The noon sun was high and hot, and the winds were howling. Pacific blue rolled in 3-4 foot swells thrashing the jade cliffs, as Andrew Logreco, 28, and Ka'eo Abbey, 26, battled for the lead of the fourth annual Na Pali Race. Beaded with sweat and salt water, they bent to 90 degrees, pulling themselves forward with each powerful stroke, then happily rode bump after bump down the 17-mile Na Pali coast from Haena to Polihale State Park.
Behind them, a fanned-out pod of stand-up paddler surfers (SUP) and prone paddle boarders were dressed in custom day-glow rashies and CamelBaks. Mariko Strickland Lum, 26, one of Kauai's best all-around athletes, was roughly 15 minutes behind. A two-time defending champ, she owned the women's race from the outset, taking the same inside line as Logreco.
Miles behind her, Dustin Barca, a storied surfer and budding MMA personality, was already suffering among the rank-and-file weekend warriors. He was part of the race within the race: the underground competition, which was stocked with some of Barca's lifelong surf buddies.
Among them were Gavin Kennelly, 31, a Hurley-sponsored rider and the brother of former WCT No. 1 and Triple Crown champ Keala Kennelly; Drew and Jason Irons, cousins of Bruce and Andy, who won three world titles from 2002 - 4, and an unassuming electrician known only as "Marv." Their annual agreement included no training whatsoever, and a welcome embrace of ample suffering. Barca was already the race leader in the suffering division, and well behind his underground competitors.
The fact that so many expert surfers jumped on SUP boards this year speaks to the sport's exploding popularity, which grew thanks to its accessibility. Unlike in the surfing world, on an SUP stick, being cool and uber-local isn't part of the equation. SUP-ers are far more likely to paddle beyond line-up politick than to be embroiled within it.
These days, depending upon conditions and geography, you'll see everyone from pro surfers to soccer moms to movie stars (we're looking at you, topless Matt McConaughey) stand-up paddling. Some prefer an SUP because it allows them to paddle beyond crowded line-ups and catch waves early, riding them faster and farther than physics would otherwise allow. Others enjoy flat-water paddling, or, more frequently, a hybrid of the two.
Distance races are a relatively recent addition to the continuum, but there's no shortage of competition. Na Pali is part of the Rogue SUP race calendar, and in August alone there were 48 races, held in places as varied as the Hamptons, the Jersey shore, Sweden and Austria. Na Pali isn't the longest or most prestigious distance race. Arguably, that would be the 32-mile Molokai2Oahu championship, but it might be the most spectacular.
While typical courses veer into open water, this one hugs a magnificent coastline that bridges the lush north shore of Kauai to the arid Westside. It is roadless and pristine; a stark rubric of variegated cliffs, weeping waterfalls, gnarled sea caves and white sand beaches.
Logreco had been protecting an early gap for eight miles. Abbey was desperate to chop it down as the pair approached the stunning Kalalau Valley a legendary campground and one of Kauai's most beloved sights. Blonde sand shimmered in the sun. Somewhere in the valley campers bathed in gushing springs that feed a lush valley. Abbey turned his attention in the other direction, read the lines and decided to gamble. Veering outside, he hoped to catch more powerful swells to victory. Logreco played it by the book and stayed inside.
Meanwhile, Evan Valiere, 29, the race organizer and a pro surfer raised in nearby Kalihiwai, buzzed the coast in a zodiac, goofing on his underground racer buddies on his way to the front. He noted that Kennelly took his board for a two-mile spin a few days before, a minor code violation. If you haven't ever paddled the board you plan to compete on, like Marv -- who Valiere describes as "one of the heaviest big wave surfers around," -- even better. Marv couldn't find a SUP board, so he rode a long board.
"I paddled around a few times," Marv confessed earlier, "but no trainage."
"We all grew up surfing together," Kennelly said before the race, "and its fun to go out, battle, and have a friendly competition. There's definitely gonna be some suffering, but as long as you come in ahead of your friends, it's all worth it."
The mere sight of Valiere's gasping and flailing friends sends him into fits of laughter. Especially when the conversation comes around to Dustin Barca, still recovering from a jujitsu related MCL tear. "He's my pick for last place," cracked Valiere, and he wasn't talking about the underground competition.
But beneath the bro-bashing was a well of humility. Valiere's buddies turned out to support his race. Valiere's only regret was that he was too busy to be out there with them.
Valiere beamed as his zodiac shot to the front, and he took in the scene he first imagined four years before. When Valiere won the XL Pro at Sunset Beach in 2006, his star was on the rise, but although he placed fifth in the Pipeline Masters in 2011, and has been sponsored since he was 11, his career stalled in 2009. Between paychecks, he started teaching SUP and surfing to get by. That's when he imagined the Na Pali Race and decided to paddle test the course.
"This venue is like nothing else," he said. "It's incredibly beautiful, sacred culturally, and it can be challenging, but when conditions are right, it's the ultimate downwind run."
Just like the sport itself, the race drew a range of paddlers who filled out a matrix of divisions and subdivisions. The first divide was between SUP-ers and prone paddle boarders. Prone paddling is akin to surfer style paddling and has been around for decades. Kennelly paddles prone, so does Kanessa Duncan Seraphin, 37. She's one of the best in the world, but gave birth just two months before. Nevertheless, as race day approached, she got that familiar itch.
"It's a spiritual thing to paddle this coast," she said. Which is why she unzipped her board bag on Friday, and paddled on Sunday.
Although riders were allowed boards of varying length and weight, SUP shapers are just beginning to take advantage of the budding interest in distance paddling. This year, elite riders gravitated toward ultra light 14' blades. That's what Logreco and Abbey were riding, along with the women's favorite, Lum.
A former Division 1 soccer star at Cal State Long Beach, Lum was born and raised on Kauai and grew up surfing with Valiere. She calls SUP her "high-end hobby," and like all the best paddlers, works hard to support her habit. She teaches part-time and directs the North Shore Community Foundation, a local non-profit aimed at helping poor families.
All the great paddlers have day jobs. Seaphin is a professor at the University of Hawaii. Abbey is a roofer, and raises three kids on Oahu. Filling out the field were a fleet of workaday riders, many of whom live locally.
"This event really caters to Kauai people first," said Valiere. "It's supposed to be a celebration."
"It's a real water person race," said Seraphin, hinting at her primary motivation to join the field. "All the people you see surfing all year are here."
Before the race, Kelvin Ho of the Na Pali Ohana, which enjoys proceeds from the race to fund their ecological and cultural restoration work along the coast, underlined that point when he led a puna (or prayer). He reminded the riders the coastline's original inhabitants were some of the first Polynesians to canoe from Marquesas to Kauai 1400 years ago. Many handicrafts and flavors that became synonymous with Hawaiian culture developed there. "And when you paddle the coast," said Ho, "You are weaving your way into that history."
Valiere was just happy the wind cooperated. When we met up early that morning, it was still, and he was having flashbacks of last year's race, when athletes paddled uphill all day. Almost everyone ran out of water, and athletes took turns vomiting and staving off heat exhaustion. This year, a gusting wind calmed his nerves before the 11 a.m. start. By then, the heads were salivating, thinking about personal bests and record times.
Wind or no, the final stretch is almost always brutal, and true to form the sea smoothed into dimpled turquoise glass around the rocky point from the stunning cove of Miloli'i – Na Pali's last great beach. Abbey's gamble had paid off, and he found himself in a familiar position, all alone, reeling in the finish line at Polihale State Park, a shark fin of blonde sand spilling from the last towering cliff. Lum also defended her title convincingly and placed 10th overall.
The underground eventually trickled in. Marv took the unofficial title, followed by Jason and Drew Irons. Kennelly, who was last seen offering a shaka salute at Kalalau, finished with a respectable time, good enough for fourth overall in the prone division. Seraphin won the women's prone paddle crown, and a couple of hours later, toward the back of the pack, Barca staggered to the line. He'd hurled at Kalalau, and took a prolonged recovery nap on the beach at Miloli'i, but he did not come in last.
"It's mind versus heart every year," he said, breathless. He was delivered an extra measure of pain when a stiff headwind punished latecomers. Whenever he stopped paddling, he started floating backwards. "My brain was like, 'call the boat.' … I'm just happy I made it."