You think you know someone, and then they do something that just floors you, and makes you realize you probably don’t know them as well as you thought.

That was my downwind run on Maliko on Maui Saturday.

In the last couple of years, my downwinding skills have so vastly improved, thanks to runs on the Columbia River and to multiple Kihei runs on the South Side of Maui – a run that can often have great conditions when Maliko isn’t firing. They are great confidence builders, since you simply paddle out and go, like at Hood River, Oregon. And while conditions can be big and epic and demand respect in both places, the lack of an open ocean swell is the factor that can give you the opportunity to hone your skills.

It had been a while I’d been on Maliko, because of weather conditions not cooperating when I’ve been here in the Spring. This trip, it looked like we had one window of opportunity to go, and even then it was looking iffy because of a large winter swell coming in from the North.

As the day started to shape up, it became clear that the forecasts were slightly off and we made the decision to go.  I was still a little hesitant. I wouldn’t be going with a coach. When we got to the harbor to set up our shuttle cars, I saw plenty of other folks doing the same.  There was that buzz of excitement in the air that comes with the anticipation of a really good downwind session.   I started going through my paddle plan in my head. Recalling the spots where one can get off (albeit not easily) the water if necessary.  I made sure my phone was powered up and in it’s dry case, and tied into my pfd. I set my Garmin Connect to send a link to three local friends who could track our movement down the coast (not a seamless thing, it turns out.) Tony and I talked about the need for good communication and agreed that we would stay together and wait for each other.  Suzie Cooney triple checked out safety gear to make sure everything was in good order. And she told us where and when to watch for big waves that can sometimes appear to come out of nowhere.

And we paddled out.

Before you start your downwind course, you must paddle out of the Maliko Gulch for about half a mile or maybe a bit more, to get your line.  If you start your run too soon, you run the risk of getting too “inside” and getting caught around the reefs that help create the big North Shore surf.  You don’t want to be there.  But to get far enough out to get the right line, you are padding with the wind and the swells coming at you from the right. Even on an average day, it can be intimidating and hard.

This is the place where Maliko likes to get in your head.

Often times, the experience in that first, small section of paddling can set the tenor for your entire run.  It can make or break you.  You see the reef below you, the water is so clear and beautiful. You may see sea turtles. You could see something else. Something bigger.  You have to hug the rocks to the right of the mouth of the gulch, least you be pushed into the rocks on the other side.  It seems counter intuitive to get so close, especially when the water is swirling around them, looking like Alka-Seltzer in a great big jacuzzi.

Once you pass the rocks, the wind hits you and fills your ears.  And you see the side of the swell. On Saturday, it was massive.  Maybe not for the locals, but to me, it was the largest I have ever seen, that up close and personal. Great big, ginormous walls of electric blue.

I was on a 14 foot SIC Bullet with no rudder, so to steer through the blue giants, I had to actually point upwind and try to angle out.  I decided to just go ahead and sit down. I did not want to wear out my arms and legs getting out. Nor did I want to wear out my mental state.

In less time that I expected it to take, we were “even” with the big “V” shape made by the Iao Valley in the West Maui Mountains. Time to make our turn. Tony and I checked in with each other and we stood up.

In downwinding, unlike surfing, you keep your eyes forward.  You are aiming to catch the smaller bumps in front of you, which helps you build up speed to catch the bigger ones, which in turn, helps you get another, and then another. You don’t look behind you much. And on a day like Saturday, that’s a really good thing.  Because, out there, an eight foot swell can look like a monster, and the troughs between them, as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Stare too long and it gets in your head.

Even when you know all the things to do, even when you’ve been in some gnarly conditions and scenarios before, even when you have confidence in your skills, the power of the ocean and the force of nature can make you feel like a rank beginner all over again.

I stood up, took a couple of paddle strokes, started to get onto a runner and I fell. Okay, that was expected, especially on a day like this one. I got it out of the way. As I went to get back on the board, the 20-25 mph wind, gusting to 30 plus caught my board and launched it over my head. It flipped in the air twice. I prayed that the leash would hold and at the same time yelled for Tony so he’d know my board was airborne. The leash was fine and I clambered back on. Heart is in my throat. At this point, I was scared.

Breathe, Lisa, breathe.  Just do what you know how to do.

It always takes a while to settle in on Maliko. It took a little longer this time.  You have to trust the board to tel you where it want to go. And you have to let it take you there. You cannot fight it.  Especially in conditions like that. Maliko Lesson #1

Soon, I was more relaxed and we were screaming down sleigh ride swells.  There were some amazing glides.

The whole time, though,  I was hyper conscious of our line, our location and the possibility of this big swell suddenly turning into a “rogue wave”.  It was imperative to know when to start turning toward the harbor least we overshoot it.  On Maliko, you do not want to do that, not on any day.

Maliko Lesson #2: Situational Awareness is key. You must be confident in your ability to not only read the water to catch bumps, but know how to navigate.

That is something that I do well. As a sailor, expedition kayaker and outdoor instructor. But when we do races, flatwater or otherwise, with safety boats and race meetings and hundreds of other people, more likely than not on a closed course, we don’t have to think about navigation all that much.  Others have done that for us. But when you in the open ocean, in any kind of conditions, you MUST.  It’s kind of like that Mordor quote from Lord of the Rings – “One does not simply downwind into the harbor.”

There were moments Saturday where I felt queasy. There were moments when I felt pure joy.  There were moments when I was relieved to be inside of the break wall of the harbor, staring at all the Matson shipping containers.  In hindsight, I never felt out of my league out there, but I did go out of my comfort zone.  I pushed myself and I am the better paddler for it.

But after loading up the gear, the high fives, the shared elation of debriefing our experience flying down Maui’s North Shore, I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to calm down and relax the same way I have in Hood River and on the Kihei run. Maliko is just a HUGE, epic, iconoclastic BIG DEAL in my head.  And I wonder if that wasn’t getting in the way.

Maliko Lesson #3: The only way to get more comfortable with Maliko is to do Maliko.  Not on days when it’s clearly dangerous, of course. But to do it more. As much as possible. And that’s why when I discovered that the Paddle Imua race here will conflict with the Gorge Downwind Championships in Hood River, I made the decision to forgo that race in 2020 and focus on learn more from Maliko.

She has lots to teach.

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