Outrigger Champion: How Danny Ching conquered Molokai
by Mark McDermott
Five years had passed since the last Kaiwi Solo, the world championship of outrigger canoeing.
The race had been canceled in 2019 by one of the treacherous storms that often haunt the channel, a tumultuous body of water between the Molokai and Oahu islands, which translated from Hawaiian means “the channel of bones.”
The pandemic wiped out the next three years until finally, the race resumed on May 16.
Danny Ching didn’t know what to expect. He’d won the race twice previously. In 2010, Ching was the first competitor not from Hawaii or elsewhere in the Pacific islands to win the championship. He’d last won the race in 2013. But 10 years is a long time, and five years between races is in some ways an even longer time for an athlete. And then there was this: Ching would turn 40 on the day of the race.
“I was under the impression I had a chance,” Ching said. “But the issue we ran into is they haven’t held this race since 2018…. So racing all these people, it’s kind of interesting, because we’re all training in our own little area, and normally you have times during the year we get exposure to each other — we race and you get to kind of calibrate everyone’s speed and what you need to do. But there was none of that for almost five years. So I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m fast, and I am really sure I am fast in Southern California. We’re going to have to just lay that down next to everyone and find out.’”
In those missing years, the paddlers from Tahiti, in particular, had only gotten stronger.
“Tahiti is where most of the really good power comes from now,” Ching said. “All of their top athletes paddle canoes, while we lose a bunch to all the other sports here in the U.S.”
Like most elite athletes, such doubts and the accompanying desire to prove oneself in competition fuel Ching. What sets apart the very elite is the will to do so, and Ching has proven himself again and again. Few people on the planet have been a greater power with a paddle in hand. He was a national champion in a sport, kayaking, that he took up relatively late in life, at 16, and was a member of the U.S. national kayak team at the Pan American Games in Brazil in 2007. He’s won several stand-up paddleboard world championships, and was declared “the best paddler in the world” by Men’s Health magazine.
But there are few places more rife with uncertainty than the Kauai Channel, where waves sometimes reach 20 to 30 feet, currents and winds tend to be strong, and jagged reefs lay in wait for those who get disoriented or are unfamiliar with the watery terrain. It was Kaiwi that claimed the bones of legendary Hawaiian waterman and big wave rider Eddie Aikau in 1979. He and his kayak disappeared without a trace.
On the morning of the race, Ching was talking to his buddy, protege, and fellow competitor Ryland Hart, a 22-year-old outrigger phenom who grew up in the South Bay, but now lives in Hawaii. They were sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the race to start.
“How do you feel?” Hart asked.
“I feel fine,” Ching said. “I’m going to take two strokes and realize real quick whether or not I am in competition with you guys or if I’m off the back of the truck.”
It was one of the stranger feelings Ching has had in the course of three decades of competing on the water. He is inarguably one of the greatest watermen of the modern era, yet he genuinely didn’t know if he belonged in this race.
“I just kind of accepted it at that moment,” Ching later reflected. “Like, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I have no idea. I think I’m good. But in about five minutes, we are all going to know.”
Growing up Lanakila
The outrigger canoe is a proud vestige of Polynesian history. The vessels, the larger of which historically could carry 80 people, are built either with two hulls or a lateral support float (i.e. an outrigger) to provide increased stability for ocean voyaging. While the exact dates of Hawaii’s settlement remain somewhat unclear — estimates range from 1,000 to 1,800 years ago — what is certain is that ancient Polynesians were among the greatest sea-going navigators history has known, and they arrived in Hawaii by outrigger.
“Canoe racing has been around as long as there have been two canoes,” according to a Hawaiian saying, and such races became popular in Hawaii centuries ago when chiefs fielded racing teams and placed bets on outcomes. So central to Hawaiian identity were outrigger races, and so potent symbolically to islander culture, that they were discouraged by missionaries, and banned by Queen Ka’ahumanu early in the 1800s. Hawaii’s last monarch, King David Kalakaua, brought back outrigger races in 1875, a year after coming to power.
Danny Ching’s father, Al, brought outrigger canoe racing to the South Bay. Al Ching grew up in Waikiki in the 1940s and 1950s, in what he described to Easy Reader in a 2014 interview as “an era of innocence.”
“We hitchhiked everywhere and knew everyone,” Ching said.
He paddled and surfed, but another kind of racing got him in trouble.
“Every weekend night my friends and I would race on country roads, trying to outrun the cops. One night I tried to lose them in a cane field. But they knew the outlets and waited for me….The chief recognized me and called my dad. My dad competed in hunting tournaments and the only gun range on the island was the police range.”
“He told my dad he’d wipe my record clean if I joined the Marines.”
The offer was readily accepted. Ching’s dad had been climbing a telephone pole when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Ching spent the better part of the next four years as a radioman in Taiwan, then still known by its Portuguese name Formosa, eavesdropping on North Vietnam transmissions and relaying the information to U.S. advisors in South Vietnam. He was later shipped to Camp Pendleton, and after being discharged moved to his favorite beach town in which to play volleyball, Hermosa Beach. In 1969, at the Little Hawaii bar in Los Angeles, Ching met Sanford “Sandy” Kahanamoku, nephew of Duke Kahanamoku, and co-founder of the Marina Del Rey Outrigger Canoe Club.
“Sandy invited my friends and I to watch a race in Santa Monica the following morning,” Ching said. “When we showed up, he counted six of us and put us in a canoe. We raced in our undershorts and placed second. That evening we went back to Little Hawaii and danced on top of the piano bar with a bunch of the paddlers. We were hooked.”
Ching, his brother Ralph and a few friends rebuilt an old canoe they found half buried in the sand next to a fraternity house on The Strand. They named it Kaku, or barracuda. In 1970, they founded the Lanakila Outrigger Club in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor.
By the time Danny Ching was born 13 years later, Lanakila was more than a club, it was a way of life.
“My dad has always done this,” he said. “This is kind of his life — beach volleyball, coaching, and then find a job that fits around being on the water every day. My brother and I kind of grew up in the house thinking that was just one of the things you did — AYSO, little league, and outrigger canoes.”
Ching was good at every sport he played. His uncle, Josh Crayton, said it was apparent early on that Ching was an elite athlete.
“In everything Danny ever did, he was an all-star, regardless of what sport it was,” Crayton said.
His younger brother, Kawika, was a more naturally gifted athlete. Crayton said Kawika, though he is a couple of years younger, was as tall as Danny through most of their childhoods. Crayton was also a strong paddler — Al Ching had brought him into Lanakila when he was only 10 — and for a while harbored Olympic aspirations as a kayaker. His friend Cliff Meidl had gotten into kayaking while they were in college together, and Crayton followed his path. Meidl, a Manhattan Beach native, made the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 and 2000. And so both Danny and Kawika trained on kayaks as teenagers. Danny would barely miss making the Olympic team and was on the 2007 U.S. National team that won the Pan Am Games.
“The first time that they attempted flatwater kayaking, which is the Olympic kayaking competition,” Crayton said, “Kawika actually won more medals than Danny. But what makes Danny unique is his work ethic and his drive. He makes things look easy, but his work ethic is kind of second to none.”
Crayton remembers Ching out in the water early every morning with the Lanakila adult paddlers, then paddling more with his dad and the other coaches.
“Then he would go do Junior lifeguards all day, and then he would come home and take a nap and eat lunch, and then he would go lift weights, and then he would go paddle again in the afternoon,” Crayton said. “And then he would go paddle again in the evening. It was just kind of nonstop. He was just always in the water.”
Coaches from other sports kept trying to get Ching to commit to their sport, but Lanakila was more than a sport to him — it was family and a way of life.
“Paddling was always there, and I actually got really good because I finally focused on one particular sport,” Ching said. “The big draw is I like being at the beach. I got a chance with some of the kayaking stuff to travel around the world…I was getting picked up by all-star teams to go to Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, and all these cool places. It was this fun, exploring phase and when I came home, I was like, ‘Wow, first of all, I love traveling. I love being 20 minutes from LAX, I can go anywhere in the world at any time. And then Hermosa Beach — I had to live somewhere, I just looked around, and I said, ‘I’m going to stay here.”
Ching also became a galvanizing force in Lanakila. He moves with ease through the water, smiles easily, and even as a teenager went out of his way to help both younger and older paddlers. But he had a quality that set him apart. He credits this to his brother, his uncle, and the extended family that is Lanakila.
“The biggest thing I’ve always been told is I have a massive turnout speed,” Ching said. “In my eyes, it’s always helped me keep up with the competition. I’ve got a younger brother who’s trying to pass me, I’ve got an uncle, essentially an older brother, who I’m trying to keep up with. My younger brother was faster and more physically talented than me, and my uncle, who is 14 years older, wasn’t the most physically gifted person, but he was really hard-working and smart. And so I learned hard work, dedication, and fight from my uncle. To have most of that talent and to be hard-working combined at the right time in my life, where if somebody wanted to take something from me in a sporting event, I had the focus and the drive — it’s like we say [in Lanakila], our team is one of the toughest, mentally strong teams out there, so essentially, if you want this, you have to pry it from our cold, dead fingers.”
“So I got a great turnout speed. I don’t know why,” he said. “Pretty good feel for the water. I think that’s from growing up in the water. And then I had just the right combination. I didn’t think I was very athletic, and apparently, I was, so I just learned to work as hard as you can, and never let anyone outwork you.”
The race begins
In part because of its five-year hiatus, the Kaiwi Solo field was stacked with the best outrigger paddlers in the sport. Everyone was chomping at the bit to compete in this most revered of races again.
When the starting gun sounded, Triston Santos, a young paddler from Hawaii who had been making a name for himself over the last year, shot quickly out into the lead. Ching, who is known for his fast starts, took notice.
“He took off the way I would normally take off in this race,” he said. “You can’t end a four-hour race in the first 20 minutes, but you can definitely psychologically bruise some people. And so he took off, and I took one stroke, looked up, and said, ‘Alright. I’m going with him.’”
Just minutes into the race, Ching knew he was not out of his depths. He felt strong. He chased Santos, then caught a wave that carried him into the lead. He and another paddler from Hawaii, Moana Steeve Teihotaata, then switched back and forth in the lead. Forty-five minutes into the race, Ching remained in front. The time had come to plot a course.
The race departs from the smaller island of Molokai and spans 32 miles across the channel to Oahu, which lies to the northwest. Paddlers must choose either a north or a south route, a choice that involves fighting the current more in early part of the race if you chose to go north, or in the latter part of the race if you hew more southerly.
Ching was not going to put off the fight but go directly into it.
“So a couple of guys went left and took a south line,” he said. “And it was kind of difficult to go north, like it was uncomfortable. That was my strategy, to make it real uncomfortable for everyone else, and then just wait until they quit.”
A familiar face appeared beside him as he made his way slightly north. Ryland Hart started paddling when he was seven years old. Danny was first his coach, then his idol, and eventually his mentor, and now one of his best friends. Hart lives in Hawaii and over the past year has won several races, beating the stiff competition from the local paddlers.
“My son had won every one of the one-man races in Hawaii last year,” said Tony Hart, Ryland’s dad, who is also a member of the Lanakila Outrigger Club. “He beat all the Hawaiians. Danny was just grinning ear to ear because this young kid from California who was his protege was beating all the Tahitians who had come over and the Big Island guys.”
Now the two were engaging in a friendly duel in the channel.
“I think the coolest part was we were pretty much next to each other for most of the race,” Ryland Hart said. “Those first two hours, we were going back and forth, switching sides, like I’d go a little north of him and he’d come a little south….The coolest thing is there are all these professional paddlers from Tahiti and some of the guys from Hawaii, but for some reason, these two idiots from California are fighting ahead of all of them. It’s a testament not only to what Danny has been able to do, but his whole family, starting with his dad and Uncle Josh — what they have instilled in the two of us.”
Most of the paddlers they were up against were paid pros, and many devote themselves to the sport full-time.
“Maybe we are at a disadvantage,” Hart said. “So we are just going to take our own game, elevate it, and see what happens.”
Hart led the race for a little while, just ahead of Ching.
“There was a small period of time when my son was actually in front of him,” said Tony Hart, who was on Ryland’s support boat. “We took a lot of pictures during that time.”
The race conditions were not great.
“The wind had been, I think all year, 25 to 30 miles per hour, with an eight to ten-foot sea — huge, and I haven’t seen that in a few years,” Ching said.
The tradewinds, Ryland Hart said, are typically east to northeast crossing the channel, which means they tend to be at the paddler’s backs. Not this day, however.
“On the day of the race it was actually pretty hard north, which is like a straight side wind and slightly in our faces, which makes it a whole lot harder because now you’re fighting the wind instead of having it help you,” Hart said. “But we all knew that going in because, within three days, the forecast is pretty accurate. We all thought we were preparing for war.”
Ching is somewhat legendary for his demeanor on the water.
“He just always has this appearance like he’s just smiling, even when it’s like 30-mile-an-hour headwinds,” Hart said. “And he always knows how to just crack some random joke that totally kills any tension that’s around.”
But there’s another smile Ching is known for that isn’t the least bit comforting if you are competing against him.
“When you come up next to Danny, you can see when he gets angry, he puts a little smile on his face,” Tony Hart said. “When you see that smile, it’s like, ‘Okay, look out. He’s getting ready to do something crazy, something that’s like….almost inhuman.”
As the last hour of the race dawned, a pack of Tahitians had caught up with Ching and passed him. It included past world champions and paddlers who are considered the very best in the world — Manutea Millon, Tetuariimaroura Hoatua, Kevin Ceran-Jerusalemy, and Moana Steeve Teihotaata.
“All of them are incredibly accomplished,” Crayton said. “Each one of them has been a world champion, from down in Tahiti. Steeve has won the Molokai race multiple times, and Kevin has won the Molokai race multiple times. I mean, it was a battle of the titans.”
They were all also at least a decade younger than Ching. If anyone was looking closely, they may have seen Ching put that little smile on his face. He was about to do something crazy.
All boats rise
Hart trained daily with Ching for six years as he rose through the ranks and became not just a talented young paddler, but a world-class competitor. He remembers Ching pulling him aside one day for an intense heart-to-heart talk.
“I am going to make you a world champion,” Ching told him. “But you have to make three world champions.”
That was the Lanakila way. The word itself is Hawaiian and translates variously as victory, triumph, overcome, beat, prevail, outwit, and conquer. It also means champion, and in the Lanakila way, there are many ways to be victorious.
Tony Hart will never forget what he witnessed Ching do in the midst of the “Battle of the Paddle” SUP race in Orange County which many consider the world championship of that sport.
“You watch him take off leading the race, or he will be in the top three and then come down around the buoy turn that has a bunch of kelp and ropes from the buoy,” Hart said. “And then, somebody whom he is lapping is going around that same turn at the same time and gets stuck in a bunch of kelp. He jumps off his board, helps them get free, and lets 15 or 20 people pass him. He gets that person back up and running, then jumps back up and passes everyone to a fifth or fourth-place finish. He’s that guy, right? In adversity, with a smile on his face.”
Lanakila helped foster this sense of serving others. He is now the head coach of the Lanakila men, but ever since his teenage years, Ching has been one of the club’s animating forces. The club has about 150 members, and each one of them has a relationship with Ching. Tony Hart said this ability to give is something Ching also taught his son, who now coaches in Hawaii.
“He’s taught my son just about everything as far as perseverance, but most importantly, inclusiveness,” Hart said. “They share knowledge, joy, the fun of the sport. They are able to make the least able feel like heroes. Nobody gets left behind. Danny is out there babysitting 60 or 70 of us on the water at a practice, and everybody gets attention…He is able to recognize the cream of the crop and is able to help those guys succeed, but then he takes the bottom of the barrel and somehow makes that guy feel like a hero, too.”
“Danny has a natural ability to just make everyone around him better,” said Ryland Hart. “If you go down to Lanakila, that is the common thing you will hear, just how giving he is, and how supportive. He’ll take anyone, ‘Hey, let’s go paddle.’”
One club member, who now lives in Arizona, was diagnosed with stage four cancer last year, yet would sometimes make the five-hour drive and show up for Sunday practice at Lanakila.
“He shows up at Sunday practice skinny as can be, hardly any muscle, a complete boat anchor if you get him in the boat with you,” Tony Hart said. “What Danny does, he goes to the State Championship race last year, and he put that guy in a seat with five of Danny’s top paddlers. It gives the guy a gold medal at the state championships.”
One of the remarkable aspects of Ching’s success as a solo paddler is how little time he has to train compared to his competition. Ching spends more time coaching than training. But Crayton suggested this is also a key to his success, particularly his youth coaching. This includes teaching his two daughters, Kaimana, 7, and Kealia, 4. Both took part in their first Lanakila practice in April.
“He’s actually the coach officially, I think, of the 10-and-under crew,” Crayton said. “People ask me, How is Danny doing this? And, you know, throughout his paddling history, he’s always been an inspiration to young paddlers. This is probably the fourth crop of kids he is working closely with. So it’s super important for him to be there, and kind of corral his daughter’s crew. But I actually credit the next age group, the kids who are in that 14-year-old range, as being the catalyst for why Danny’s had such an incredible 2023. Every Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., he dedicates a practice to basically the emerging kids, the ones who will be competing at the highest levels in the next two to three years. And there’s just something about it that seems to take him to a different level. Whereas like other competitors seem to have to surround themselves with world-class paddlers, Danny gets to that level by surrounding himself with energetic, exuberant kids who don’t seem to have any sort of fear in the world.”
Ching’s wife, Leah, is also an elite paddler, although earlier this year she took a promotion at work — she has long worked as an operating room nurse — that ended up requiring her to work so much that she had to bow out of several races, including Kaiwi. Ching owns 404 Stand Up Paddle Boards, which allows him to work at home. This also means, especially since his wife’s promotion, that he’s taking care of his daughters every day.
“He’s got a training schedule and he is dedicated to it, but the fact that he does it with two kids on his back — his wife works as a nurse so she’s gone overnight into the day, so he’s got the kids and it doesn’t slow him down,” said Tony Hart. “He just straps them on his back and takes them with him…It’s absolutely amazing. Everybody over there [in Hawaii] talks about it. Travis Grant, a great competitor who has been racing Danny, both in the stand-up, and the outrigger for years, he’s got kids about the same age as Danny, and ever since his competitive finishes have gone slightly downhill. The guy is still great, but he and I speak together and he’s just like, ‘I don’t know how Danny does it. He’s got both kids on his hands, and he is still able to train.’”
On a recent Cocktails and Canoes podcast, Ching revealed just how little time he actually had to train for the Kaiwi Solo World Championship.
“Yeah, the training program this year was a little different than what I’m used to,” he said. “In years past, you pick one or two races and you do this big workload, and you prepare your body to be super fit and super powerful and everything’s going to be perfect as long as you peek right and you land on this tiny little window of four to 10 days. Kaimana is in first grade now, and Kealia is going to school next year, so I am mostly a stay-at-home dad with Kealia and daddy-drop off [at Kaimana’s school]. So the workload of training for my wife, and I has really been like seven to 10 hours a week, max, and that’s everything — that’s from the time you leave the house to the time you are back in the door, and that includes any cross-training or 10 minutes of core workout or whatever it is.”
Crayton said there were a lot of surprising aspects to Ching’s performance at Kaiwi, but none more than his balancing act.
“He is the primary caregiver for his daughters,” Crayton said. “He’s balancing fatherhood and being a small business owner with basically competing against full-time professional athletes who are coming to race against him from all over the world.”
As the race headed into its last hour, many longtime observers believed Ching was probably spent. He is known for his strong starts, but this has several times in past races resulted in slower finishes. He simply runs out of energy.
“Danny’s been known on this particular race to go out really hard in the start and then fall apart,” said Tony Hart. “And about two-thirds of the way through the race, they all drop it. So where he’d won twice before, there are lots of times where he didn’t. I think that those guys probably thought that was going to happen again.”
Ching actually felt like he was being restrained. At one point near mid-channel, one of the Tahitians, Kevin Ceran-Jerusalemy, came roaring past him and he let him go.
“Kevin comes bombing across on a set and I actually had to stop on a wave and he goes across me,” Ching said on the Cocktails and Canoes podcast. “And if you have ever watched Kevin paddle, I always recognize him, ‘Like man, he’s so smooth and he’s cruising and it doesn’t even look like he’s trying. He came by and he had that ‘Five hundred meters I’m behind but I’m world champion look in his eye.’ And I’m going, ‘Wow, it’s ƒ for that.’”
Ryland Hart was still close to Ching. He’d chosen a route that was even a little bit more northerly than Ching’s. Because he lives in Hawaii, Hart trains in the waters where the Kaiwi Solo finishes, approaching Oahu. The first half of the race paddlers contend with the Molokai currents, and tides, then there’s a midpoint where things change, then it’s Oahu conditions.
“So I knew pretty much, or had a general idea of what the currents were going to do,” Hart said. “Where I faltered was when I started to go north, everybody, including Danny, started to fly south… I was like, ‘Ah, should I come down with them? They are starting to get away.’ If I continued to go north, I would have been as high as the line when the tide switched. So I was on or slightly below the line when the tide actually switched. Danny, I don’t know how or when he did it, but I was probably 100 yards north of him at about that time — we were parallel, but pretty even — and then all of a sudden I look and he’s like 150 yards north of me. And I am like, how did you do that in like two minutes?’”
Ching later said he’d caught a “mystery bump” and rode it for all it was worth.
“That’s the beauty of this sport, which makes it so different from all the other ultra-distance racing that people do, like Tour de France and ultra-marathons and all that,” Hart said. “We are dealing with Mother Nature on a whole other level. You can be the fittest guy out there, but if you are not in rhythm with the ocean or that wave doesn’t come for you…It’s the ocean at the end of the day that dictates who is going to win, no matter whether it’s your day or not.”
But it’s also about understanding the ocean, and your place within it, what Ching calls “staying connected.”
“There is a level of fitness and strength and coordination and just hours on the water that come with being good at any any discipline, “ Ching said. “To be expert in anything just takes the sheer amount of hours and time. But what you’ll find with all the water sports is that water is the ultimate equalizer for taking someone who’s bigger and stronger and just neutralizing it. Because if you cannot connect to the water, you can’t you can’t try hard enough. It’s like in swimming. Who’s swimming the hardest, is it the Olympic gold medalist or the person drowning? Obviously that’s the extreme, but there’s some sort of combination of being being at one with the water and being being able to connect. In cycling, you can go buy all the gear, the machines that tell you the numbers you’ve got to put out. In the water, you can’t buy the gear; you’ve got to learn. You can’t buy the treads on a tire that always stick. You have to learn how to connect to the water, and when you can’t overpower it — when you have to wait for the waves, or when you have to fight through them. And all that comes in conjunction with the fact that the ocean is never the same. We always joke the Molokai race is a big prestigious race and it’s 32 miles between two islands in Hawaii. It’s kind of a shallow channel, and you get a lot of swell directions, a lot of different currents. Then you prepare for it, exactly what you believe it could be, and every time you do it, it’s different.”
The sport is also about pain. Taking the northern route was especially painful. Ching remembers turning his boat north over and over and feeling like he was getting nowhere. He was at the point where things had slipped away in the past.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, my boat is full of water. I’m totally screwed,” he recalled on the podcast. “Then it just clicked. This is the point where [other paddlers] just start walking away from me, and I’m just pissed off and angry. And you know what? It’s my turn to go. So I just started paddling on my left and scooting away from Ryland a little bit. I started climbing north, and I was like, ‘Oh, son of a bitch. It works.’ So that was kind of where I made my move.”
There were still two powerful Tahitians just south, another on his right “and the other fast Tahitians, like twenty of them,” Ching recalled, still coming up from behind. Oahu was fast approaching and the race was totally up for grabs. “It was so competitive,” Hart said. “At one point, about 45 minutes out from the finish, anybody in the top eight could have won that race. Which is pretty wild.”
The paddlers were approaching China Walls beach on the west coast of Oahu, outside of which lies about a three-mile stretch of dry reef.
Three Tahitians and Ching were battling for the lead, but the two to his left were at a disadvantage.
“When you approach Oahu, depending on whether the tide is rising or going down — what they call ‘dumping’ — it severely affects the route,” Crayton said. “And so, you know, part of Danny’s experience is that he understood that the tide was going down and it was going to be flowing out rather dramatically off of the tip of Oahu, extending just a little ways off of what they call China Walls, right by Hanauma Bay. And going out for about three miles is a large coral reef.”
Exacerbating the conditions is the fact that a coastal inlet that has been dredged into a sort of inland bay and marina, called Hawaii Kai, also empties out into the larger bay.
“So paddlers who know what they’re doing will actually aim right at the tip of Hanauma Bay, for China Walls, and get as close as possible to that wall to basically be sheltered from the current which is rushing at them,” Crayton said. “Danny’s competitors basically had to come over a shelf and fight directly into the current. Whereas by hugging the wall, Danny kind of got into some eddies and was able to make up what has been described to me as about a 200-yard gap in the last probably 20 minutes of the race, and go from somewhere, from third to fifth place, all the way up into second place.”
“It’s about a mile and a half from the corner at China Walls to the finish,” Hart said. And it’s kind of cool, I could see all five of us in a line. I was like, ‘When did Danny get way up there?’ Like five minutes ago, he was like, right beside me.”
Ching knew the paddlers to his left were at a disadvantage, but the Tahitian on his right concerned him. Tetuariimaroura Hoatua was 25 years old and paddling strong.
“I was feeling I was ahead of those guys and I was less worried about them and significantly more worried about Tetuariimaroura in front of me, because he put a good minute on me coming into China Walls,” Ching said on the podcast, which was recorded the day after the race. “And he was right on the wall and I was right into the wall coming up from the south. I almost missed it. I just remember coming around the corner and I looked at him, ‘Shit, I don’t care. I’m going to catch a wave at the wall, I’m going to get into a headwind….Alright, you should have made this easier on yourself. But guess what? You’re here with a chance.”
He knew these last two miles were going to be brutal. He ate a little food and prepared for a final push. “I’m like, ‘Oh God, this is gonna suck so hard,’” he remembered. “And I see him catch a wave off China Walls and I’m like, ‘Shit.’ But as soon as it took off, the first thought that went through my head was like, ‘Man, I can’t get that wave, because I don’t remember where the kickout is. Like, I know there’s a keyhole.”
Crayton described what Ching did next as “a significant risk.”
“There’s a feature along China Walls called the keyhole,” Crayton said. “And if you are daring enough, and you go inside the keyhole, it’s a maneuver where you basically start getting sucked aggressively into the rocks and if you turn your boat at just exactly the right time, the wave will carry that energy off of the rock and kind of slingshot you around the corner. That’s the maneuver Danny pulled off.”
Ching pulled into the very final stretch looking for Hoatua. But Hoatua hadn’t made it through the reef. Looking at the live stream recording later, Ching saw Hoatua standing on the reef with his boat as he flew by on a wave.
“When I came off my line, I looked up, thinking, ‘Okay, I gotta find this guy, I’m second, I’m going to try and win this race,’” Ching remembered. “My escort boat comes up and goes, ‘He’s behind you.’ Then I panicked. ‘Oh, no. Go harder, faster. Hold your breath.’ All the technique, all the strategy, all the hunting mode was gone. It just turned into panic. And hold on.”
He marveled, looking back, at the difference between his 40-year-old self and the younger versions who’d paddled this race 15 times previously. He’d actually hit the same reef his competitor hit two different times, for example, and now the final stretch was more a matter of remembered terrain than quick calculus.
“The waves are coming around the corner, there’s a couple of sections you can take off on,” he said. “A couple of reefs you’ve got to go around.
And then depending on the tide, the wind, the swell and the current, you can go over certain parts of the reef. I’ve done enough of these to have a pretty good idea of, like, ‘Line up this palm tree, okay, get to this spot. Now you want to get to that hotel.’ If you know those things going into it, it’s really helpful, because by the time you get three to three and a half hours into a race and you have to make a decision…You’re not going to formulate that in your head. It’s too late. You’re just kind of trying to remember to breathe and holding on for dear life. So when I look up and I see the big red roof on the hotel, I was like ‘Yep, there’s a target. Aim for that.”
At the very end, at the beach, he took aim for the best target of all. It was Mother’s Day, as well as his birthday, and his wife and two daughters had flown to Hawaii with him, kissed him on the beach on Molokai, then caught a plane and were waiting at the finish. Leah had been essential to his victory, blocking out extra time for him to train, even though she couldn’t compete in the race herself this year.
“They were waiting in the water, knee-deep, when I crossed the finish line,” Ching said.
Crayton said that moment epitomized who Danny Ching is.
“Typically when people win these races, there’s a picture at the finish line of them with their hands over their heads, taking credit for winning the race,” he said. “I have not found one of those pictures. The only picture that I’ve been able to find at the finish was Danny pulling up on shore with his daughter wrapped around the back of his canoe and him hugging his wife. And to me, that’s probably the neatest thing about him winning this thing for the third time, winning it when he turned 40. It was a crossing and kind of a campaign that was deeply intertwined with family.”
Even weeks later, Ching was filled with wonder at how things had unfolded. He finished at 3 hours, 39 minutes and 29 seconds. It was only a minute slower than his first victory at Kaiwi in 2010. Millon, who finished second, was at 3:40:35, and Hoatua at 3:40:52.
“At one point, I was battling for fourth place, and I was 30 seconds to a minute out of first and a minute out of 20th,” he said. “So in hindsight, I ended up winning, and that’s wonderful, but I could have very easily gone south with everybody and taken a poor course, or hit the reef. One of the guys I was racing, Triston, ended up 18th. There’s a video of him at China Walls catching a wave, in 10th place, with five other people on the same wave. It was crazy.”
Crayton said anything could have happened, but the ending had sort of the strange feeling of fate unfolding.
“Everything that happened in the last 15 minutes of that race was the stuff of movies,” he said. “Absolutely dramatic.” ER