The Other Maui Downwinder: The Kihei Run

Downwind Paddling - Kihei Side

Downwind Paddling – Kihei Side


It’s not always fun and downwinders on the North Shore of Maui. Contrary to the idealized notion that Maui’s weather is perennially perfect and so much more consistent than conditions anywhere else on the the planet, sometimes Maliko is a no-go. Maybe there is no wind and she is flat. Maybe there’s too much winter swell and conditions are dangerous. Or the wind is blowing Kona, which could take a paddler offshore in a heartbeat.

“Everybody thinks all we do is just downwind every day and have fun,” a local told me on my last visit there, at the end of November. In the winter, if you are looking to downwind, it is hit and miss. The locals turn to other things….maybe they are getting into foiling. Or they surf, which can also be hit or miss, or they turn to land-based activities, like cycling.

Or, if the wind cooperates, they do the Kihei Run.

Kihei is the beach community on the south side of the island. When the wind is blowing from the North, it can produce downwind conditions that remind one more of the bumps in the Columbia River Gorge, and less like the big ocean swell-filled Maliko on the the opposite side of the island.

Another major difference – you don’t have to paddle out of a gulch and battle serious side swell or cross chop to line up for your run. That can be one of the most intimidating parts about doing Maliko- just getting out. But the Kihei run starts right off the beach – either at the Kihei Canoe Hale (House) or the Maui Canoe Club hale, which bookend a long stretch of sandy coast known as Sugar Beach. You launch and pretty much go.

Since you are on the leeward side of the island, the protected side, you will not get the big walls of water of the ocean swell. The bumps will be closer together, maybe choppier even, but they will be fast! On that recent trip to Maui, the wind cooperated and I managed to get in one Kihei downwinder….and to quote Ferris Bueller, it was so choice.

My friends Stephen and Cathy were going out in their two-man outrigger and invited me along. Bill joined us in his surf ski. I waited on the beach in front of the condo resort where I was staying and watched until I saw them come around from the Maui Canoe Club. We waved paddles at each other and then it was on. The wind was blowing nice and strong…I don’t know precisely how strong but I can say this: there were moments, lots of moments, when I felt the wind pushing against my back and I was moving fast, without even paddling. It seemed to me to be blowing harder than the last time I’d been on the Kihei run, the only time I’d ever done it – a year and a half or so ago with Jeremy Riggs.

The speed was both exhilarating and a little bit intimidating.

I took some deep breaths to calm myself, I rooted my feet down into the board, a trusted SIC Bullet sporting the familiar “Dreamsicle” orange colorway. This was the board that took my downwinding to new levels last year after the Paddle Imua race on Maliko and in the Columbia River Gorge last summer. I felt like I was with an old friend.

As I caught my first glide and then strung together several more, I felt like I was skimming across the ocean like the most perfect round, flat stone that’s been skipped across the water and is picking up velocity each time it lightly skims the surface. Soon, I was going faster than I can ever recall on any downwind run, anywhere.

I was moving so fast, and picking up so much speed with each bump that I kind of freaked out a little.

It was both the sheer speed, the sensation of which was enhanced by the feel of the wind whipping around my body as well as that amazing sound of the Bullet engaging the backs of the bumps. I got so caught up in all of that I almost fell. I dropped to my knees just to take a moment to drink it all in. And re-center myself.

The view from Kihei is a bit different than the one you get over on the North Shore. You see the Haleakala volcano from a different angle. There’s more development on the beach as you make your way down the coastline. And, you have land to your right – Molokini and Kahoʻolawe are there to remind to you “steer” left, least you get blown too far offshore. And on this day, it was clear enough to see the Big Island of Hawaii looming behind Kaho’olawe, making her look, well, bigger. There were some spectacular clouds on the horizon, which only served to enhance the drama.

I got back on my feet and felt the wind push me forward. Back to the business of bump catching. As I got more comfortable and focused, I started reading the water, choosing which bumps I wanted to catch, and steering back to the left by using my paddle blade as a rudder, in what kayakers and canoeists might call a modified bow rudder or bow draw stroke. I could pick out which bumps would take me in the direction I wanted to go.

For the first time since starting to downwind two years ago, I felt like I knew what I was doing.

I kept my eye on the red outline of Stephen and Cathy’s OC-2. It had gotten quite a bit a head of me when I stopped to take it all in and calm down. Bill in the ski was long gone. I figured that as long as I could still see the OC, I’d be okay. I was well-equipped with safety gear, including a Marine Band radio, Personal Locator Beacon, phone in a dry bag, water, a gel or two and of course PFD and leash. There are more places to more easily bail on the Kihei side if you need to, and the reefs aren’t as tricky to negotiate.

We got a rather late start on the run that day. True to winter weather form, the conditions had been quite changeable all day long- vacillating from zero wind to strong gusts blowing too much in the offshore direction. So by the time I could no longer see Stephen and Cathy, it was starting to get dark.

And right about that time, the wind just stopped.

It was time to think about getting off the water.

I knew exactly where I was- I was about a mile North of the beach at Sorrento’s, a restaurant and hotel complex that back in the day, was one of my parents’ favorite places to swim and then have lunch. Paddling now seemed amazingly slow, without the aid of the wind and the bumps. It was like suddenly going from a 70 MPH zone on the interstate to a 55 MPH zone – it just seemed interminably slow. I knew that it might be completely dark by the time I hit the beach at Sorrento’s.

My other option was not that far away, Kalama Beach Park. I could see its wide beach and small breakwater just to my left at about 11:00. There were some rather formidable waves breaking on either side of the beach, indicating the presence of a reef. So, as I paddled in, I carefully watched just where those waves were forming and breaking. It was not difficult to pick a line between them, through the opening in the small reef.

As I came up on the beach, tourists who were ambling along the greenway path there seemed surprised to see a paddler with a “long board come out of nowhere” and walk out of the water onto the beach. Just before I hopped off the board, I saw what I think was the largest sea turtles I have ever seen. It was just huge. It was amazing.

As soon as I put the board down, I texted Stephen and Cathy to let them know where I was. Cathy said she wasn’t surprised, that she knew I would get off the water when and where I did. They too had just gotten off the run, just in time to watch the most gorgeous sunset put a cap on the most perfect day.

That was the only downwinder I was able to do this trip, again, because of conditions. So I spent the rest of the time on The Valley Isle surfing, some of it on that Bullet for more practice and training.

As much as I love doing the Maliko, this Kihei run gave me a great boost of confidence, and it was amazing to finally feel and see real progress.

I can’t wait to do it again!


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