I DID IT!, by Karen Mirlenbrink

Reprinted from Athleta.com:

I just participated in what was probably one of the most significant and empowering experiences of my life. It was so powerful, it has been hard for me to digest it all to write this blog for you, but I am going to give it my best shot.

In September, I crossed the Moloka’i Channel.

Those who paddle competitively know about “the channel.” The Molokai Channel (formerly known as the Kaiwi Channel) is the body of water that separates the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Molokai, and is home to the longest open ocean paddling race in the world. It’s the golden standard, the world champs, the Super Bowl of paddle-sports. The channel is notorious for wild, huge ocean conditions that will test the skills of the best paddlers. Paddlers can cross the channel in many different human-powered ways –from surfskis to outrigger canoes to paddleboards, all of which happen on their own at different times of the year. I was honored to be asked to cross the channel in the 35th Annual Na Wahine O Ke Kai with Manu O Ke Kai Outrigger Canoe Club from Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii.

The Na Wahine is a very special race. Its name signifies its importance, as “Na Wahine O Ke Kai” translates into “Woman of the Water.” The race highlights traditional six-person Hawaiian outrigger canoes and is strictly the women’s crossing of the channel. That’s right, it’s a women-only event that paddles 41-miles across the most notorious open water crossing there is. Inspired does not come close to describing my emotions and excitement as I prepared to compete in this event.

Karen Mirlenbrink with the Manu O Ke Kai Outrigger Canoe Club

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, September 22nd, we ventured into the waters off the coast of Moloka’i, and prepared to head towards Oahu. The start of our morning included last-minute rigging and preparations, followed by a race-wide blessing presented by the founding women of the event. We joined hands with our teammates and competitors for traditional prayers and song, and listened to the wise words of the women who first crossed the channel 35 years ago. Tears filled our eyes and our hearts beat out of our chest as we enjoyed a moment of community with all of the ladies who would brave the channel that day. As soon as the blessing was over, we, as teams, lifted our canoes and headed to the water, and faced one of the biggest challenges of our lives.

Outrigger canoe is a very unique paddlesport. Preceded by centuries of Polynesian tradition, this is a team sport that is often found as a metaphor for team work in ancient Hawaiian proverbs. The canoes are 45-feet long and weigh 400 pounds, and paddlers are required to work in unison to propel the boat through the water. The canoes that the women paddle in the Na Wahine, and any other race they do, are the same specifications as the canoes that men paddle. The Na Wahine O Ke Kai is the finally of a seven-week long, outrigger canoe distance racing season in the Hawaiian Islands. The paddlers, women – mothers, sisters, daughters, doctors, waitresses, accountants – dedicate themselves to training, sacrificing time with their families to compete in Hawaii’s state team sport.

The race started and we were on our way across. I was very lucky to be in the starting crew for the race. To our right, we could see all of the canoes paddling along the shoreline, and to our right, we could see every team’s support boat waiting for us to pass the island so we could start our change-outs. There were 66 teams participated in this year’s crossing, which accumulated about 700 women athletes competing. Each team is made up of 10 women (12 for the Senior Masters, who are 50 years old and up). Our canoe club sent two teams, an open (40 and under) and a Senior Masters (50 and older). We were right with our masters crew as we started, but we soon lost sight of each other as the channel progressed.

As I said before, I was lucky to be able to start the race, and about an hour into the race, once we cleared Moloka’i, we were able to start our change outs, making this race a high intensity relay race (for lack of a better description). On the call, our support boat would drive in front of us and drop two or three girls into the water, then drive away. As the canoe approached the girls, the three girls getting out park their paddle and jump out, while the others in the water climb in. This act is probably the most challenging skill in the whole race, particularly as conditions get bigger and the paddler gets tired.

I lost count of how many changes I did during the race after 10 or 12, and at that point we were only halfway across the channel. As we progressed further into the 41 miles and Oahu appeared to be getting closer, conditions kept getting bigger and bigger. I laugh at myself when I think back and remember thinking, “Oh this isn’t so bad,” only to have Mother Nature show me how wrong I was by turning up the conditions half an hour later. I estimate that at the biggest part of the day, the waves were massive 10-12 foot beefy swells with a 3-5 foot wind chop on top of it. I could be exaggerating, after all, I am from the gulf coast of Florida, and I’ve never seen conditions like that in my entire life. It made our change outs a challenge because we couldn’t see our canoe coming at us and, when it did get to us, it pitched the canoe around and made it hard for us to climb in. Nonetheless, it was big, and I was impressed, never scared.

Karen Mirlenbrink - Na Wahine O Ke Kai

I was impressed by so many things during this race. I was impressed by what Mother Nature threw at us. I was impressed of the scenery of Oahu in the distance. I was impressed that no one fell out of our support boat in that mess. I was impressed that our steerswoman did all 41 miles without changing (in the paddling world, that’s called going “iron”). I was impressed that all of the girls on my team made it look so easy, climbing into the support boat with big smiles on their faces and enjoying their poi between changes. I was impressed by Mikala, who kept the spirit alive in the canoe, and by Helena who grinded out that race despite how seasick she was. I can vividly remember Mikala yelling, “Karen, you are doing it,” and the steerswoman, Catherine, saying “Dat’s how gang,” when the boat found its glide. I was impressed that Coach Tim didn’t lose his voice from cheering us on so much. I was impressed how the flying fish cruised over the surface of the waves, and I was impressed at the local support we found when we paddled into Waikiki.

Along with my “impressions,” I learned more about myself than I ever expected. Due to circumstances outside my control, I was forced to travel to this race with very short notice (three and a half weeks) and, thus, alone. I was graciously hosted by a very dear friend and paddling mentor, but, nonetheless, was forced to put on my big girl panties because my normal support network was so far away. I normally lean on my network, particularly my husband — who’s a paddler too — to help guide me in the right direction and help me work past my weaknesses. This time, all I had was phone support, and that was very hard for me. But, I had my moment when the lady’s coach of Manu O Ke Kai, Coach Alexia, packed a personal note and lighter in our race bags and told us it was to “light the fire inside of you.” In the moment I read those words, my confidence grew amazingly. It grew not only in my skills and ability as a paddler, but also as an athlete and a woman. The words were so powerful to me that I carried that lighter in my bag across the channel, and would look at it as a reminder during every change. Now that I’m home, I don’t know what happened to that lighter (I probably couldn’t get it on the plane anyway), but I will carry those words with me forever.

We finished the race in just under eight hours, batting big tidal currents and conditions all day. We were greeted by family and other teammates that prepared candy leis and a wonderful lunch for all of us. I walk away a proud paddler with a new ohana in Manu O Ke Kai Canoe Club. I am blessed to have such a wonderful experience for my first channel crossing, and will hold all of the memories close to my heart forever.--Karen Mirlenbrink