         AUSTRALIA MALE-19-29 Elite Solo SS-1 3:41:49
4 SS-1 Solo Jeremy Cotter         AUSTRALIA MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 3:44:24
5 SS-1 Solo Jasper Mocke         SOUTH AFRICA MALE-19-29 Elite Solo SS-1 3:48:34
6 SS-1 Solo Martin Kenny         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 3:48:50
7 SS-1 Solo Lewis Laughlin         TAHITI MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 3:52:58
8 SS-1 Solo Dorian Wolter         UNITED STATES MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 3:57:46
9 SS-1 Solo Hiromana Flores         TAHITI MALE-19-29 Elite Solo SS-1 3:59:13
10 SS-1 Solo Timothy Altman         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 3:59:13
11 SS-1 Solo Oscar Chalupsky         SOUTH AFRICA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 4:02:15
12 SS-2 Solo Bruce Poacher Ross Poacher     SOUTH AFRICA MENS-Open Relay SS-2 4:02:32
13 OC-1 Relay 3 Paddlers Aaron Napoleon Matthew Dubrule Kai Bartlett HAWAII MALE 39 & Under Relay OC-1 4:04:50
14 OC-1 Relay 3 Paddlers Kekoa Cramer Will Reichenstein Carlos Gomes HAWAII MALE 39 & Under Relay OC-1 4:04:51
15 SS-1 Solo Grant Kenny         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 4:06:06
16 SS-1 Solo Greg Barton         UNITED STATES MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 4:08:40
17 SS-1 Solo Danny Topfer         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:08:57
18 SS-1 Solo Andrew Mowlem         NEW ZEALAND MALE-19-29 Elite Solo SS-1 4:09:11
19 SS-2 Solo Gilles Guedikian Julien Torregrossa   TAHITI MENS-Open Relay SS-2 4:12:31
20 SS-1 Solo Adrian Hybner         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:20:16
25 SS-1 Relay 2 Paddlers Guy Wilding Wayne Dunbar     AUSTRALIA MALE OPEN RELAY SS-1 4:22:40
21 SS-1 Solo Jeff Lemarseny         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:24:08
22 SS-1 Solo Peter McEwen         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:27:42
23 SS-1 Solo Ryan Paroz         AUSTRALIA MALE-19-29 Elite Solo SS-1 4:29:05
24 OC-1 Relay 3 Paddlers Anna Mathisen Lindsey Shank Coral Darbishire HAWAII FEMALE 39 & Under Relay OC-1 4:32:23
26 SS-1 Solo Rachel Clarke         NEW ZEALAND FEMALE-19-29 Solo SS-1 4:33:02
27 SS-1 Solo Rene Appel         HONG KONG MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 4:33:47
28 OC-1 Relay 3 Paddlers Pat Erwin Chris Kincaid Fred Delosantos HAWAII MALE 55-Over Relay OC-1 4:34:51
29 SS-1 Solo Andrew Wheeler         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:37:58
30 SS-2 Solo Dylan Thomas Sarah Waterman   HAWAII MIXED-Open Relay SS-2 4:38:48
31 SS-1 Solo Nathan Haythorpe         AUSTRALIA MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 4:40:36
32 SS-1 Solo Nick Ziviani         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:42:52
33 SS-1 Solo Lisa Wadling         AUSTRALIA FEMALE-30-39 Solo SS-1 4:43:21
34 SS-1 Solo Ben Reitze         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:46:14
35 SS-1 Solo Stewart O'Regan         AUSTRALIA MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 4:47:18
36 SS-1 Solo Charlie Wilkie         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 55-59 Elite Solo 4:51:35
37 SS-1 Solo Joe Kearney         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:52:26
38 SS-1 Solo Paul Gill         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 4:55:51
39 SS-1 Relay 2 Paddlers Jimmy Kincaid Ivan McLvor     HAWAII MALE Open Relay SS-1 5:00:52
40 SS-1 Solo Raymond Waldron         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 55-59 Elite Solo 5:07:21
41 OC-1 Relay 3 Paddlers Aukai Manson Kimo Brown     HAWAII MALE 39 & Under Relay OC-1 5:09:16
42 SS-1 Solo Paul Peterson         UNITED STATES MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 5:09:38
43 SS-1 Solo Nick Murray         UNITED STATES MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 5:13:14
44 SS-2 Solo Kerry Davenport Linda Ng     AUSTRALIA FEMALE-Open Relay SS-2 5:16:47
45 SS-1 Relay 2 Paddlers Shekhar Kumta Paul Etherington   HONG KONG MALE Open Relay SS-1 5:17:28
46 SS-1 Solo Kimberley Bingham         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 55-59 Elite Solo 5:20:14
47 SS-1 Solo Phil Gumbert         UNITED STATES MALE-SR.MASTER 55-59 Elite Solo 5:22:07
48 SS-1 Solo Ross McNally         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 5:23:35
49 SS-1 Solo Graeme Orr         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 5:24:12
50 SS-1 Solo Ale Hedlund         HAWAII FEMALE-Jr 18 & Under Solo 5:24:31
51 SS-1 Solo Andrew Sneddon         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 5:32:29
52 SS-1 Relay 2 Paddlers Sally Marks Alena Greensill     AUSTRALIA FEMALE Open Relay SS-1 5:38:39
53 SS-1 Solo David Johnstone         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 5:39:31
54 SS-1 Solo Steven Quick         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 5:42:18
55 SS-1 Solo Greg McCurdy         AUSTRALIA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 5:45:45
56 SS-1 Solo Andrew O'Meally         AUSTRALIA MALE-MASTER 40-49 Elite Solo 5:48:11
57 SS-1 Solo Charles Brand         HAWAII/S. AFRICA MALE-SR.MASTER 50-54 Elite Solo 5:48:39
58 SS-1 Solo Jonathan Stack         HAWAII MALE-30-39 Elite Solo SS-1 5:51:28
59 Prone Paddleboard Mike Cote Brad Gaul Mitch De Geus HAWAII MALE 1-39 Unlimited 5:56:42
60 SUP Kelsa Gabehart Jen Polcer Alexia Lopez HAWAII FEMALE 40-99 Unlimited Relay 6:55:02



[Editor] Here's a shout out for Joe's book on Freya Hoffmeister's extraordinary solo sea kayak circumnavigation around Australia...

The top review on Amazon (written by me!) reads:

Joe Glickman is well known in the kayaking world for his highly entertaining style of writing and he doesn't disappoint in this, his book about Freya Hoffmeister's extraordinary paddle around Australia.

Humorous and insightful by turns, Glickman describes how Hoffmeister took on the challenges of sharks, salt water crocodiles, sea snakes and, most of all, some of the most savage weather conditions to be found on the planet. Apart from the 375 mile direct route that she took across the Gulf of Carpenteria (seven nights on the open ocean, "sleeping" balanced on the back deck), the most trying section of the trip was along the notorious Zuytdorp Cliffs - a 120 mile stretch along the western Australian coast that combined massive swells rebounding off sheer cliff faces, a headwind and no way out. Hoffmeister suffered brutal seasickness but toughed it out to become the second person ever to solo the route. She completed the circumnavigation in 332 days, paddling 8,565mi (13,790km) as she did so. Her aim was to beat the (only) previous time by Paul Caffyn who did the trip (assisted the whole way; Freya was assisted only the final 20% of the distance) in 360 days in 1980

Most intriguing though, is Glickman's treatment of Freya "the woman in black" Hoffmeister the person.

Glickman's exasperation with Hoffmeister's almost total lack of interest in the history of her surroundings (she landed on Restoration Island - visited in 1789 by Captain Bligh on his epic journey after the mutiny on the Bounty), and her refusal to admit to or discuss any hint of fear ("What's the problem?") is obvious, but, by the end of the book it is clear that he has a whole-hearted admiration for Hoffmeister's achievements and an empathy with her somewhat unusual character.

And it's this that makes the book so much more than a run of the mill epic adventure story - and perhaps the reason that the non-paddling members of my family enjoyed the story so much.

Sea Kayakers will love this book - simply because it describes one the most extraordinary journeys ever undertaken in a paddle craft. But having observed the reaction of the other (female, non-paddling) members of my household, it seems to me that this book has a much wider audience.

As for me, I devoured it and was left asking for more.

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