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Maui No Ka Oi- SUP Paddling on Maui

Ah, Maui - the Valley Isle! Home of the legendary Maliko downwind run, the storied but now non-existent Olukai Race, the start of the Maui to Molokai crossing and focal point of all things foiling. It is a paddler's paradise, for sure, but it helps to have local knowledge, especially when it comes to weather conditions, and a healthy understanding of your own skills before you paddle out.  Maui has been my family's home for years, and after a 30-year stint on the mainland, last year I returned to the state of my birth for good. Here are my recommendations for paddlers thinking about visiting.

SUP Racing on Maui

Pre-pandemic,  SUP racing on Maui centered on two main races - the Olukai and Paddle Imua. And to a certain extent, Maui to Molokai.  After a couple of years of bad weather and other factors, the Olukai race is no more.  However, Paddle Imua is still going strong and it is one of the best events in the country.  Now held in the middle of July - prime downwinding season - Paddle Imua supports Imua Family Services and specifically helps send kids with a whole array of challenges to an awesome week-long summer camp on island.  The kids and their families are key participants in the event and there is nothing more wonderful than having one of them place a hand made lei around your neck when you cross the finish line.  The after party is amazing, too.  The course is the famed Maliko Run, 10 miles of open ocean downwinding on Maui's North Shore, ending on the beach at the canoe hale (house) at the Kahului Harbor.  The event is open to all craft.

The best part of Paddle Imua!

Other races have struggled to re-emerge after the pandemic and much of the racing currently continues to be centered around the well-established and tradition filled six-manoutrigger canoe. If you have never paddled six-man outrigger, many of the clubs have a visitor day where you can hop in and give it a go.

Race Registration Not Necessary

You don't have to have a race to target to come to Maui and have a good time paddling.  The biggest draw here is the downwinding, which is best during the summer months when the trades are most consistent. Opportunities for SUP surfing and general recreational paddling abound and foiling and wing foiling is huge here.

Maui Downwinding

If you have limited experience downwinding in the open ocean, it is highly recommended to enlist the help of a local guide, who can help you interpret wind and swell patterns and show you how to navigate your way from the start at the Maliko Gulch to the Harbor.  It's not as simple as just following the coastline, with the wind happily at your back.  Knowing how to interpret both wind and swell forecasts is key. It is essential to know what lines to take getting out of the Gulch and to make sure you find the mouth of the Kahului harbor at the end of the ten miles.  Safety gear is highly recommended, including PFDs, leashes, personal locator beacons and cell phones. The ten-mile run can test not only your downwinding skills, but your fitness and strength, both mentally and physically.  Maliko, along with the Hawaiian channel crossings between islands, is BIG water.

A view from the Maliko Run

During the season, the Maliko Shuttle provides services from the harbor to the Gulch if you don't have someone willing to drop you off and pick you up. Sign up is easy on Facebook.

The Kihei Run on Maui's south side is less consistent, but when conditions are right, it's a great place to try downwinding and to gain some confidence before doing Maliko.  Kihei is on the leeward side of the island, therefore you do not experience intimidating, large, deep ocean swells like you do on Maliko. It's more like the conditions in the Columbia River Gorge.  The run is generally shorter and there are more places to come to shore in the event you need or want to cut the run short.  One word of caution: if the wind is even slightly offshore, it can be difficult to maintain your line and to come to shore when you are finished. You could find yourself headed toward the Big Island of Hawaii if you're not careful,  Again, here's where an experienced local guide is well worth the money for your first or even second time out.

Winds on both sides of the island usually come up starting in the late morning to mid afternoon, which is the best time to start a downwind run.

SUP Surfing

Hawaii is known for its surf breaks and there are excellent opportunities for all skill levels on Maui.  Be aware that sup surfing is not always welcome at every break, and be respectful of the local traditions and all surf etiquette. The Cove is a good beginner break in Kihei, but it is almost always quite crowded.  Thousand Peaks at the Ukumeheme State Park, just beyond the tunnel on the road to Lahaina is also suitable for all skill levels and there is more room to spread out.  Launiupoko is also a good choice.  Surfing is best in the morning, before the winds come up.  Kanaha on Maui's north shore can be fun for intermediate and advanced sup surfers but be mindful of your skill levels.  Need a lesson? Give the Schweitzers at Maui Sports Adventures a call - +(808) 870-2794. Need a board? We recommend Hi-Tech in Kahului or Kihei. Hit them up for good local advice, too.

Rec Paddling

The leeward side of the island is generally best for recreational paddling, and it's always best to go in the morning, before the winds come up.  Most of the Kihei side beaches are suitable places to paddle out, but always check the wind and swell forecasts before you go, and use all your safety gear - especially leashes. Even calm water can suddenly change and many Maui beaches are know for seemingly unexpected  and dangerous shore break. Pay attention to any signs on the beach and talk to the lifeguards before you paddle out.

Wind starting to pick up as recreational paddlers explore Maui's south side

Respect the Ocean and Land

Some things to keep in mind before paddling out in Hawaii:

  • Use only mineral based sunscreen: Hawaii law bans the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. These chemicals are devastating to our coral reefs.  Check your labels and use only sunscreen containing zinc or titanium.
  • Do Not Step on the Reef: Assume anything hard under the water is coral reef and keep off of it. For your sake as well as the health of these living structures.  A reef cut or sea urchin spine to the foot will ruin your vacation! Fall flat and keep your feet up.  Look for the channels when paddling out - the areas where there are no waves breaking.  This is an indication the bottom is sandy and not coral reef.  Be especially careful when paddling and surfing at low tide.  Keep your paddle from hitting the reef.
  • Respect the Ocean Animals: Whale watching from a sup is an amazing experience but be sure to follow all federal protocols when you paddle out during the humpback whale season (generally November-April.) Stay 100 yards away from the whales, do not chase them and do not try to snorkel with them.  State and federal agencies routinely patrol the waters around Maui during whale season and the fines are hefty. Likewise, stay well away from sea turtles and monk seals.

Tips and Tricks

  • Be sure to rent a car that has crossbars if you plan to be carrying boards.
  • Bring your own tie-down straps, including a locking strap.
  • Bring your own paddle and leash, but consider renting a board on island.  Sup boards are larger and heavier so often it's easier to rent once you get here. Again, we suggest Hi-Tech for sup surf and rec boards.  Consult Ding King/SIC Maui Custom before your trip if you need a downwinding board.
  • If you bring an inflatable, you'll need to be extra mindful about wind and sea state conditions.

Ono Grindz

Some favorite places for that post-session bite to eat:

  • Nalu's South Side Grill in Kihei
  • Any food truck anywhere on Maui
  • Tin Roof in Kahului
  • Maui Brewing Company - Kihei and Lahaina
  • Mahalo Aleworks - Pukalani (Order pizza from Marlow next door and eat it there.)

Other Resources

Weather: Wind Alert, Windguru

Surf: Surfline, Surf-Forecast

Gear: Hi-Tech, Adventure Sports Maui, Tri-Paddle (outrigger centric)










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