Travis Grant, an Australian who now resides in Hawaii, won his second unlimited SUP world title in three years at Sunday’s 19th annual Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championships.
He crossed the finish line in an event-leading mark of 4:59:38.8. Maui’s Kai Lenny (5:15:59.0) trailed Grant by more than a mile but fended off Lincoln Dews of Queensland, Australia, (5:19:18.6) and Vinnicius Martins of Brazil (5:25:14.4) for second.
“I’m so happy, I’m over the moon,” said the 32-year-old Grant after enjoying a brief celebratory champagne shower. “The water out there is so technical and challenging, so to be from Australia and come here and throw down with the locals is so cool. I hope next year is bombing and epic so I can shoot for the record.
“I wanted to quit a couple of times, but when you’re in the lead, there’s no way I’m going to quit.”
Defending unlimited division champion Connor Baxter, who hails from Makawao, Maui, did not complete Sunday’s race after suffering what officials deemed a stomach ailment near the event’s halfway point. Baxter set the world record last year with a mark of 4:08:08, and in 2011, he became the event’s youngest winner as a 16-year-old.
Grant and Lenny were locked in a head-to-head battle as the duo crossed the channel according to GPS technology introduced last year that allowed race officials and fans around the world to follow paddlers via computer, tablet or smart phone. Grant eventually opened up a sizable gap ahead of Lenny and maintained the winning margin as the paddlers rounded China Walls and began the all-out sprint toward the floating finish buoys.
“It was so brutal, I think it’s the hardest race I’ve ever done,” said Lenny. “There was just no wind and 32 miles of flat water. While you’re out there you question why you’re doing this and it feels so good once you cross the line.”
Despite paddling on a stock board, Maui native Travis Baptiste finished fifth overall.
Last year he endured a rough Kaiwi Channel crossing and vowed to improve his diet and training regimen while still competing at a championship caliber.
The Maui native and recent Baldwin High graduate turned to cross-fit training and implemented a healthier diet after suffering through multiple ailments last year. The stand-up paddle boarder (SUP) dealt with an olive-sized peritonsillar abscess in the back of his throat that made it difficult for him to eat, talk or train and required multiple hospital visits and intravenous fluid treatments in the two weeks leading up to last year’s race.
The new approach to fitness paid dividends for the 18-year-old Baptiste, who continues to ascend as one of the sport’s iconic athletes after securing a third consecutive world title in the “stock” SUP division. Baptiste completed the 32-mile course — which spanned from Kaluakoi on Molokai’s northwest coast, through the treacherous Kaiwi Channel and finished in Maunalua Bay on Oahu’s South shore — in 5 hours, 26 minutes and 47.2 seconds.
“I’ve tried to eat healthier this year and take better care of myself. Without good nutrition, you won’t see results even after doing all the right workouts,” Baptiste said. “I want to keep this run going, that’s the goal.”
More than 250 of the world’s top traditional (prone) and SUP athletes representing 16 countries took part in the test of strength and endurance. Competitors were treated to clear skies but endured light winds and lackluster surf throughout the normally treacherous channel. According to officials on the water, competitors navigated swells up to 4 feet high at points in the channel and ran into some 6- to 8-foot bumps along the south shore before entering the race’s home stretch.
With the light winds and manageable waves, competitors could take a more traditional rhumb line approach to the crossing, a navigational term denoting a straight line between starting and ending points of the race. Some competitors chose to follow a path along Sandy Beach, while others used Diamond Head as a reference point before turning in to the tranquil Maunalua Bay.
“I’d say about mid-channel, there was a good 8 miles where I made up a lot of distance because the (stock board) fits better in the bumps,” said Baptiste, who mentioned that he would like to make the jump to the “unlimited” division next year.
Stock SUP boards are usually 14 feet long with no rudder, while unlimited SUP boards are around 18 feet long and sometimes include a rudder system, making the latter more conducive to surfing and managing the notoriously daunting waves throughout the channel.
Matt Bevilacqua of Mooloolaba, Queensland, Australia claimed gold in the unlimited prone division and followed the example set by fellow Aussie Jamie Mitchell’s 10-year win streak in the category that ended in 2011. Bevilacqua finished in 5:20:13.3, while Australian counterparts Brad Gaul (5:22:37.8), a three-time champion in the event, and Rory Chapman (5:26:42.3) were close behind.
Sonni Hoenscheid (5:53:18.0) of Germany repeated as champion in the women’s unlimited SUP division despite finishing more than 40 minutes slower than last year’s pace. New Zealand’s Penelope Strickland-Lum (5:59:44.7) and Kailua-Kona’s Jennifer Kalmbach (6:08:21.2) also medaled in the grueling competition.
Jordan “Magic” Mercer of Australia claimed the women’s unlimited prone division for the fifth consecutive year after crossing the line in 6:09:19.0. First-time competitor Maddy Dunn (6:21:49.0) of Australia claimed runner-up honors.
“It was tough coming in through the channel, a close-out set came and I just got cleaned out. There was a set of five waves that I got taken out by and I held on for dear life, bear-hugged the board. … I knew I only had one option and that was to hold on,” said the 21-year-old Mercer. “You have to train and prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
“I ask myself when I’m out there sometimes, ‘Why am I here, why have I come back to do this again?’ I just want to be the best in the world and I don’t want anyone else to take that title.”
Honolulu’s Colleen Tessler paddled to victory in the women’s stock prone division 7:11:20.0.
The Molokai-2-Oahu competition also featured team divisions, including the men’s 3-person SUP relay won by the local trio of Greg Pavao, Kalani Vierra and Kawika Carvalho in 5:32:13.2.
“There were some bumps, but you had to work really hard just to get on (the waves),” said Pavao.