No boat. No motor. No sitting. Nope, nothing more than an EPS (expanded polystyrene) board and a single paddle. And 27 miles of rough waters and unpredictable swells.
But for 24-year-old Brandon Heiser, only a few words came to mind: fun, excitement, challenge.
Nestled between the beautiful Hawaiian Islands of Maui and Molokai is the Pailolo Channel—known for its rough waters, strong winds and its siren-like call, beckoning all those brave enough to try their hands at passing through her.
But with a difficult task like this, Brandon didn’t wake up one morning and decide to look in the eye of the storm and just, well, blink; no, he trained—and enjoyed every minute of it.
Back when he was just a little tyke, Bellevue Club swim instructor Carol Dodgson taught Brandon how to swim, and years later, by the spring of 2008, after watching the paddle boarders in Hawaii, he purchased a paddle and a large, buoyant surfboard to ride the water rather than swim in it. “I was hooked from the first day,” he said.
Brandon practiced paddle boarding in Washington waters, noticeably much calmer than those in Hawaii, and discovered how much athleticism it took to succeed, even just with the balancing act. “The sense of perspective from standing really sets the sport apart; it’s very comfortable and natural to stand, compared to sitting in a kayak,” he said. From his back, down to the little muscles in his feet, everything was getting worked over.
He spends an average of five days a week traversing local waterways, and even braves it during those cold winter months. It’s then that a wetsuit becomes most like a sports jersey.
For the most part, Brandon paddle boards much for the same reasons that anyone else participates in his or her hobbies: for fun, for recreation and for fitness. But occasionally, it can become competitive.
Before the Maui to Molokai (M2M) competition in late April, the largest race Brandon competed in was on Mercer Island—a mere 13 miles compared to M2M’s 27. “When I do compete,” Brandon said, “I prefer larger-scale events and races for the increased challenge.”
Boy, did he get his wish.
He also crossed an item off his bucket list.
“Since I was young, I looked at Molokai from West Maui and have been fascinated by the towering sea cliffs and sheer unobstructed natural beauty of the island. I have always wanted to visit Molokai, and what better way to get there the first time than by your own steam?” he asked.
Because of the channel’s swells and wind power, it’s considered the world’s best downwind event run, and Brandon decided that there was no better time than the present to test the claims.
After six months of training five days a week, both in the water and at the gym, focusing on endurance, weight lifting and Crossfit, Brandon went back to Maui. He had his board, the counter to Poseidon’s trident, and eagerly got into the water.
With numerous variables set into motion, Brandon was at the mercy of the weather, with swells reaching six to 12 feet in the middle of the channel, and the current playing against him. But with the wind behind him averaging 25 to 40 knots, he had some help … which also turned into a hindrance.
“For this race, paddlers count on strong prevailing trade winds out of the east/northeast to create large wind swell,” he said. “We then catch these wind-swell waves, just like waves near shore, to propel us along at high-speed. It’s very thrilling catching long rides.”
In the most-exposed part of the channel, the winds collided clumsily with the current. So while he was out in the middle of the vast, deep, blue sea, Brandon became concerned primarily with balance. “This portion demanded all of my effort and concentration; I used all of my skill just to maintain standing and catching waves.”
Since most of the paddlers raced at different speeds, no one else was in Brandon’s sight. As he stabilized himself on the board, he took a look around, focusing on all the distance he had already covered, and the beauty of Maui behind him and that of Molokai in front of him.
“It was an eye-opening cultural experience, as the Polynesians centuries ago had seen that same view from their canoes traveling over the same Pailolo channel to Molokai by their own steam,” he said. “I felt small and insignificant in the middle of the channel between the two islands.”
As Brandon paddled closer to the finish line—in the shape of a beautiful island—the weather and waters turned in his favor. He caught a wave for 20 seconds, standing on the tip of his board, and glided. “I was just flying,” he said. “This race is considered the world’s best downwind stand-up paddle-boarding run in the right conditions, and the conditions that day lived up to the reputation.”
Since many people fear the ocean even in the safety of a large vessel, bravery seems to be redefined when paddling across such a large expanse of water. But Brandon had other things to keep his mind occupied beyond what lay along the ocean floor. “I didn’t have the option to waste energy on thinking about sharks, drowning or equipment failure. I was 100 percent focused on the task ahead of me: to get across that Channel to Molokai,” he said.
“It takes confidence in one’s ability, years of experience and faith to embark on an event of this scale. I have spent my entire life in and around the ocean.”
Brandon made a goal of finishing the stretch in 4.5 to 5 hours. He actually touched sand at four hours even and took third in his division. “I pictured the crossing being so much different than it actually was,” he said. “The size of the channel between these two islands is hard to fathom without witnessing it first-hand on a paddle board.”
For Brandon, the whole event is still hard to fathom, even after the fact. His perception of his capabilities took new shape. He’s already looking forward to repeating the event next year, and has added an even more challenging event to his list: the World Championship of Paddle Boarding, which goes from Molokai to Oahu—32 miles.
“It’s possible to accomplish a seemingly colossal task if I give a goal my full dedication,” he said.
Looks like Poseidon better watch his back.