April 15, 2019 by Austin Kieffer

April 15, 2019 by Austin Kieffer

April 15, 2019 by Austin Kieffer

What a race!? The conditions were about as good as any surfski race could ask for. The wind was lined up perfectly and blowing 25 knots, the weather was mild for Maui and a merciful layer of cloud cover had rolled in to shield racers from the punishing Hawaiian sun.

My race plan was simple. First, I wanted to hold back my excitement and keep the pace controlled for the first 5 minutes. Second, I wanted to lead as much of the race as possible so I could keep Dolan out of a comfortable surfing rhythm and hopefully force him to make mistakes. And third, I wanted to stay on his line in case he had local current knowledge that I didn’t know about.

I found Dolan in the start line and pulled up next to him. Before I knew it, the gun went off and the race was on. Despite my focus on Dolan, Borys Markin was the one who took off the line. Dolan and I were both intent to let him go and start at a controlled pace. With the wind blowing hard, the waves built almost immediately. We both found our rhythms, linking the waves and ramping up our speeds. We soon caught the charging Borys and in the next few minutes we distanced ourselves from him and the rest of the field. It looked like 2019 would once again be a two person match race.

We began to work out into the larger ocean swell that was traveling south down the channel. I was worried most about the first half of the race because the big ocean swell was something I didn’t have much practice in. To cross the channel well, the fastest athletes would need to harness the speed of the large swell, but also continually bank off to the right to keep on the race line.

I had expected Dolan to lead and dictate this section, but as I started to open up my race pace, I found myself pulling ahead. Despite my fears, I felt smooth, strong and shockingly comfortable riding the swell and still staying on the race line. For the next 45 minutes, I lead the race. I thrilled at being out in front and couldn’t keep the grin off my face. He would put in efforts and catch back up to me, pulling up beside me, but I felt unstoppable and could easily answer with a push of my own to surge back into the lead. I was dictating the pace, but I was always wary of Dolan making a dramatic line change. I didn’t want him using his superior course knowledge. So I kept looking over my shoulder, taking my directions from behind, marking any changes in his direction.

With an hour of racing down, I was still leading and had yet to be seriously contested. I was tempted to truly fire it up and make a serious bid to leave him for good. However, the memory of blazing my own trail at last year’s Molokai only to have 6 others pass me on faster lines still haunted me. I wasn’t going to let the win be dictated by line choice this time. I doubled down and decided I would match his every move. We practically flew across the channel, me leading and Dolan making the directional decisions.

With about an hour to go, Dolan surged, but this time his surge didn’t stop when he pulled even with me. He kept going. Shocked by his push and behind for the first time, I stumbled mentally. Was he just playing with me the whole first half? Was he simply biding his time to drop me? The self-doubt started to creep in. One wave became two and two waves grew to five. He was now convincingly ahead.

I shook myself mentally, I had to reset. “You can answer this,” I told myself, “you’ve been leading the whole time, go get it back!” I focused on the wave ahead, looking for openings. I spotted one and took off at a sprint. I jumped one wave, then two, letting my momentum carry me over a third and fourth. And just like that, I was only one wave behind. My rhythm carried me past him and before I knew it, I was once again in the lead. I kept pushing and with a look over my shoulder, I saw that I was now leading by the same five wave gap. I steeled myself. I was in contention for this win just as much as he was, but I could feel that it was going to be a mental battle till the last stroke.

As I hardened my resolve for the fight ahead, I was reminded of what Cory Hill had told me once about downwind racing. He said, downwind racing is like a boxing match. When a competitor makes a move in the waves and pushes ahead, the distance they put on you is like a physical blow. You know the pain and effort it will take to make up that distance and if you don’t stay strong that blow will knock you down for good. But, just like boxing, in downwind you always have the opportunity to return the blow. To win you must absorb your competitors attacks, retaliate with your own and make sure that your attack is the final one before the finish line. This race was shaping up to be an epic downwind boxing match.

Sure enough over the next hour, we went back and forth in a series of moves and counter moves. Each of us surging to land our “punches,” leaving the other reeling from the blow. The strange part was that instead of just pulling one or two waves ahead, we seemed to gap each other by four to six waves every time. I don’t know if it was the rhythm of the surf or if we would work too hard and then need a longer recovery, but the gaps were big on each exchange.

We battled back and forth like this and we practically flew over the final kilometers to the finish. As we neared the end, the race was far too close for comfort. I realized that the winner would likely be decided by the timing of a surge. Dolan must have been thinking the same and timed his final surge near perfectly. We were so close to finish and I didn’t think I had it in me to counter in that short a distance. I shook myself mentally. I was so proud of my racing so far and there was no chance I wasn’t going to give it my all to the very last stroke. If he beat me it would be after I wrung out every drop of effort I could.

Right then the lead media boat pulled up beside me. With spectators and cameras on me, I felt suddenly a bit stronger. I could do this and they were going to catch it on film! I looked head to Dolan. He was still a daunting five waves ahead, but we had been changing leads like this the whole time. What’s more, I was on the outside in the better waves, heading directly to the turn buoy while he had to angle out to his left. It was a lot to make up in the last 500 meters, but if I gave it everything, I just might be able to catch him by the turn and dice the flat for a photo finish. Time to go.

I dug in and sprinted over the first wave. One wave down, let’s do this! But tragically, the escort boat took off moments later. Seeing Dolan and wanting shots of him too, the boat pulled up ahead and crossed directly in front of my path to pull up beside Dolan. NOO!!! The escort boat wake chopped up the water, ruining the rhythm and flow of the waves. I tried to wave and yell to get them to move, but they were focused on Dolan. I decided to push anyway, I had to try. I was bounced and pushed around in the confused water. I watched the speeds drop on my GPS and my heart fell. Dolan closed the last few hundred meters to the turn buoy and rounded the turn first. It was over.

We each pushed to the finish but you can only make up ground like that in the downwind. Dolan crossed the finish in a well-deserved first place and I followed him in, crossing the line 30 seconds behind.

As I drifted to a stop, I couldn’t help but feel bitter disappointment well up inside me. This had been the year, I had paddled so well. I was fit, dialed into the waves and had been more than ready for the distance. My frustration wasn’t at losing, Dolan had raced superbly and timed his final surge like a true champ. I was frustrated because though I had been on the back foot, the final chance to contest his lead was taken from my control. What’s more, despite the closeness of the battle for the entire 42km, the only record of the race would be a result that failed to tell the story of our battle.

I sat with my disappointment and I remembered what I had written just a few days prior in the pre-race blog. I had written that my two objectives for this race were to prepare to the best of my ability and give it my maximal effort. Had I not done both of those?

With a few more moments of reflection, I realized I had. Sure there had been some things I would change about the race in hindsight, but I had given it my all and done both of the things I set out to do. Despite the second and the way the finish played out, I was proud of my race. I wouldn’t have changed a thing and it was an honor to compete with an someone who had brought out the best in me and still won. I smiled … he might have won, but I would be back in May for a rematch.

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019
    Austin's Blog

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13, 2019

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15, 2019
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    TBD Fall 2019

What a race!? The conditions were about as good as any surfski race could ask for. The wind was lined up perfectly and blowing 25 knots, the weather was mild for Maui and a merciful layer of cloud cover had rolled in to shield racers from the punishing Hawaiian sun.

My race plan was simple. First, I wanted to hold back my excitement and keep the pace controlled for the first 5 minutes. Second, I wanted to lead as much of the race as possible so I could keep Dolan out of a comfortable surfing rhythm and hopefully force him to make mistakes. And third, I wanted to stay on his line in case he had local current knowledge that I didn’t know about.

I found Dolan in the start line and pulled up next to him. Before I knew it, the gun went off and the race was on. Despite my focus on Dolan, Borys Markin was the one who took off the line. Dolan and I were both intent to let him go and start at a controlled pace. With the wind blowing hard, the waves built almost immediately. We both found our rhythms, linking the waves and ramping up our speeds. We soon caught the charging Borys and in the next few minutes we distanced ourselves from him and the rest of the field. It looked like 2019 would once again be a two person match race.

We began to work out into the larger ocean swell that was traveling south down the channel. I was worried most about the first half of the race because the big ocean swell was something I didn’t have much practice in. To cross the channel well, the fastest athletes would need to harness the speed of the large swell, but also continually bank off to the right to keep on the race line.

I had expected Dolan to lead and dictate this section, but as I started to open up my race pace, I found myself pulling ahead. Despite my fears, I felt smooth, strong and shockingly comfortable riding the swell and still staying on the race line. For the next 45 minutes, I lead the race. I thrilled at being out in front and couldn’t keep the grin off my face. He would put in efforts and catch back up to me, pulling up beside me, but I felt unstoppable and could easily answer with a push of my own to surge back into the lead. I was dictating the pace, but I was always wary of Dolan making a dramatic line change. I didn’t want him using his superior course knowledge. So I kept looking over my shoulder, taking my directions from behind, marking any changes in his direction.

With an hour of racing down, I was still leading and had yet to be seriously contested. I was tempted to truly fire it up and make a serious bid to leave him for good. However, the memory of blazing my own trail at last year’s Molokai only to have 6 others pass me on faster lines still haunted me. I wasn’t going to let the win be dictated by line choice this time. I doubled down and decided I would match his every move. We practically flew across the channel, me leading and Dolan making the directional decisions.

With about an hour to go, Dolan surged, but this time his surge didn’t stop when he pulled even with me. He kept going. Shocked by his push and behind for the first time, I stumbled mentally. Was he just playing with me the whole first half? Was he simply biding his time to drop me? The self-doubt started to creep in. One wave became two and two waves grew to five. He was now convincingly ahead.

I shook myself mentally, I had to reset. “You can answer this,” I told myself, “you’ve been leading the whole time, go get it back!” I focused on the wave ahead, looking for openings. I spotted one and took off at a sprint. I jumped one wave, then two, letting my momentum carry me over a third and fourth. And just like that, I was only one wave behind. My rhythm carried me past him and before I knew it, I was once again in the lead. I kept pushing and with a look over my shoulder, I saw that I was now leading by the same five wave gap. I steeled myself. I was in contention for this win just as much as he was, but I could feel that it was going to be a mental battle till the last stroke.

As I hardened my resolve for the fight ahead, I was reminded of what Cory Hill had told me once about downwind racing. He said, downwind racing is like a boxing match. When a competitor makes a move in the waves and pushes ahead, the distance they put on you is like a physical blow. You know the pain and effort it will take to make up that distance and if you don’t stay strong that blow will knock you down for good. But, just like boxing, in downwind you always have the opportunity to return the blow. To win you must absorb your competitors attacks, retaliate with your own and make sure that your attack is the final one before the finish line. This race was shaping up to be an epic downwind boxing match.

Sure enough over the next hour, we went back and forth in a series of moves and counter moves. Each of us surging to land our “punches,” leaving the other reeling from the blow. The strange part was that instead of just pulling one or two waves ahead, we seemed to gap each other by four to six waves every time. I don’t know if it was the rhythm of the surf or if we would work too hard and then need a longer recovery, but the gaps were big on each exchange.

We battled back and forth like this and we practically flew over the final kilometers to the finish. As we neared the end, the race was far too close for comfort. I realized that the winner would likely be decided by the timing of a surge. Dolan must have been thinking the same and timed his final surge near perfectly. We were so close to finish and I didn’t think I had it in me to counter in that short a distance. I shook myself mentally. I was so proud of my racing so far and there was no chance I wasn’t going to give it my all to the very last stroke. If he beat me it would be after I wrung out every drop of effort I could.

Right then the lead media boat pulled up beside me. With spectators and cameras on me, I felt suddenly a bit stronger. I could do this and they were going to catch it on film! I looked head to Dolan. He was still a daunting five waves ahead, but we had been changing leads like this the whole time. What’s more, I was on the outside in the better waves, heading directly to the turn buoy while he had to angle out to his left. It was a lot to make up in the last 500 meters, but if I gave it everything, I just might be able to catch him by the turn and dice the flat for a photo finish. Time to go.

I dug in and sprinted over the first wave. One wave down, let’s do this! But tragically, the escort boat took off moments later. Seeing Dolan and wanting shots of him too, the boat pulled up ahead and crossed directly in front of my path to pull up beside Dolan. NOO!!! The escort boat wake chopped up the water, ruining the rhythm and flow of the waves. I tried to wave and yell to get them to move, but they were focused on Dolan. I decided to push anyway, I had to try. I was bounced and pushed around in the confused water. I watched the speeds drop on my GPS and my heart fell. Dolan closed the last few hundred meters to the turn buoy and rounded the turn first. It was over.

We each pushed to the finish but you can only make up ground like that in the downwind. Dolan crossed the finish in a well-deserved first place and I followed him in, crossing the line 30 seconds behind.

As I drifted to a stop, I couldn’t help but feel bitter disappointment well up inside me. This had been the year, I had paddled so well. I was fit, dialed into the waves and had been more than ready for the distance. My frustration wasn’t at losing, Dolan had raced superbly and timed his final surge like a true champ. I was frustrated because though I had been on the back foot, the final chance to contest his lead was taken from my control. What’s more, despite the closeness of the battle for the entire 42km, the only record of the race would be a result that failed to tell the story of our battle.

I sat with my disappointment and I remembered what I had written just a few days prior in the pre-race blog. I had written that my two objectives for this race were to prepare to the best of my ability and give it my maximal effort. Had I not done both of those?

With a few more moments of reflection, I realized I had. Sure there had been some things I would change about the race in hindsight, but I had given it my all and done both of the things I set out to do. Despite the second and the way the finish played out, I was proud of my race. I wouldn’t have changed a thing and it was an honor to compete with an someone who had brought out the best in me and still won. I smiled … he might have won, but I would be back in May for a rematch.

  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13th

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    TBD Fall 2019