Conquering Na Pali’s coast

WAIMEA — Alyssa Gundersen may be a novice when it comes to paddling, but the two-year member of the Waikiki Beachboys Canoe Club will say that this year’s Na Pali Challenge “was the highlight of the racing year on Kauai.”

“It was incredibly beautiful … and there was great competition,” Gundersen said after she completed her first Na Pali Challenge on Sunday. “It’s such a fun, wonderful race and everybody is full of good spirit. It was wonderful.”

Gundersen, who also competed in this year’s Hawaii Canoe Racing Association State Championship on Saturday, was one of nearly 1,000 paddlers from 83 outrigger teams, who made their way across the scenic Na Pali Coast line on a 39.5-mile course that tested endurance and strength.  

The annual Garden Island Canoe Racing Association race — in its 16th year — began in Hanalei Bay at 8 Sunday morning and ended hours later at the Waimea State Recreational Pier.

Each team consisted of six men and six women. They were required to stop and rotate paddlers every 30 minutes with six other members traveling on escort boats within a five-minute time restriction.

The first team to arrive into the pier area — in 4 hours, 28 minutes and 12 seconds — was an ultra-light outrigger canoe guided by six women, part of a 12-person team primarily representing Namolokama O Hanalei Canoe Club.

“The girls kind of just did it for us — they were about 100 yards in front of the next crew by the time we got out of Hanalei Bay,” said Eric Rafter, part of the Namolokama O Hanalei Canoe Club team that secured the first-place finish. “They had such a great start and throughout the race we just had to hold off the rest of the teams. We’re always in it to win it, but we want to at least have a good time while we’re doing it.”

Jesse Palumbo was part of a 12-person team representing Hanalei Canoe Club that was one of the next few teams to race across the finish line at the tip of Waimea Pier. He said there was a nice gust of wind for the first 10 miles of the race leading up to Polihale, where conditions began to flatten out.

“Once we got over here, we had to watch out for the surf because there’s a little south swell, and for the last five miles, there was a little bit of wind in our face,” Palumbo said after his crew pulled onto the beach. “It wasn’t that bad, because we got a rest every 30 minutes.”

But the competition itself, some paddlers say, is only part of what makes the Na Pali Challenge special.

“It’s a beautiful race that is a part of our island that we want to show off,” GICRA Vice President Leiko Someda said. “I’m proud of Kauai … and I want people to see that we’re not so 50 or 60 years behind — the reason why we are like that is because we have places like Na Pali that we can save and that’s what I want people to see. It a place that is untouched, per se, and is a beautiful place where you can just ground ourselves.”

Hui Nalu Canoe Club paddler Danny Sheard, who was among one of the first outrigger canoes to cross the finish line, said the scenery along the Na Pali Coast “is unreal.”

“Two or three of the guys who live on Oahu have never been on the Na Pali Coast before until today and everyone wants to do this race, so it’s pretty cool in that respect,” he said.

Gundersen, who has hiked the Kalalau trail in the past, enjoyed seeing the Na Pali Coast from a different perspective — one of the land from the water.

“I had my iPhone with a waterproof cover on it, so I was just snapping away as we were going by,” Gundersen said. “It’s just striking — the beauty is breathtaking. There are no words to describe it — words diminish the beauty of it.”

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