Fairfielder braves the high seas in premier Hawaii outrigger canoe race
Roger Crossland's idea of an adventure involves facing six-foot waves, six-foot swells and 20-knot winds while paddling a canoe for 41 miles in the wide-open Pacific Ocean.
The 62-year-old Fairfield resident and retired Navy SEAL captain participated in the 59th annual Bankoh Moloka'i Hoe outrigger canoe race in Hawaii on Oct. 10, fulfilling a long held desire to brave the rough Pacific seas.
"It was exhilarating and exhausting," Crossland said. "I've always had it in the back of my mind, but assembling a team can be difficult."
Crossland was the lone Connecticut paddler on the nine-man New York Outrigger team.
"You have to have Hawaiian connections and logistics. You need to find an escort boat and an outrigger canoe," said Crossland. "You can't fly an outrigger from New York to Moloka'i at any reasonable cost."
An outrigger canoe is 45-feet long and 30-inches wide. It has a lateral support float fastened to its hull and requires a paddling technique that is much more difficult than a kayak or normal canoe. The course runs from Hale O Lono on the island of Moloka'i to Waikiki on the island of Oahu across the Kaiwi Channel.
Crossland and the New York Outrigger team finished the race in less than seven hours, capsizing just once off of Diamond Head, where he said, "the tidal current is treacherous."
The New York team finished 80th in its division. There were 121 other teams. The Shell Va'a team from Tahiti placed first with a time of 4:38.50, finishing at the top along with other teams from Hawaii, Australia and other islands where teams can practice year-round.
Crossland, a practicing trial lawyer, served in Vietnam in 1971 and Central and Southwest Asia in 2002. He spent 35 years serving in the Navy.
As a SEAL, Crossland led teams of men in dangerous and challenging situations. The opportunity to do something similar again drew him to outrigger canoeing, which is as much about teamwork as racing.
Each outrigger boat has six seats filled by a rotation of nine male paddlers.
"I had been kayaking here in Southern New England, but it wasn't a group of men focusing on a challenge, it was an individual event, not a team one," Crossland said. "I enjoyed that aspect of it."
Crossland is used to being called on to lead. Shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he was sent back to duty and assigned to the Arabian Gulf, where he led a team of Navy SEALS in Afghanistan.
Those experiences paid off in the October race.
"I am usually the steersmen for the team and therefore the leader," he added. "There were leadership challenges, navigational challenges, it was handling men. I got to revisit that."
Crossland, also the author of two nautically-themed novels including the recent "Jade Rooster," said the rotations occurred "while moving, pony express style."
The change outs began 30 minutes into the race.
"During change outs your boat aims right at you and you and you must pull yourself up and aboard on the port side (the side with the outrigger), again while the boat is moving," Crossland explains. "The trouble in rough waters was you frequently lost sight of the boat and the boat lost sight of you as the waves rose and fell. Paddlers in the water can get knocked on the head by the boat or find themselves on the wrong side ... and miss their pick up."
Crossland said he bruised his side during one switch. A paddler from another canoe was injured when he jumped into the water to begin a change and was struck by his escort boat's propeller.
The vicious seas made the strenuous journey even more difficult for Crossland and the rest of the crew. Seasickness became a major issue, although not for Crossland, a veteran of high seas navigation.
"It didn't bother me too much, but one or two of the crew were very seasick. They weren't really prepared for the size of the seas," said Crossland. "You couldn't see the competing boats; they were sometimes hidden in the troughs of the waves."
Crossland said that it could be hard at times to figure out where his boat was, compared to the other competitors.
"The best way to figure out where you are is by looking for the escort boats, since they are higher than the canoes," Crossland said.
"To a paddler it felt like clawing your way up Mount Everest with 12 foot cliffs rippling at you from every direction," he recalled.
Crossland said the waves and swells are measured by one-half the height between troughs to crest, so "a six-foot wave towers over you a full 12 feet."
As the day went on, the trek grew worse along with the sea conditions.
"In Hawaii, days start with moderate waves, but as the day heats up, the winds pick up and the waves are highest by noon," Crossland said. "The current is going one way and the waves another and they are not only large, but close together."
The final challenge that Crossland had to deal with was water in the boat. In his spot as the fifth seat, it was his responsibility to bail water out whenever it filled up. He said he bailed the water out about eight times.
"I did many different exercises and paddling to prepare, but didn't do 10 pound curls; I started getting cramps from the bailing," Crossland said. "I would switch arms. But it was so important, every time I bailed six inches of water it was around 600 pounds of water."
Crossland said the heavy water begins to make it harder to steer the canoe and keep it stable.
This will likely not be the last time Crossland, who still occasionally competes in kayak races, road races and orienteering events, competes in the Moloka'i Hoe or a similar race.
Once again, the idea is stuck in his head.
"I've got it in the back of my mind. There is a race in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, one in Tahiti, it kind of depends on the opportunities," said Crossland. "I am going back to Hawaii for training in February of next year. I plan to network around to see who's interested and what boats there are, when the races are."
But Crossland can't always drop everything and fly to Hawaii, even if he wanted to.
"I also work for a living," he said. "So that gets in the way."