escort boat molokai

Molokai Escort Boats  – A unique experience

I’ve been overwhelmed by all the positive feedback and responses to my blog describing my Molokai 2014 race day experience.   It is such an amazing race with so many unique and intriguing aspects as well as learning opportunities.  I am convinced it has the potential to grow beyond just the elite group who forms the majority of racers today.    One of aspects that I found especially unique and fascinating was the escort boat experience.

For those of you who may not be aware,  each racer in the Molokai Channel Crossing is required to have a dedicated escort boat.   I’m not 100% certain, but I believe this to be the case for all Molokai races including the SUPs,  Prone Boards, Outrigger Canoes, etc.   Having now paddled across the channel on a flat day,  I can understand why race organizers would require this.   I can’t even imagine how crazy it gets out there on a windy day 15 miles from shore.

The beginning of the escort boat experience

The escort boat experience starts with the first call to secure a captain and boat,  usually 2-3 months before the race.   As I talked to other paddlers,  we all seemed to have exactly the same experience.   The paddler calls to talk to the captain,  paddler is very concerned about details, specifics,  cost, securing payment, etc.    The escort boat captain basically says “no worries, I’ve gotcha covered, see you when you get to Hawaii”. So you don’t have to make a deposit, in fact you don’t even confirm a price,   let alone sign waivers, etc.     For the “Type A”  paddler/racer living in mainland US or any other country, this definitely seems a bit concerning.   Welcome to Hawaii life  🙂

The race organizers hold a pre-race meeting on Wed (race is always on Sun)  where the paddlers are encouraged to meet their escort boat captains  to discuss race plans, strategy,  gear, and most importantly, how your escort driver will spot you in a pack of 60 almost identical looking surfskis.    Some of the captains will ask for half the payment at this time and the remainder at the end of the race.  My captain wasn’t too concerned and just asked that I pay him when the race was finished.

The serious racers will want to discuss optimal lines across the channel based on winds, tides, currents, and prevailing swell direction.   They will also have very specific plans for refueling including switching out hydration bladders and replenishing food supplies, to which the captain typically responds “no worries” we got it,  followed by,  “what day is the race?”.     It is such a fascinating combination of the intense, focused, competitive racer who is now dependent on the ultra laid back Hawaiian boat captain / fisherman.    But somehow, time and time again it all works, and actually quite well.

I was not actually on the “serious racer” end of the spectrum for Molokai,  and didn’t have any unique requirements or even gear to put on my escort boat.   I had planned to carry what I needed on my boat,  but my driver was very generous offering to stock any hydration and food supplies that I might need.   I was grateful for this and was happy to know that if I did run out of supplies on my boat,  my escort had plenty of backup.

A minor mix up at the start

Most of the escort boats will head over to Molokai the night before the race to do some fishing.   You are usually welcome to ride across on your escort boat if you’ve booked a room on Molokai,  but the majority of paddlers seemed to opt for flying over the morning of the race.   When I landed in Molokai I touched base briefly with my captain, but then when we got over to the resort where the race started my calls/texts were failing and I couldn’t reach him.   As I mentioned in my prior blog,  I started in an early wave which definitely caused some confusion and resulted in my escort not being their for the first couple miles,  but things got sorted pretty quick and he caught up to me in no time.

Once he was there, my escort boat stayed right with me the entire race.   He was awesome,  yelling encouragement throughout,  cheering when I caught good runs, and sharing in the excitement of the dolphins and even snapping a few photos on his flip phone.    In hindsight I was really disappointed I didn’t remember to give him my Go Pro.   It was such a unique experience to be in a race where you have your own dedicated cheerleader who is right there with you for the entire race.   Even though I hardly knew this guy,  I immediately felt a bond and actually a bit of an obligation to paddle strong and try not to keep him out there in the channel all day  :-).    Ultimately it felt much more like a team effort than a solo race.   I can’t even imagine how special it would be if you had friends and family riding on the escort boat.

molokai escort boat

I was talking with Joe Glickman just before the race and he described the channel crossing on a big windy day from a very interesting perspective.   “On one hand you are scared out of your mind being out in the middle of such a big ocean,  but on the other hand,  with the escort boat and a highly experienced boat captain just 20 feet away,  you’ve probably never been safer. “  It is definitely a very unique situation that does not present itself very often.

After my week in Hawaii, I am more convinced than ever that exposing yourself to challenging situations, in a safe and controlled environment,  is the absolute best thing you can do to drive continued improvement.   In my own experience, everything on the water is relative.   If you’ve only ever been on really flat and protected water, then the first time you get into 2-3 foot waves they can be scary and intimidating.   But once you’ve had some exposure to much larger more challenging conditions, then the 2-3 foot waves seem like nothing, you are relaxed, and therefore you handle them much better.

I know that the $800 dollar fee for having an escort boat may seem like a lot to some,  but when you really break it down and consider the time, gas, and potential risk that these captains are taking,  it really isn’t that much money.   I can guarantee that these guys are not living a life of exorbitant luxury off of their earnings from escorting racers across the channel.   They do it because they love the channel and love to support those willing to challenge themselves to cross the it.    On a “flat” day it may not seem like every single boat requires a dedicated escort, but the challenge is you never know what the weather will do and it isn’t something that is easy to change at the last minute.   Having only experienced a relatively “flat” day in the channel,  I can’t imagine how challenging it would be for someone who has never experienced big open ocean water.  I know that personally I wouldn’t feel comfortable encouraging anyone without solid big ocean experience from attempting the Molokai if they didn’t have a dedicated escort boat.

Completing the Molokai channel crossing is much more than just a bucket list item.   While it is a tremendous accomplishment, I think the real benefit is the vast improvements you will make as paddler after a week of paddling in Hawaii and then completing the channel crossing.    As Oscar has said on multiple occasions,  Molokai is much more than just the race itself.   It is really about the entire Hawaiian experience, including meeting paddlers from all over the world,  experiencing the beautiful blue ocean and deep water culture of Hawaii and  doing downwind runs in phenomenal conditions.   While the overall cost of the trip and race is certainly very significant for most of us,  it is truly a once in a lifetime experience that will absolutely make you a better paddler!

If you haven’t seen it yet,  check out this video at Ocean Paddler TV.   It provides some awesome highlights of the escort boats in action out in the Channel and also does a great job of telling their story.