The Body Is a Vessel

Image by John Hook

One writer discovers her own strength while paddling through currents of the sea.

There are days when I can move no farther than the 400 square feet of my Mānoa apartment. And then there are days when I set out to cross the 32 miles between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu on a prone paddleboard.

I am not an athlete. I am definitely not an endurance athlete. These are things I told myself for most of my life. Until, one day, I decided to cross the Kaiwi Channel just to prove that I could.

It started with such a small thing: a race to shore after a surf session at Secrets on O‘ahu’s southeast coast. I beat my friend, who had crossed the Kaiwi many times before. “Maybe paddleboarding is your new sport,” he said. “Maybe you should do the Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu.” He dropped the comment as casually as a child brushes sand off her feet.

But nothing is as small as it seems. The tiny wave lapping at your toes is the accumulation of energy that has traveled a long distance. A shift in tide, barely noticeable to those who aren’t watching, is caused by the moon, a very large thing.

The day I decided I would cross the channel, I had erased things that didn’t seem small: a husband, a home, a job. I could tell you the reasons why, but I would not know if they were true. Or maybe they are all the truth. Perhaps what matters, is in that moment, I felt like a different person than before I had entered into those contracts.

Surfing was partly to blame. I had fallen into the sport a few years before, and it had unearthed a physicality in me that I had always suspected but never known. I had always been the girl too nerdy and too small to be chosen for anyone’s kickball team. I had always wanted to play, to climb, to swim, but often, when I got to the top, I was too scared to come down. Once, at the Disneyworld pool, I swam too far, and the lifeguard had to rescue me.

I first tried surfing in the middle of a snowy New England winter, but for the entire season, I tumbled endlessly in the cold water. I tried again shortly after I moved to Hawai‘i in 2006, but I got in the way, got yelled at. So, I stopped. I lived in Hawai‘i for six more years before a friend introduced me to a break where the waves, and the people, were friendly. And then I went every day.

I came to know the surfers in the lineup. I stayed in the water until the moon rose and sent a silvery beam along the water straight to me, as if giving me a path. I grew comfortable in the sea. For the first time in three decades, I finally felt at home in my own body, with the figure I had thought was too skinny, too flat, that looked awkward in a bikini. I grew to love my body and the way it felt in the water. I became the most confident and happy I had ever been.

When people talk about surfing, they speak of its meditative nature and of the healing properties of the ocean. But surfing is also extremely addictive. Maybe, in the end, all things we enjoy become addictions. I couldn’t get enough. I let work and friendships and relationships slide. At first, I loved having this separate world. Then, it became my only world.

I soon found, though, that once I loosened myself from my contracts, the new world that once felt so alluring—the one without the job, the husband, the home—became empty and frightening. I was the child back in the middle of the pool, unable to go forward or back, afraid I would drown. And so, paddling the channel became something to do when I didn’t know what else to do. It became something to define me when I had lost my identity.

Through surfing, I learned the basics of the ocean: tides, swell, wind. Through paddleboarding, I learned its language, by way of intimacy and isolation. There are few places these days where you can surf alone; with paddleboarding, you are often alone.

When prone paddleboarding, you lie or kneel on a long, narrow board that’s like a cross between a canoe and surfboard and propel yourself with only your arms. Pulling myself through the water this way feels like crawling across the surface of the sea, giving me time to study the bumps in the water, the curves of the coastline.

On 17-mile training runs from Makai Pier to Kaimana Beach, I observe the water at its moodiest. Around Makapu‘u Point, waves from every direction try to buck me off my board. Here, the water is a deep, dark blue that I want to linger in forever, if I weren’t too afraid of what else lingers there. I know that off the coast of Alan Davis Beach, the waves begin to line up. Delirious laughter escapes me as I find their rhythm.

I know that a little farther, past Hanauma Bay, the water will feel violent, crashing against the coast so forcefully I can hear nothing else, but that there may be a little current right along the cliffs that will push me in the direction I want to go. By the time I get to Black Point, the seas are calmer, and the water has a stickiness, as if refusing to let me go. And then, rounding the corner of Diamond Head, I see the lighter blue of Waikīkī, like that of a lover’s eyes, the sign that I am home.

In 2016, I completed my first Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu crossing with a partner who was skilled in the ocean, and was comfortable in the water whether on a surfboard or aboard the Hōkūle‘a. We built our love on the water, and the race was a culmination of our passion. It was an adventure, full of excitement.

When we broke up, I thought I was done with paddleboarding, but I found myself signing up for the race the following year, this time with a different partner, who was new to the channel. After a few months of training, I was filled with dread. Preparing for a race is like falling in love: The first time, you revel in the beauty and exhilaration of the experience. The second time around, you know challenges await, and so might heartbreak.

Now in its 22nd year, the Moloka‘i 2 O‘ahu World Championship race is reputed to be the most challenging paddleboard event in the world because of its deep and turbulent path. Kaiwi means “the bone,” a reference perhaps to its history of swallowing sailors and spitting up their corpses along the southeast shores of O‘ahu. This is the channel that claimed renowned waterman Eddie Aikau. This is the channel where winds of 30 miles an hour can whip up 20-foot waves. But somewhere between stormy and flat is the sweet spot for paddleboarders.

Every activity has its own way of engaging the ocean, depending on the vessel or purpose. When I am surfing, I love glassy, windless days. But when paddleboarding, I want the wind, which creates waves along the water’s surface that help carry me home. For a race like the Moloka‘i 2 O‘ahu, catching these “bumps” the entire way is ideal—to sprint into the wave, and then relax into it. Sprint, relax, sprint, relax.

Last July, while the elite athletes were nearing the Moloka‘i 2 O‘ahu finish line, breaking records and completing the race in less than five hours, my partner and I struggled as we felt the tide turn, literally. Four hours into the race, it switched and dropped, pushing us away from O‘ahu. I felt my arms and the minutes drag. Yet each time I jumped into the water to switch off with my partner, I let the water close over me, and in the silence and weightlessness of the ocean, I thought, I am lucky to be here. I am happy to be here. Finally, we crossed. It had taken us 7 hours 49 minutes.

I continue paddleboarding not because I like suffering and pain, but because I love the ocean, and who I am when I’m in it. It brings to the surface an endurance I didn’t know I had. It makes things that once seemed insurmountable—like a 10- or even 17-mile paddle—manageable. For me, it is the disciplined and competitive yang to the carefree and graceful yin of surfing.

Each stroke, every time I put my hand in the water, is such a small movement. But together, they have become the parts of me that I like. And that is no small thing.

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