Large waves at 2012 Na Wahine O Ke Kai
Safety issues, blow-by-blow stories and after the race:
By Bobbie Poppler,
The 34th annual Na Wahine O Ke Kai, a women’s canoe race that stretches from Molokaʻi to Oʻahu will go down in outrigger canoe history, not because of the channel crossing itself, but because of something entirely different.
Na Wahine O Ke Kai racers got down to the Hale O Lono harbor on Molokai, early on Sunday Sept. 23 to find an unprecedented sight. A north swell had filled in over night and with the tide, the racers found themselves looking 15-foot [sometimes pushing 20-foot] waves crashing, breaking, and closing out the harbor mouth. The harbor mouth they needed to paddle out to get to the race start.
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The Na Wahine O Ke Kai race organizers decided that the race would go on, and said that it was up to the coaches and crews to decide if they would compete. No one had to race if they felt the crew was not able. The large waves and getting out safely was on most racers’ minds.
Although many were skeptical and scared, all 71 crews attempted to get to the start line. Some say problems began in the harbor itself. Hale O Lono is a small harbor and trying to fit 71 canoes and their escort boats with the relief paddlers on board made everything that much more hectic.Safety became a serious issue when canoes, sometimes very close together attempted to paddle through the harbor during what they thought to be a lull in the sets. The large waves brought a whole new challenge to the already difficult 40-plus mile race. Was the race going to be canceled? How were the crews going to get out safely?
A total of 10 canoes either hulied (capsized) or were filled with water when waves as large as 20-feet hit. A Kailua canoe’s ‘iako was hit and broken when another canoe was slammed into them, while another woman from Lanikai Canoe Club was injured trying to keep her crew’s canoe upright. All canoes fortunately made it out and proceeded to race, except for the Kailua crew and Stephanie Dean of Lanikai who was injured.
This video shows it all.
After all was said and done, almost all the racers and coaches agree that the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race organization could have done some things differently to ensure the safety of the women and the canoes. These are some of the safety ideas that the racers and coaches believe should have been implemented:
- Implement a general safety protocol an make it known to all racers, announcing how serious the situation really is;
- Delay the start, until all canoes make it out;
- Have [multiple] jet skis with safety personnel aboard;
- Have a designated race official[s] tell when crews should go;
- Only allow a certain number of canoes to paddle out at one time;
- Announce that going to the right side of the harbor is an option;
- Have the Molokai Fire Department already down at the start, ready to respond [Just-in-case].
Although most of the racers had differing opinions on what the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race organization should have done better that morning, most agreed that the race should not have been canceled. Dean, who is still dealing with shoulder pain and is coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, believes otherwise: “If race organizers could not figure out a way to get 70+ crews to the start line safely, without injury or boat damage caused by the wave conditions, then they should have made the call to cancel the race.”
Lori Nakamura from Team Bradley [the winning crew] had a differing opinion, but her crew also had a different experience that morning. Nakamura and her crew did not paddle through the waves in the harbor; they went to the right side of the harbor and pushed through much smaller waves.
“I do not think the race should’ve been cancelled.” Nakamura said. “The channel itself has been gnarlier than the conditions that were presented to us that day and the majority of the crews did make it out safely. We all put in many hours over the last number months to train and prepare for this ‘World Championship’ race, and I feel like that’s the last thing anyone would have wanted that morning.”
Some racers defended the Na Wahine race organization’s decision to not intervene and help the canoes because of liability issues. Meaning, if a race official told a crew when to paddle out through the surf, and the canoe got hit by a wave and someone got injured, the paddler could sue.
Luke Evslin, a prominent figure in the paddling community, was seriously injured in the 2010 Molokai Hoe race and because of his injuries, both the Molokai Hoe and the Na Wahine O Ke Kai implemented new safety precautions. Evslin notes that the race officials most likely didn’t intervene because of liability issues, but doesn’t believe that is a good enough reason to not ensure the safety of the paddlers.
“What I don’t understand is how OHCRA and Na Wahine let that affect them.” Evslin said. “That they will sacrifice safety to avoid a law-suit. In my opinion, they should do everything they can to keep people safe, and if someone sues and OHCRA’s insurance policy goes up, so be it. That’s what insurance is for.”
The 2012 men’s Molokai Hoe on March 7 implemented additional safety protocols because of the events of the Na Wahine of Ke Kai. The Molokai Hoe organizers had one Jet Ski with a water safety expert aboard, who was monitoring the harbor opening. Fortunately the Hale O Lono harbor opening was free of waves and the men got to the starting line without any complications.
Racers are hopeful that in the years to come both the Na Wahine O Ke Kai and the men’s Molokai Hoe will be more prepared in the case of large waves in the harbor mouth. But one thing racers do know is that the 2012 Na Wahine O Ke Kai will be remembered for a very long time.
From Dean and the women of Kailua:
Angela Britten, of Kailua Canoe Club recalls looking around while sitting in seat one [the front of the canoe] and watching all the canoes jockey for a good position to see the waves and get out safely. Britten said, “This is where the madness became just plain insanity. You could see everyone looking like deer caught in headlights. Eyes wide, voices and tempers strained.”
The first group of canoes made it out safely through the harbor channel during a lull in between sets. But the next groups were not as lucky. Stephanie Dean, from Lanikai Canoe Club recalls watching the carnage from seat four in her canoe. Dean said, “I saw a bunch of canoes rush the harbor channel and just get hammered…hulied canoes, swamped canoes, bodies in the water in the middle of the surf and huge waves and whitewash.”
Even after watching that carnage, many crews still needed to attempt to get to the starting line. To add to the confusion, local spectators on the jetties of the harbor were trying help the canoes get through the channel. Kehau Makaena-Gillum, also of Kailua Canoe Club, sat seat two behind Britten said, “We couldn’t see when the sets coming in or dying down so we listened to some of the locals on the wall who could see how the sets were playing. They would signal and yell to us and other canoes to wait and when to go.”
Britten also paying attention to the people on the jetties said, “We kept our eyes on them, they started to yell ‘Go!’ and I just put my head down and paddled. Unfortunately, the time between sets when we chose to head out had shrunk from 3 minutes (to sprint a half mile) to 34 seconds.”
Steerswoman [of Makaena-Gillum and Britten’s canoe], Shaunessy Em said, “As we started to sprint, I could see a swell coming at us, and I knew right then that it wasn’t the right time, but we were already committed.”
Dean, and her Lanikai crew also attempted to make it through the harbor channel at the same time right next to Kailua. Both crews went over a small wave, and then barely made it over a large peaking wave, only to look up and see an even bigger wave.
Dean said, “Anticipating the wave and not wanting us to huli, I reached out as far as I could onto the back iako from seat 4, and it felt like hundreds of pounds of water hit me square in the shoulder. My outstretched body buckled under the weight of the water. Left side body bowed into the gunnel of the canoe. My shoulder hyper extended.”
Dean, although in a lot of pain, made it through the wave and her crew proceeded to paddle out past the breaking waves. But after trying to paddle through the pain Dean had to drop out of the race before it began.
Dean said, “Although it was hard for me to admit to myself and to others that I was injured, I knew I couldn’t paddle. The pain was not getting better, and I could not get a full stroke. I didn’t know what injuries I had sustained yet, and thought my ribs might be broken.”
Dean was put on the medical boat, and then eventually taken to Molokai General Hospital for injuries to her ribs and shoulder.
The Kailua crew with Britten, Makaena-Gillum and Em, sadly did not make it either. Because both crews were angled right, trying to get to the shoulder of the wave and out of the peak, they ended up right next to each other. The wave broke, hitting Britten and Makaena-Gillum first and sent them flying out of canoe, meanwhile, Lanikai’s canoe was pushed into Kailua and broke their canoe’s ‘iako (the wooden piece that hold the ama to the hull of the canoe) and then the Kailua canoe flipped.
Makaena-Gillum said, “The wave broke, Angie and I flew out in front, the canoe flipped and I remember hearing the ‘iako snap when I was under water. I knew we were done.”
The danger and trouble didn’t stop even after Kailua’s canoe flipped and broke. The women and canoe were still in the impact zone of the large waves. After surfacing Makaena-Gillum said, “All I was worried about at this point was making sure everyone was up and safe.” Makaena-Gillum and Britten ended up about 25-feet away from the canoe when they surfaced, and had to swim towards it.
Kailua had to tie the canoe’s ama and ‘iako together, all still in the impact zone and then eventually paddled out past the breaking waves. They sat in their broken canoe for a long time and eventually watched the race start without them. Not only was their canoe broken, but so was their spirits. Makaena-Gillum said, “Doing the channel means more to me than just paddling, and to see everyone start while I was bailing just broke my heart.”
The next problem for the Kailua crew was how to get the canoe back through the surf and back to shore. It was too dangerous for the crew to try and paddle the canoe in through the surf, so they decided to tow the canoe in behind their escort boat. But someone had to be in the canoe to make sure it was towed straight. That job was left up to steerswoman Em.
Em said, “Knowing somebody was going to have to steer the canoe in, I volunteered. I did silly things like that while I was a lifeguard, and I couldn’t shirk the responsibility off to anyone else – I couldn’t abandon ship.”
Still Kailua received no help from the race organization. Em steered the 40-foot long canoe, which was being towed in fast to avoid swells that were building behind Em and the canoe. Everything was going fine until the knots that kept the canoe straight fell off. Em specifically remembers thinking, “I don’t think that’s supposed to do that . . . this can’t be safe.” Em and the canoe very fortunately made it back into the harbor unhurt and the ordeal for the Kailua crew was finally over.
Although heartbroken that they could not compete, the Kailua crew was grateful that no was seriously injured, and flew back to Oahu the same day.
Comments made on social media sites sadden and anger:
Social media sites like Facebook, OceanPaddler.com and OCPaddler were among the first sites to post evidence of the waves at the 2012 Na Wahine O Ke Kai. Many comments accompanied the photos and videos that were flying around the web, and not all of the comments were nice.
A chief upset was that a lot of the commenters were not there. They were not down at Hale O Lono to see first hand what was happening, and thus their comments were unappreciated and unjustified.
Kailua steerswoman Em felt offended and slighted after reading some Facebook posts and OCPaddler forums. Em said, “I was really upset – they were judging the situation off clips of video and pictures. They were not there, and didn’t have to make the hard decisions.”
Em felt further insulted by some comments that deemed the women incompetent paddlers because they were hit by the waves. Some commenters said that if the women could not get through the surf, then they shouldn’t be racing at all. “I felt judged and disgusted by the comments I read,” said Em. “As paddlers, nobody trains to paddle through those waves. For them to expect perfection and coordination on the paddle out was frustrating – there were bound to be problems.”
Evslin agrees with Em and was upset at the comments and found them very disrespectful. “Yes, obviously crews need to be physically prepared for the stress of racing across,” said Evslin. “They need to have extensive ocean experience. But who has experience timing sets and charging through them? Nobody.”
Evslin recalls that the three crews who possibly got hit hardest by the waves (and of which were the most documented) were Lanikai (Dean’s crew), Kailua and Pu’uwai from Kauai.
Of these crews, “Lanikai and Kailua both train in the roughest ocean conditions of any club in the world,” said Evslin. “The captain of the Pu’uwai team is a professional sailor and has arguably spent more time in the ocean than anyone out there that day. Yet those three got slammed. It goes to show that ocean experience is irrelevant in that scenario.”
Although many comments were not respectful, there were many that were and still are appreciated. Those comments that were respectful will help perpetuate the strength of the women who participated in the 2012 Na Wahine O Ke Kai.