The Conditions:

One of the things that makes Molokai so challenging is that the conditions can vary so dramatically. It can be punishingly hot and flat where athletes must grinding across a mirror like ocean or the wind can blow like a tropical storm and churn the channel into a frothing mess. This year conditions were nearly perfect. Temperatures were in the mid 80s F ( high 20s C) with winds from the East/Northeast pushing at 15-20 knots across the channel. The wind was strong and consistent enough to generate possible record breaking speeds, but not so strong as to send the ocean into chaos. The launch from the starting beach was a little trickier than usual with big swell rolling in on race morning, but luckily there was plenty of time between waves and sets and if timed properly getting out to the start line was straight forward. This year, anyone lucky enough to line up for the Molokai Challenge was in for a treat (I’m not saying it wasn’t shaping up to be a soul crushingly tough battle, I’m just saying at least you would be happily surfing while you suffered).

 Molokai beach - Austin Kieffer

The Race:

When the gun finally did go off, the field tore off the line. With near perfect downwind conditions and a big cash prize for the man and/or woman who could win while setting a new course record, everyone shot out hard from the word go. The first few minutes were rough. Of course they were not “rough” found in traditional surfski races, the too-fast-for-comfort rough that comes after a healthy dose muscle burning speed and money on the line for athlete with the fastest first kilometer to the hotspot. No, the start of the Molokai was a different kind of rough. A rough that comes after. After a scramble out to a leading position, after checking around and feeling comfortable that the race favorites were in touch, after trying to find a surfing rhythm in the early building downwind ripples, after overcoming a panic because the usual fire I have in training was absent from my stroke, after feeling constricted by athletes around me who weren’t cutting left and right on the waves like they should, after deciding that despite feeling flat, the start was going much better than last year, after reconsidering and thinking “maybe not, am I going too hard?”, after throttling on and off that pace to see what was absolutely necessary to maintain contact with the leaders, after thinking ok this pace is about right, after deciding to look at the watch to see how much longer I had at this pace, and after looking down to see 2 minutes and 48 seconds on the elapsed time. Less than three minutes of a 200 minute race?!? That kind of rough. It was going to be one heck of a long race.

The race had a strong showing of the world’s top competitors and there were at least ten who could podium on the right day, it was going to be a war of attrition and tactics. Who could hold a race winning pace the longest and make all the right tactical decisions along the way. Last year, I had made a major mistake by trying to set off on my own. The lead pack took off on a more northerly course planning to take advantage of later wind and currents that would be directly behind them. I decided that I could beat them to the finish if I took the most direct line point to point. It paid off early and technically I pulled ahead of the leaders on the more direct line, but it was a foolish gamble and the top 6 competitors all passed me in the last third of the race to finish. Leaving behind and crossing the finish in a stunned 7th place. I still wasn’t confident in my knowledge of the tides, currents and optimal lines, but I decided to put my money on Cory and Hank. My plan this year was to follow them. Let them grapple with the tactical decisions and simply play a game of follow the leaders. Sure enough Hank and Cory pulled out into the lead early with a charging Pat Dolan beside them. All three of them set off on the Northern line and the rest of the field gave chase.

The start went much better than it had last year and I felt comfortable and in touch. But I worryingly, I didn’t have the snap and fire I had hoped for on race day. I tried to push those thoughts of doubt out of my mind and focus on my own rhythm.

Molokai boat wake and chop

As a swarm of chasing athletes surfed around me, I found my attention wandering. I was focusing my competition and my overall standing the field instead of the wave in front of me. I shook myself to refocus. I was finding it harder than usual to find my surfing rhythm. Maybe it was the armada of escort boats confusing the water or maybe I had lost some finesse in bigger ocean conditions since my training camp in Hawaii. I needed to find my own clean water where I could escape the boat washes and the athletes around me. Despite the voice inside screaming that I was an idiot to willingly make the mistakes of last year, I dipped south and surfed away from the lead group. I knew it was a tactical error I might not recover from, but I also knew that if I didn’t sort out my surfing, I had no hope at all.

I put my focus on the water around me, tried to push the frustration out of my mind and immersed myself in the waves. Slowly, much more slowly than I would have liked, I felt myself connecting with the rhythm and pattern of the downwind. I was no longer just surfing a wave and then paddling until I caught the next wave, I was maintaining the speed and energy of the ocean whether I was on a wave or not. Finally, I was surfing and paddling the way I needed to. Time to see if I had a comeback in me.

I looked north to the escort boats dotting the ocean, each one indicating a competitor. I could see that even though all athletes were north of me, they were starting to spread out. Some were still pushing north while others had dropped closer to me on a more southern line. Seeing those athletes, I remembered the two goals I had for this race: one, give every ounce of effort I had to crossing the channel and two, I wanted some kind of a battle. Even though my race plan had quickly diverged from the race win, both of my goals were still achievable. I had two things to do. I needed to make my way back north and I needed to hunt down some racers.

I surfed down waves and cut aggressively to the right, trying to harness the speed and momentum of the downwind to slingshot myself north without losing too much ground on those charging straight ahead. I worked away on my push North. It’s funny because while the first three minutes of the race are seared into my brain with startling detail, the rest of the entire downwind crossing seem to occupy about the same amount of memory real-estate. I don’t know if it was the focus or if I tried not the think about the suffering and the passage of time, but I only remember flashes and key tactical moments. For example, I remember finally coming north enough to line up with my competitors. After pushing hard north, I had lined up behind Ali Day with Clint ahead of him. I was depressingly far back, maybe 500 meters or more behind Clint with Ali between us. “Ok,” I told myself, “you’ve got two incredible athletes ahead of you. Let’s get to battling.” The next hour of racing was worth the whole trip.

Molokai surfing

I had found my rhythm in the waves and it was on. I was finally surfing well, attacking and surging for openings and efficiently using the energy of ocean between attacks. I made ground on Ali and Clint both. I drew close to Ali first and out of the corner of my eye, I watched him paddle. He was paddling a lot more than I was. I had never raced Ali before, but I knew him to be one of the most decorated ocean endurance athletes in the world. Watching him paddle, I could see that if I had any chance to beat him, it would have to be now in the waves. He clearly had the fitness and fire I lacked and despite surfing so well, he somehow was overpowering my finesse to stay level with me. I focused back on the waves and tried to focus on Clint out ahead of us instead of the animal charging beside me.

It worked, focusing on Clint out in front, I was able to drop Ali and with every attack I was gaining on Clint. He had kept ahead of me for so long, but as I chased openings and bigger swell, I began to hunt him down quickly until I was suddenly even with him as well. I jumped onto another wave and just like that, I surfed past him. He surged back on me and for a while we fought wave for wave. I was euphoric. This is how I had wanted the race to go, battling with legends. I was surfing so well, I had momentum and with another push, I left him. We only had about 12km to go (9 in the waves and then 3 in the flat). I looked back I could see that I had pulled a gap on Clint. And I didn’t know it at the time, but over the course of the last 30km, I had pulled myself from 10th in my southern regroup and was now sitting in 4th. I doubled down to bring it home. That is when both my elbows cramped.

Luckily, neither elbow fully cramped, they just spasmed as I pulled hard to accelerate. I had heard many stories of people cramping at the very end of the race and losing it all, I needed to sort this out. I backed off the pace a little and tried to focus in on surfing as efficiently as possible. I was still surfing well and hopefully I could keep Clint at bay while I processed a solution. Since I still had the mental drive and desire to push, I decided it must be electrolyte deficiency and not a fueling issue. I needed salts. I only had water in my bladder, but I knew a place where I could find easy salt. I cupped my hand and splashed three small swallows of ocean water into my mouth. I kept surfing and paddling. I held off from major pushes, but hopefully I could keep the pace high, fight off the cramps and stay ahead of Clint.

I don’t know if it was because my pace really backed off that much or if Clint and Ali saw me slow and mad surges of their own, but a few minutes later they pulled even with me and I was once again locked in a battle. Despite, the elbow cramps and fearing to push too hard, we three had an amazing battle over the next few kilometers. We wove around each other and at one point we all dropped down on the same wave. After 45 km of open ocean crossing, we converged on the same wave and were within touching distance. It was definitely a moment to remember.

Molokai three on same wave

We danced around each other for a while longer and then Ali made another push ahead. Neither Clint or I could answer. It was all I could do to hang on. I seemed to have handled my cramping issue, but I could feel myself fading. I dug in and fought to stay with Clint.
Just as we reached China Wall, marking the end of the downwind and the final crux move of the race, Josh Fenn surfed up and passed Clint and I on a tight line close to the cliffs. We came to the final breaking wave at China Wall in a line, Josh in front, Clint a boat length back and me two boat lengths behind Clint (Ali had pulled ahead in the final few kilometers). The wave was massive. Unsure of what to do and where to go, I backed off. The last thing I wanted to do was make a mistake here and destroy my Fenn boat on a reef.

Molokai - Macca on Wave

Josh took the opportunity and the lead and capitalized by catching a wave and leapfrogging ahead. Clint put a little more distance on me in my uncertainty between waves. I finally decided to let Clint do the worrying and line choice. All I had to do was paddle as hard and trust he was making the right choice. We got past the major breaking wave and as the finish loomed closer we just had a series of smaller waves and reefs to navigate. Using Clint as I guide I was able to put my head down and catch him. On one of the final waves, we pulled onto the same wave together and we surfed until it petered out. As we revved up for the final kilometer of flat water, Clint then started one more push, but sadly, I was done. The last of my fire was spent. I gave it my all but Clint pulled away and it was all I could do to limp across the line for another 7th place.

It was a heck of a race and an incredible experience. I can’t say I am proud of my result (I was definitely hoping for a position much higher than 7th, but I am certainly proud of not giving up and I am so grateful for the amazing downwind battle I had with Clint and Ali in the last third of the race. Racing well continues to prove an elusive goal, but I will keep trying.

Next stop, the Canadian Champs and the Gorge Downwind Champs!

Results:

1) Hank McGregor
2) Cory Hill
3) Pat Dolan
4) Ali Day
5) Josh Fenn
6) Clint Robinson
7) Austin Kieffer
8) Mackenzie Hynard
9) Michael Booth
10) Nick Gale

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019
    Austin's Blog

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13, 2019

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15, 2019
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    Saturday 28, Sept. 2019

The Conditions:

One of the things that makes Molokai so challenging is that the conditions can vary so dramatically. It can be punishingly hot and flat where athletes must grinding across a mirror like ocean or the wind can blow like a tropical storm and churn the channel into a frothing mess. This year conditions were nearly perfect. Temperatures were in the mid 80s F ( high 20s C) with winds from the East/Northeast pushing at 15-20 knots across the channel. The wind was strong and consistent enough to generate possible record breaking speeds, but not so strong as to send the ocean into chaos. The launch from the starting beach was a little trickier than usual with big swell rolling in on race morning, but luckily there was plenty of time between waves and sets and if timed properly getting out to the start line was straight forward. This year, anyone lucky enough to line up for the Molokai Challenge was in for a treat (I’m not saying it wasn’t shaping up to be a soul crushingly tough battle, I’m just saying at least you would be happily surfing while you suffered).

 Molokai beach - Austin Kieffer

The Race:

When the gun finally did go off, the field tore off the line. With near perfect downwind conditions and a big cash prize for the man and/or woman who could win while setting a new course record, everyone shot out hard from the word go. The first few minutes were rough. Of course they were not “rough” found in traditional surfski races, the too-fast-for-comfort rough that comes after a healthy dose muscle burning speed and money on the line for athlete with the fastest first kilometer to the hotspot. No, the start of the Molokai was a different kind of rough. A rough that comes after. After a scramble out to a leading position, after checking around and feeling comfortable that the race favorites were in touch, after trying to find a surfing rhythm in the early building downwind ripples, after overcoming a panic because the usual fire I have in training was absent from my stroke, after feeling constricted by athletes around me who weren’t cutting left and right on the waves like they should, after deciding that despite feeling flat, the start was going much better than last year, after reconsidering and thinking “maybe not, am I going too hard?”, after throttling on and off that pace to see what was absolutely necessary to maintain contact with the leaders, after thinking ok this pace is about right, after deciding to look at the watch to see how much longer I had at this pace, and after looking down to see 2 minutes and 48 seconds on the elapsed time. Less than three minutes of a 200 minute race?!? That kind of rough. It was going to be one heck of a long race.

The race had a strong showing of the world’s top competitors and there were at least ten who could podium on the right day, it was going to be a war of attrition and tactics. Who could hold a race winning pace the longest and make all the right tactical decisions along the way. Last year, I had made a major mistake by trying to set off on my own. The lead pack took off on a more northerly course planning to take advantage of later wind and currents that would be directly behind them. I decided that I could beat them to the finish if I took the most direct line point to point. It paid off early and technically I pulled ahead of the leaders on the more direct line, but it was a foolish gamble and the top 6 competitors all passed me in the last third of the race to finish. Leaving behind and crossing the finish in a stunned 7th place. I still wasn’t confident in my knowledge of the tides, currents and optimal lines, but I decided to put my money on Cory and Hank. My plan this year was to follow them. Let them grapple with the tactical decisions and simply play a game of follow the leaders. Sure enough Hank and Cory pulled out into the lead early with a charging Pat Dolan beside them. All three of them set off on the Northern line and the rest of the field gave chase.

The start went much better than it had last year and I felt comfortable and in touch. But I worryingly, I didn’t have the snap and fire I had hoped for on race day. I tried to push those thoughts of doubt out of my mind and focus on my own rhythm.

Molokai boat wake and chop

As a swarm of chasing athletes surfed around me, I found my attention wandering. I was focusing my competition and my overall standing the field instead of the wave in front of me. I shook myself to refocus. I was finding it harder than usual to find my surfing rhythm. Maybe it was the armada of escort boats confusing the water or maybe I had lost some finesse in bigger ocean conditions since my training camp in Hawaii. I needed to find my own clean water where I could escape the boat washes and the athletes around me. Despite the voice inside screaming that I was an idiot to willingly make the mistakes of last year, I dipped south and surfed away from the lead group. I knew it was a tactical error I might not recover from, but I also knew that if I didn’t sort out my surfing, I had no hope at all.

I put my focus on the water around me, tried to push the frustration out of my mind and immersed myself in the waves. Slowly, much more slowly than I would have liked, I felt myself connecting with the rhythm and pattern of the downwind. I was no longer just surfing a wave and then paddling until I caught the next wave, I was maintaining the speed and energy of the ocean whether I was on a wave or not. Finally, I was surfing and paddling the way I needed to. Time to see if I had a comeback in me.

I looked north to the escort boats dotting the ocean, each one indicating a competitor. I could see that even though all athletes were north of me, they were starting to spread out. Some were still pushing north while others had dropped closer to me on a more southern line. Seeing those athletes, I remembered the two goals I had for this race: one, give every ounce of effort I had to crossing the channel and two, I wanted some kind of a battle. Even though my race plan had quickly diverged from the race win, both of my goals were still achievable. I had two things to do. I needed to make my way back north and I needed to hunt down some racers.

I surfed down waves and cut aggressively to the right, trying to harness the speed and momentum of the downwind to slingshot myself north without losing too much ground on those charging straight ahead. I worked away on my push North. It’s funny because while the first three minutes of the race are seared into my brain with startling detail, the rest of the entire downwind crossing seem to occupy about the same amount of memory real-estate. I don’t know if it was the focus or if I tried not the think about the suffering and the passage of time, but I only remember flashes and key tactical moments. For example, I remember finally coming north enough to line up with my competitors. After pushing hard north, I had lined up behind Ali Day with Clint ahead of him. I was depressingly far back, maybe 500 meters or more behind Clint with Ali between us. “Ok,” I told myself, “you’ve got two incredible athletes ahead of you. Let’s get to battling.” The next hour of racing was worth the whole trip.

Molokai surfing

I had found my rhythm in the waves and it was on. I was finally surfing well, attacking and surging for openings and efficiently using the energy of ocean between attacks. I made ground on Ali and Clint both. I drew close to Ali first and out of the corner of my eye, I watched him paddle. He was paddling a lot more than I was. I had never raced Ali before, but I knew him to be one of the most decorated ocean endurance athletes in the world. Watching him paddle, I could see that if I had any chance to beat him, it would have to be now in the waves. He clearly had the fitness and fire I lacked and despite surfing so well, he somehow was overpowering my finesse to stay level with me. I focused back on the waves and tried to focus on Clint out ahead of us instead of the animal charging beside me.

It worked, focusing on Clint out in front, I was able to drop Ali and with every attack I was gaining on Clint. He had kept ahead of me for so long, but as I chased openings and bigger swell, I began to hunt him down quickly until I was suddenly even with him as well. I jumped onto another wave and just like that, I surfed past him. He surged back on me and for a while we fought wave for wave. I was euphoric. This is how I had wanted the race to go, battling with legends. I was surfing so well, I had momentum and with another push, I left him. We only had about 12km to go (9 in the waves and then 3 in the flat). I looked back I could see that I had pulled a gap on Clint. And I didn’t know it at the time, but over the course of the last 30km, I had pulled myself from 10th in my southern regroup and was now sitting in 4th. I doubled down to bring it home. That is when both my elbows cramped.

Luckily, neither elbow fully cramped, they just spasmed as I pulled hard to accelerate. I had heard many stories of people cramping at the very end of the race and losing it all, I needed to sort this out. I backed off the pace a little and tried to focus in on surfing as efficiently as possible. I was still surfing well and hopefully I could keep Clint at bay while I processed a solution. Since I still had the mental drive and desire to push, I decided it must be electrolyte deficiency and not a fueling issue. I needed salts. I only had water in my bladder, but I knew a place where I could find easy salt. I cupped my hand and splashed three small swallows of ocean water into my mouth. I kept surfing and paddling. I held off from major pushes, but hopefully I could keep the pace high, fight off the cramps and stay ahead of Clint.

I don’t know if it was because my pace really backed off that much or if Clint and Ali saw me slow and mad surges of their own, but a few minutes later they pulled even with me and I was once again locked in a battle. Despite, the elbow cramps and fearing to push too hard, we three had an amazing battle over the next few kilometers. We wove around each other and at one point we all dropped down on the same wave. After 45 km of open ocean crossing, we converged on the same wave and were within touching distance. It was definitely a moment to remember.

Molokai three on same wave

We danced around each other for a while longer and then Ali made another push ahead. Neither Clint or I could answer. It was all I could do to hang on. I seemed to have handled my cramping issue, but I could feel myself fading. I dug in and fought to stay with Clint.
Just as we reached China Wall, marking the end of the downwind and the final crux move of the race, Josh Fenn surfed up and passed Clint and I on a tight line close to the cliffs. We came to the final breaking wave at China Wall in a line, Josh in front, Clint a boat length back and me two boat lengths behind Clint (Ali had pulled ahead in the final few kilometers). The wave was massive. Unsure of what to do and where to go, I backed off. The last thing I wanted to do was make a mistake here and destroy my Fenn boat on a reef.

Molokai - Macca on Wave

Josh took the opportunity and the lead and capitalized by catching a wave and leapfrogging ahead. Clint put a little more distance on me in my uncertainty between waves. I finally decided to let Clint do the worrying and line choice. All I had to do was paddle as hard and trust he was making the right choice. We got past the major breaking wave and as the finish loomed closer we just had a series of smaller waves and reefs to navigate. Using Clint as I guide I was able to put my head down and catch him. On one of the final waves, we pulled onto the same wave together and we surfed until it petered out. As we revved up for the final kilometer of flat water, Clint then started one more push, but sadly, I was done. The last of my fire was spent. I gave it my all but Clint pulled away and it was all I could do to limp across the line for another 7th place.

It was a heck of a race and an incredible experience. I can’t say I am proud of my result (I was definitely hoping for a position much higher than 7th, but I am certainly proud of not giving up and I am so grateful for the amazing downwind battle I had with Clint and Ali in the last third of the race. Racing well continues to prove an elusive goal, but I will keep trying.

Next stop, the Canadian Champs and the Gorge Downwind Champs!

Results:

1) Hank McGregor
2) Cory Hill
3) Pat Dolan
4) Ali Day
5) Josh Fenn
6) Clint Robinson
7) Austin Kieffer
8) Mackenzie Hynard
9) Michael Booth
10) Nick Gale

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13th

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    TBD Fall 2019