Words: Jo Hamilton Vale
Pics: Johann Meya, Harry Wiewel
Having travelled to many places in the world the one place that I never visited until recently was the Valley Isle, Maui. That all changed in November 2015 – my first trip to the mecca – and I see it being be the place I visit most in the future.
Maui is special and heaven to a watersports person (it’s also where stand up paddling originated). I had a spare month before beginning heavy training for the Yukon River Quest so tied in a four week trip before attending the Standup for the Cure flagship event in my capacity as a Global Ambassador on the way home in California. I stayed with great friends on the north shore which had a perfect view of the world famous Maliko downwind run. This was going to be my playground during my visit.
My first attempt at the Maliko was a baptism of fire. Double overhead waves with 40-45 knots of wind. Having only ever had four days of downwind paddling before, and predominantly being a flat water SUPer, I found myself swimming many times but I learned quickly. That first run was overwhelming but I was in Maui to learn. I completed 1-2 runs every day for two weeks leading up to the Olukai race – the biggest downwind event in the world.
During this time conditions got better – swell dropped to 4-6ft and wind levelled off around 25-30 knots – which gave me time to focus on actually paddling and not trying to stay upright. I paddled with turtles, dolphins, flying fish and most importantly the most wonderful people. Add to this water as warm as a bath and I was in my personal nirvana.
I can understand why Maui has some of the best water athletes in the world. Climate is perfect, they have all types of conditions (not just hardcore) and everyone is supportive and happy to pass on training and racing tips. I mean if you are chatting with the likes of Zane Schweitzer, Bart de Zwart and Connor Baxter you are always going to improve.
Out in the wild
My trip to Maui was not only about water though. I was also incorporating land based strength and cardio work. I decided before leaving that the majority of my cross training was going to be hiking. Hiking in Maui is one of the greatest things I have ever done. I hit the trails with the most amazing lady: Carol. Carol is an extremely strong and fit 74 year old who regularly races OC1 and OC6 (outrigger) and certainly knows her way up a mountain. We hiked frequently and our final leg of the trip was around the Haleakala volcanic crater.
We entered the crater at 10,000 ft, dropped down to 7000 ft and finished on a switchback trail taking us back up to 10,000 ft. The landscape and views are second to none. This was one of the most magical days of my life.
Time to race
A few days before the Olukai race my buddy, Pete Kosinski, arrived and stayed with us while he prepared. He was also overwhelmed at the sheer beauty and friendliness of the Valley Isle (as its known) and its people.
I chatted to many who regularly compete in the Olukai and asked what my biggest challenge was going to be. Everyone said the same thing: ‘Your biggest obstacle is going to be getting out of the Gulch and around the turning buoy’.
The first leg of the race was forecast to be in strong cross wind and cross swell. Taking this into account I quizzed the Schweitzer family and I was privileged to have Matty Schweitzer join me on a training recci, help guide me out, advise me on the best entry point and what route I should take.
I chose to use my Naish One (12.6ft) inflatable – the only inflatable paddlerto enter. Being a downwind race where many people choose unlimited boards with rudders there was obviously no 12.6ft class and certainly no inflatable class, so I joined the 14ft group along with 42 other females.
This race is massive, with 313 competitors in 2016, and it can feel quite daunting in a thronging pack of experienced stand ups.
We had a two hour wait in the Gulch where I seemed to be getting more nervous as the minutes ticked by. I just wanted to get on the water and to start paddling. This race was certainly taking me out of my comfort zone. I had no idea where to start, did not know any of my competitors and was wondering was I really crazy, like many people were saying, racing an inflatable. I then decided to accept it would be a fun and intense learning experience for me.
The start line was crazy, with everyone wanting to be on the right hand side and in the wind shadow of the land. This would enable us all to paddle in less cross breeze for a few minutes before heading out onto Maliko. I was in the third row of females and almost at the back of the fleet but felt comfortable. My plan was to get out and round the buoy before concentrating on the race. This all changed as soon as I heard the starter gun.
I got to my feet and paddled as hard as I could. I got through the fleet and was in third place at the mark. After turning I started noticing some amazing female athletes that certainly knew how to surf those bumps. The conditions were absolutely perfect and everything was going well until I bonked at 8km and fell in three times within a minute. The second buoy was 1km before the finish and turned you over the reef which could be tricky to cross. Thankfully I scraped through without falling in. I landed safely and had to laugh when I heard a caddy ask: ‘Is this a freaking inflatable?’
My Naish One handled the conditions well and I finished in 11th place, actually beating three of the Elite females. This race was lots of fun and it was great that both Pete Kosinski and I placed highly in our age groups. After the Olukai it was time to enjoy the sights and people of Maui before heading to California.
Next stop on my trip was Southern California for the sixth annual Standup for the Cure event at Newport Dunes. It is an honor to be a Global Ambassador for this outstanding charity alongside Zane Schweitzer and Annabel Anderson. 2016’s event attracted over 1000 paddlers and raised $100,000.
I joined the all star group of instructors: Zane Schweitzer, Shelby Schweitzer, Matt Schweitzer, Shae Foudy, Izzi Gomez and Brennan Rose. All lessons were free of charge and continued throughout the day. Breast and skin cancer screening was happening on the beach and over 100 people were checked – this was also free of charge.
If you ever have the opportunity to attend this event I would highly recommend it. You will see the biggest smiles, receive many hugs and share a few tears when you hear brave and inspiring stories from people fighting this cruel disease.
I am extremely lucky to have the co-founders of this event, Judie Vivian and Shawneen Schweitzer as very close friends. These two ladies are among the strongest and most inspiring women I have ever met. They had a dream and a vision and worked tirelessly to fulfil this. Over the last six years $700,000 has been raised. (This year I plan to complete the four longest SUP races in the world which will see me paddling over 1800 kms. Every stroke will be to raise money for Standup for the Cure).
As Standup for the Cure was coming to the end Zane Schweitzer and I decided on another charity event 12 hours later (at 4am). We entered Red Bull’s Wings for Life World Run to raise money for spinal injuries. We ran for those who can’t.
This event has the best race concept I have ever seen. 34 countries around the world get involved with everyone running at the same time, 12 noon GMT, hence why our start was at 4am in Los Angeles! Every runner sets off together and half an hour later a chase car starts following. When the car catches you that’s it, game over, you are out of the race. I managed 13km before being caught. 130,732 runners entered and 6.6 million Euros was raised.
If you can have only one holiday in the future make sure it is to Maui (with a stopover in California, potentially) – you will have the time of your life. Also, always do your bit for charity if you can. Life is about give and take and we are not all lucky enough to be able to run, cycle or paddle. Give other people the opportunity to live their life to the full – it’s a great feeling.