Austin Kieffer racing in the 2018 Molokai Challenge. PHOTOGRAPH: © Carter Johnson.


Jim Foti had been resigned to the decision for months.

His Kanaka Ikaika Racing Association had been endlessly searching for a solution to bring back the Molokai Challenge.

It’s been three years since the race was last held, with the global pandemic bringing the iconic 52-kilometre crossing to a grinding halt.

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

With normality now returning around the world, there was heightened hope that this would be the year.

But sitting in front of the Molokai community at a ‘town hall’ meeting last week, Foti knew 2022 was simply too soon.

“There were a number of community members with big voices in the meeting saying they weren’t quite ready.” Foti explains.

“They’re not all in unison, there is a fair bit of division on what should happen or shouldn’t happen.

“It was hard, some of the initial researching on it. You can get bashed for even asking the question of ‘Is this a viable thing?’

“But it totally educated me on the moving parts that are going on with Molokai and how the community works.

“You have to respect them. There’s no law that says you can’t run the event, but you want to be able to come back in future.”

“If you do it right, then when you ask for help people are more likely to say ‘yeah we’re able to help you.’”

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

This week, all four Hawaiian counties announced the end of their final COVID restrictions, amid dropping case numbers across the state.

The decision is being celebrated by those within Hawaii’s tourism industry – which is a central part of the state’s economy.

But for the residents of Molokai, it only adds to the anxiety that already exists within the community over any influx of visitors.

The island has never been a tourist hotspot – and there’s a long-held view that its community has never wanted it to be.

Whether that’s accurate or not, the thought has only strengthened throughout the pandemic.

Flights have operated at a reduced capacity, rental cars are hard to locate and some accommodation lodgings are yet to even reopen.

The primary concern for the Kanaka Ikaika Racing Association is keeping peace with the Molokai community. It’s unlikely to run the event without their support.

“It’s been a couple of years’ process and an educational process throughout it all,” Foti admits.

“We did get into the core of the community so it’s given us a chance to reset and ask, ‘OK, how can we all be part of this, so the island has a little stake in it?’

“We want Molokai to look at these events and feel like they’re a part of it… as opposed to being a simple channel crossing, we want the island to be integrated into the event.

“It gives us an opportunity to look towards 2023 and come up with some synergies that make the locals happy – and in turn all of us happy on the racing side.”

However, the collaborative stance also creates a question so glaring it’s impossible to ignore:

What if the Molokai community doesn’t want the race to return in 2023 or beyond?

“I’m pretty confident it will come back,” Foti says. “They said, ‘give us a little more time. Let’s get through this year.’

“I feel pretty good that next year we’ll be able to do some channel crossings.

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

That’s certainly the wish of the global surfski community.

Organisers have already announced the 2023 race will be held on May 28 and, in a huge coup, has attracted Australian financial firm Shaw and Partners as its major sponsor.

“We have been talking with them about how we can bring them in the right way, the ‘island way’ and make it work for both of us,” Foti says.

“It’s awesome that they’re excited to get behind it.”

So, understandably, the Kanaka Ikaika Racing Association will now closely watch how the rest of the paddle sport community handles their own delicate relationships with locals.

Five different organisations run the five different Molokai-to-Oahu crossings.

Molokai Hoe and Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the six-person canoe races for men and women respectively, have both announced their cancellation for this year.

That leaves the M2O Paddleboard Championships and the Paddling Athletes Association’s OC1 ‘Kaiwi Solo’ as the only channel crossings yet to make a formal announcement on their 2022 events.

“We’re all in communication… we all see the same picture and have conferred with each other and what are the right things to do.”

“PAA is a darkhorse, I’m not sure if they’re going to cancel or run a maverick event of some sort.

“There’s nothing that says you can’t do it, but it’s about where you want to be in the future in the eyes of the community.”

Undeniably, the Molokai Challenge is at a crossroads.

If the Molokai community doesn’t actively support the race, Foti concedes it’s hard to envisage how the race can continue.

But he isn’t daunted by the uncertainty.

Instead, this reset for the sport’s most iconic crossing is instilling him with a sense of excited optimism.

“It was a crossroads in making a relationship for a new race, a new beginning,” he says.

“It will be the same water course, but hopefully a better event.”