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.
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