Every Race Should Be Like Paddle Imua

Why the Paddle Imua Race is Special

This year was the third year I have registered for the Paddle Imua event sponsored by Bluesmiths, the Maui waterwear maker. The event follows the bigger and glitzier Olukai Ho’oLauLe’a the weekend after.  It’s two miles longer – starting at Maliko Gulch and ending at the canoe hale (house) at Kahului Harbor. It supports Imua Family Services. The money raised helps send Maui kids with all kinds of challenges to an amazing summer camp.

That very first year was, as far conditions go, hellacious. Maui locals said after the fact it was worse than anything they had ever seen at up to that point for a Maliko Run race.  It was raining, there was no visibility and no downwind trades. Wind and swells hit us from the north and it was a slog.

Never having raced it before, those conditions might have been off-putting. But at the finish line, you could tell there was something very, very special about this event.

The Imua kids were there at the end of the gantry, giving high fives and putting leis around our necks. Every paddler – ever single paddler no matter what their time – was ushered in with lots of cheering, cowbells and fanfare by the MC over the loudspeaker. Then there was the luau…with local music, food, beer, the awards and then raffles of really, really good prizes.

But before all of that, though, there was the relay. Teams made up of pro paddlers, Joe and Jane Paddlers and Imua kids did four laps around a short buoy course right off the beach. The kids would get on the nose of the SIC inflatables while the adults paddled the course. The one rule: the entire team had to run across the finish line together, hand in hand, when the four laps were completed.  Everyone watched and cheered.

I honestly do not have words to adequately describe the looks on the kids’ faces as they ran up the beach.

Who wouldn’t want to do that again?

Watching those kids and seeing the enthusiasm and appreciation from parents and Imua Family Services staff and volunteers, and seeing the unbridled support from companies like Bluesmiths and SIC creates an energy that’s addicting.

Last year, conditions were better – more like what the Maliko Run is accustomed to, but this year, there was no wind. I opted out of the race itself.

But this year, Distressed Mullet was given one of the relay team slots, and so Jeremy Riggs, his daughters Natalie and Ruby, my North Carolina paddle buddy Sarah Muir Westbrook and Maui/Asheville local Kyle Ellison – who stepped in at the last minute – and I joined up with Blake, one of the Imua kids. Blake was excited and enthusiastic and he and Sarah widened the distance between our competitors after Jeremy and Ruby kicked off our first lap. Natalie and I went next, with Kyle and then Natalie (again) bringing it home. We ended up coming in second because of some fun chaos on the beach, but it felt like we won.

After the relay, awards were handed out, and the raffles were fun. Everyone was laughing and talking story and enjoying each other’s company, while the kids swam and played on the beach.  One of my Maui friends, with a big smile on his face leaned over and said, ”This is when I love Maui the most.”
“You mean the vibe?” I asked. “Yeah, the Ohana…”

Sure, there were awards for the winners of the race but when they were done, people were still hanging out together. It wasn’t about times or winning as much as it was about paddling out for the kids. The organization this race supports is always front and center, not an afterthought. Just talk to Bluesmiths John Smalley and you can tell supporting the local community like his company does is extremely important to him, and not just because it’s a good marketing opportunity.

There’s only one other race I have participated in that has such a similar, unique vibe – and that’s the Chattajack 31 in Chattanooga. It’s also reminiscent of Monster and Sea’s 24 – which is not a race but a 24 hour paddle event in support of cancer families. There is a spirit of community and family that comes from sharing these kinds of paddling experiences together. Sharing the time on the water in an extremely meaningful way. In the case of Paddle Imua, it’s sharing effort and energy to give these Maui kids experiences of a lifetime that they might not otherwise get.

Participating in an event like this is a good reminder of what it is to be a member of this paddling family, of this tribe, and of what sets our community apart. We are all connected by water.

And it is much more satisfying than any finisher’s medal or trip to the podium can be, at least in my book.


Photos: Paddle Imua


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