Paddler Profile: Tony Galang – From Flatwater to Ocean Paddler
Editor’s Note: Cleveland’s Tony Galang is an experienced paddler who has competed in multiple endurance races, including Chattajack and SeaPaddle NY. After a trip to Oregon’s Hood River and a subsequent trip to Maui, he was bitten badly by the downwind bug. He has since participated in the Maui to Molokai race and has made multiple Maliko Runs both on sup and foil winging. We asked Tony to tell us how a landlocked midwesterner made the transition from being a flatwater specialist to ocean athlete.
By Tony Galang
Like many of you, I began as a flat-water paddler. Being from Cleveland, OH, I paddled Lake Erie when it was flat, along with a couple local rivers and a nearby reservoir. I didn’t really care for choppy water and didn’t really understand what downwinding was. One day in late summer 2014, while visiting our local SUP shop, I saw a magazine featuring the recent Molokai to Oahu (M2O) race. Connor Baxter was on the cover, surfing down some huge swell on an unlimited rudder board, on the way to winning the race. I remember commenting to the store owner, “32 miles of open ocean and swell. This is unbelievable!” I had never paddled on the ocean, except for a very protected session on Waikiki Beach in 2012. I had only surfed twice on vacation, but it wasn’t a passion of mine. I felt open ocean downwinding was untouchable.
Fast forward four years to 2018. I had really enjoyed training and racing SUP. I was on a 24” wide board. I had done four Chattajacks, four SeaPaddle NYC races, two Graveyards at the Carolina Cup, and numerous other races. But I still had very little ocean experience, and only done a couple of crappy downwinders on Lake Erie where I really wasn’t catching anything. That’s when John Beausang, founder of The Distressed Mullet, and co-founder of Paddle Monster, came calling. He was putting together a house for the July event in Hood River and invited me. The next thing I know, I’m going down the Columbia River, getting my ass kicked, with my board flying over my head in the 25 MPH + winds on my first 8-mile Viento run. I was destroyed from that run, but I knew a switch had flipped inside of me – I LOVED DOWNWINDING!
Fellow flatwater paddlers – you have to try downwinding! The adrenaline and athleticism of hammering 5-6 paddle strokes to catch a swell, jumping back on your board so your nose doesn’t catch, riding the wave while steering and looking for a connecting wave, and paddling and keeping your balance through the entire process is unmatched. This sequence occurs over and over again for your entire run. You are reaching heart rates you rarely hit while flatwater paddling, but you don’t feel tired. You feel exhilarated over and over, until you’re finished. Then the fatigue hits you. My outlook on paddling changed with this trip to Hood River.
The Hood River experience in July of 2018 led me to Maui in December of that year, where I did my first Maliko run, accompanied by Jeremy Riggs (my guide) and Suzie Cooney (who came along to enjoy the conditions). From 2019 to August 2021, there were annual trips to Hood River (including downwind races), and two Maui to Molokai (M2M) downwind runs with a support boat. I had fallen in love with downwinding! Also in 2020, I started working out weekly with Suzie Cooney via Zoom, focusing on balance, core strength, and brain training. While Coach Larry’s Paddle Monster weekly paddle and strength regimens were still the main part of my training, adding the additional sessions with Suzie helped my balance and learning curve. I found myself falling less on downwind runs. I also learned to wing foil that year. The balance training shortened my learning curve and especially helped me with leaning to foil with my left foot back (my weak side).
Finally in 2022 the M2M race was going to happen. I went to Maui in mid-May to train and improve my downwinding. My friend Lisa Schell (PaddleMonster.com’s Managing Editor) had moved to Maui in November 2021 and was gracious enough to host me for my first month on Maui, lend me her SIC Bullet, and giving me rides to the Maliko Gulch if I couldn’t make the shuttle. I did 3-6 Maliko downwind runs each week, with each run being 10 miles. There was nobody to train with because almost everyone on Maui is in outrigger canoes, winging, or downwind foiling. I had to train out on the ocean myself, fending for myself. Other than Conner Baxter and me, all the other competitors in M2M were from Oahu or came in from the mainland USA just before the race.
Each week I would message Coach Larry in our forum and ask how to modify the week’s training program to a purely downwinding plan. In the month and a half before the race, I surfed a couple times and did 1-2 flatwater workouts in the early morning at Kahului Harbor, but everything else was downwinding. I would vary the number and intensity of my runs to somewhat mimic the workload and intensity of that week’s Paddle Monster workouts. I’m also a huge believer of weight training, so I was in the gym three days a week. I would be too tired to lift after doing Maliko, so when I was doing both, I would lift first, and then head for the Maliko Shuttle which gives you a one-way ride to Maliko Gulch where the run starts. I was also working out with Suzie Cooney, in-person, every Wednesday. In my biggest training week in June, I did a double Maliko run. The owner of the Maliko Shuttle waited for me to finish my downwind run, and then gave me a ride right back to the gulch so I could do a second run. I love downwinding! So doing 20 miles of downwinding in a day or doing a weight training session followed by a Maliko run was a wonderful day!
The M2M race was on Friday, July 8, and we had some epic conditions. 25 MPH + winds with 5 – 6 foot swell. In the first part of this race, you cross the Pa’iolo Channel, taking swell on your right, mostly paddling on your left, and trying not to get pushed too far left. You want to get across the channel so you can line up the swells that run parallel to Molokai. While crossing the channel, you can occasionally take a swell to the left (west) when the opportunity arises, but you also want to steer to the right, especially at the end of the ride, to stay on course to cross the channel. If you take too many rides with the predominant swell, you are delaying your straight downwind run, and making the latter part of your race more difficult.
The night before the race, I met with Keith Baxter (Connor’s father), who was my escort boat captain for my 2019 and 2021 M2M runs. Keith grew up on Oahu and has lived on Maui since he was a young adult. He has been a charter boat captain for 25 years, owns a second home on Molokai, has been Connor’s safety boat for countless M2M and M2O races, and traverses the Pa’iolo channel several times a week. I can’t imagine anyone who knows that channel better than Keith. When I met with Keith that evening, he took a map of Maui and Molokai off his family room wall, pulled out a booklet with tide charts for the summer, and we went over the course. Keith explained how high and low tide affect the currents in the channel, and how I should adjust my course at certain times in the race based on changing tides. With high tide changing to low at 12:30 pm, which was exactly 3.5 hours into the race, he suggested I move closer to Molokai to avoid the stronger current moving against me in the deeper part of the channel.
In every race I’ve ever done – when someone is ahead of you, you know that. When someone is behind you, you know thattoo. If you are catching someone, you can see your progress. If you care to look behind you, you can see that someone is catching you. This is not the case with M2M. Everyone can take their own route and after about mile four, the field is dispersed and out of the range of visibility. You’re racing against yourself at that point. I tried to take the route Keith recommended, crossing the channel first and then going down the coast of Molokai. My route ended up being a little inefficient because I crossed a little too straight and a little too quickly, taking very little swell to the left to cut the corner slightly. I arrived at Molokai farther right (east) than I should have, which added to my route. I used the changing tide to my advantage and moved up one position during the latter part of the race. Since I hadn’t seen anyone else in so long, and thinking that the others took a poor route, I thought I was going to come in second (to Connor Baxter). Lo and behold, after I finished, I wandered around the dock to see who else I could find, and realized I had come fourth. Spencer Bailey, and excellent downwinder from Vermont who came to Maui just a few days before the race, had beat me by 6 minutes, yet I never saw him. Another racer from Oahu beat me by 9 minutes. Connor beat me by 45 minutes. I did the 26.22 miles in 4:08. I was tired when I finished. Exhausted. Cramping. I’d had to manage cramps for most of the last five miles. But, I had had experience with that before at Chattajack, the Carolina Cup, and the SeaPaddle. I think Chattajack in 2016, when we had terrible headwinds, was harder. So was the 2019 SeaPaddle, when we were delayed by lightning and were going against the current in the East River. But the constant surfing, moving back and forth on the board, and sprinting to catch the next swell, is extra exhausting. However, it’s also fun. It’s a better feeling of exhaustion than grinding out 32 miles on the Tennessee River or 25 miles on the East/Harlem/Hudson Rivers. Afterdownwinding, you feel an exhilarated exhaustion!
I don’t know where my downwinding will lead me next. I really love to wing, and I also learned to kite this year. I’m being pulled in many directions. I’ve lost interest in doing M2O after they’ve canceled it for the last three consecutive years. I still think an annual trip to Maui for M2M and hitting Hood River on the way back to do the Gorge Paddle Challenge, will become the norm. I still have a great deal to improve upon and I will continue to learn more about steering the board where I want it to go and connecting waves.
My advice to any flatwater paddlers who are intrigued by reading this article is don’t wait for a chance invitation to Hood River to jumpstart your downwinding experience. Initiate this yourself. Find another newbie to go with you. Post on Paddle Monster’s social media to find someone. Go by yourself if necessary. Take charge of your learning curve. You won’t regret it. I know you will love downwinding too!
I’m trying to promote the idea that downwind ocean racing is a 4th discipline of SUP together with long distance, sprint and technical racing. Interestingly, SUP is a recognized category of craft in the ICF ocean racing rules.
I totally agree Darren. DW races are on life support. M2O, M2M, and Hood River used to be the most important races out there. Hood River still has a good field, but M2O and M2M have very poor SUP participation. There were only 10 SUP competitors for M2M this year. With the advent of ICF, ISA, and APP, our racing has changed. APP tried to do a M2M DW race, but it got canceled during Covid, and I haven’t seen them attempt to reschedule it. While those three organizations have helped our sport, I’d like to see one of them embrace DW racing.
Awesome article, Tony! It’s been too long since I last made it to Maui, and you took me right back there with your words.