Inland Paddler: The Force Awakens

Lisa Schell, Inland Paddler

“Lisa!! You are in an OC-2 with Jeremy Riggs! PUKE. YOU. WILL. NOT!”

My Inner Voice – which can sound a lot like Yoda, scolded me. “Huli (capsize or flip) you will not!!” We were in the middle of the famed Maliko Run, roughly a ten-mile stretch of the north shore of Maui that I’ve seen thousands of times, but only from Highway 36 that runs along it. Now I am looking out at that highway over my left shoulder, seeing this side of Maui, where my parents lived for years, from the water.

For those of you who do not know Jeremy Riggs, he is an SIC Maui, QuickBlade and Bluesmiths paddle athlete in Maui who runs Paddlewithriggs, a downwind guiding and teaching experience that will blow your mind. He specializes in downwind experiences in the legendary Maliko Gulch.

Maliko Lisa Schell, Inland Paddler

Well. Glancing at it out of the corner of my eye is more like it. I wasn’t doing much looking around. This wasn’t a casual tourist junket. This was serious stuff. The wind was blowing. Something like 25 mph or so. The swells at times – okay all the freakin’ time – were huge. Gi-freakin’-normous. I refused to look when Jeremy would point out a particularly large one behind us. “I’ll take your word for it,” I said, choosing to focus instead on his shoulders and his blade. Okay, okay, I did look over my right shoulder once or twice, and to my shock and awe, saw huge walls of electric blue water coming right at us.

Imagine the Big Thunder Mountain log flume ride at Disneyland combined with the wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon at Disneyworld.

But you are NOT strapped in.

“If you fall off the back, get away from the canoe, ‘cause you don’t want the rudder to hit you when it comes down,” Jeremy had warned me in the shuttle van on the way to Maliko Gulch, where the run begins.

Fall off the back??? Um. What?

Apparently, it can happen. And does.

Okay. I now have three objectives in this endeavor:

  1. Do not ralph. Because if you do, since this is a downwind situation, you will be ralphing all over the back of Jeremy Rigg’s Bluesmiths shirt. Not cool. (Not to mention the fact that you are now chumming in sharky waters.)
  2. Do not make us huli.
  3. Do not, under any circumstances, fall off the back of the OC.

We were wearing leashes, essential once one gets separated from boat, or board, but they don’t prevent that separation from happening.

Maliko Lisa Schell, Inland PaddlerThis was my second training session with the soft-spoken, infinitely patient downwind Jedi who hails from New Hanover County, NC but now calls the Valley Isle home. The first was a three-mile run through reefs and in rough, choppy, windy conditions, but on an SIC Maui board that was at least somewhat familiar. Now, we’re doing the whole enchilada, the massive Maliko, in a two-man outrigger canoe that is way different from the OC-1 I paddle at home in meek waters. That are mostly flat. Really flat. And inland.

To say I was out of my comfort zone is an understatement about the size of Jabba the Hut.

I didn’t talk much, out loud, on Kelly’s shuttle from the harbor to the Gulch. I was excited and nervous and having a really hard time believing I was about to do this bucket list thing. Lots of self-talk is going on inside my head. Mostly telling me to breathe, breathe, breathe. Then, I find out five-time Molokai to Oahu champion paddler and famed outrigger designer/maker Kai Bartlett is sitting right behind me. There are some other pretty impressive paddlers on the van too. Some surf ski elite, sup elite….everyone is elite. It’s like I’m on a shuttle with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo and the entire Jedi High Council and all I’ve ever done is bullseye a few very small womp rats in my T-16 back home. Where it’s really, really flat. And, did I mention, inland. And flat.

Cue Jabba: “ Ha ha,ha…eese no Jedi.”


“Lisa!! Do. Not. Throw up BEFORE you even get on the water!!”

And do not whine like Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.

“Do this you can. Paddle you must. Quit you cannot.”

Okay – my Jedi Master saw me paddle two days prior. He would not be taking me out here if he didn’t think I could handle it. Suzie Cooney, who gave me surfing pointers earlier in the week, and who also just happens to be a sup Jedi, told me I am a strong paddler. And hey, I’ve done the Chattajack 31 twice. That has to count for something,right? Bottom line is, I am here to learn. This is my Dagobah System. The place where I am going to learn from the paddling masters, to improve my skills and prepare for doing the Olukai SUP race on the Maliko Run next spring. And, it’s heck of a lot nicer than that swamp planet where Luke Skywalker learned the Jedi trade from Yoda. At least there’s that.

We unloaded the boats and boards at the Gulch, and walked the OC-2 toward the water. I swear the Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) is playing on loudspeakers somewhere.
Pretty sure Lord Vader is there himself.

No wait…that’s just me hyperventilating.

We put in at debunked boat ramp that immediately dumps us in waist-deep water. We had to be careful not to slip on the alga-covered concrete. Images of me dropping the stern of the OC-2 flickered across my hyper-alert brain. That is not going to happen either, Lisa.

The Tempest OC-2 is a bit shallower in it’s cockpit than my Ehukai. You sit higher up. Easy to see how someone might slide off the back. I have a bit of trouble getting on in the deeper water that is already churning. As we started paddling out close to the rocks on our right, I use my thighs to brace against the canoe – locking myself in – in much the way I would in my 17-foot sea kayak.

Use the Force, Lisa. Use the Force.

Jeremy explained why we were taking the line so close to the rocks on the right. He also explained how we would paddle in unison as much as possible and how when he gave the command “hut” we would take one paddle stroke then switch sides.
But I don’t want to paddle in the right. Please don’t make me paddle on the right.

Paddling on the right is when I tend to huli. That is the side that is least stable because the outrigger or ama is on the left. And in the two-man, the person paddling on the right is the one responsible for bracing the canoe and averting the huli.

Remember, Lisa, you are here to learn. So…just reach out with your feelings…feel the Force.

You wanna talk about Force? You can totally feel it when you use the back of your paddle to skim along the top of the water to stabilize the canoe, like an auxiliary ama. Bracing when you are flying down the face of a big swell at about 10 miles per hour is a lot more effective than bracing when you’re paddling on Lake Jordan at about 5 miles an hour, that’s for sure.

Great, kid, don’t get cocky!

There might have been a couple of times when I thought we were going to go over. But we didn’t.

My eyes are totally glued to Jeremy and his paddle. Watching it to match it’s movement. He cues me when to rest and paddle easy, when to pick it up and when to reach and go all out to get speed up to string one bump with the next.

We are careening down the face of huge swells. You cannot help but hoot and hollar like Chewbacca when you do that. You just can’t. When we hit the bottom of one, the ice-blue but warm foamy water backwashes over our laps. Every now and then, I look beyond Jeremy’s shoulders and get a glimpse of the iconic West Maui Mountains.

I cannot believe I am out here. In this water. In this craft. Doing the Maliko.

There were a few moments when time seemed to stand still. At about mile six, the wind apparently dropped off some and it seemed like we were doing more work with less payoff. Or at least that’s what I would learn when we finished and were comparing runs with some of the others who were out there with us. At the time, I thought it was just me, getting tired, having trouble keeping up and getting us out of sync. Despite that, the next four miles literally flew by and when we came into the lee of Kahului Harbor, I couldn’t believe it was over already.

9.8 miles (give or take) in one hour and eight minutes.

That was some jump to hyperspace. Or, in another fandom, Warp 10.

I saw the Matson shipping line tankers and containers in the harbor and I cried. Matson was the line that carried my parents and all of their earthly possessions to Oahu in 1960. Where all of this – this love of water, the ocean and Hawaii – started for my family. My mother would have LOVED what Jeremy and I just did. She would have been thrilled. I could feel her with us in the canoe.

“Now comes the hard part,” Jeremy said, after giving me a high-five. “We have to paddle with no help!”

The harbor waters were calm and flat.

“Oh, that’s just like home, I can handle that!”

My first Maliko Run is over. The grin on my face, well, I’m pretty sure it’s still there.

I didn’t get a chance to do it again on this trip to Maui, but just that experience, and the training work on the sup has returned me to my home waters with a new confidence. I still have a lot of work to do before the Olukai and Paddle Imua races next May. My Jedi training is by no means complete. But it’s a great base upon which to build, and I am super-motivated to keep working in the ocean here in North Carolina through the winter, even though it will be cold and hard.

Paddle you must. Quit you cannot.

Maliko Lisa Schell, Inland Paddler