Cover Story

Chris Owens becomes the first man in 65 years to paddle from O'ahu to Kaua'i

At 10:30pm, after paddling for five hours, Chris Owens puked. Up came the protein drink he had been suckling from a bottle affixed to his 17-foot paddleboard as he made his second attempt to cross from O’ahu to Kaua’i. Cossetted in a Neoprene hood and wetsuit, the 45-year-old Owens looked ashen, his mouth constricted in a grimace. An hour later, with O’ahu a faint glow in the distance under an almost full moon, Owens called out weakly to his escort boat, ‘I’m having trouble keeping up.’ Captain Rick Stevens looked at Waimea Bay lifeguard David Yester and said, ‘What am I supposed to do? Well, I could stop…’ His tone made it sound like he thought Owens was ready to throw it in. Owens didn’t say more and kept paddling. Then he shouted, ‘Can you guys see Mars? It’s the biggest it’s gonna be in like 40,000 years.’ We looked up and saw the rust-colored ball in the sky.

Half an hour later, Owens said, ‘I think I’m going to have to barf.’ Stevens stopped the boat and Owens sat up, alternating between gagging and yawning. Then he stretched out, head resting on his board, and said ‘My body feels okay, it’s just my stomach. I’ve got to rest.’ He had paddled 20 miles of his 76-mile route.

‘This is what he looked like last time,’ said Stevens in a concerned tone. He had escorted Owens three months before on his first attempt. The six of us on the boat would be lying if we said we didn’t doubt Owens’ ability to make it to Kaua’i this time.

Wednesday 8/17 11am

‘It’s a perfect day for this–wind is easterly at 20 knots, it’ll give Chris more of a downwind run. He can catch and ride bumps. That lets him rest,’ says Yester, a veteran North Shore waterman (he won the Eddie Aikau Waterman of the Year award in 2000) who has competed in four Quiksilveredition Moloka’i-to-O’ahu races himself. On the crew as a spotter, Yester’s experience and emergency knowledge make him a reassuring addition to the team.

Six of us have met up at Ke’ehi Lagoon, where the 43-foot Erika Marie berths. On board are Stevens, a commercial fisherman who moved to Hawai’i from New Jersey five years ago, Yester, video editor Lang Sheppard, of Stunt Dog Productions, who will shoot Owens’ journey, FreeSurf magazine editor Catharine Lo, Brian Emery, a student of la’au lapa’au and lomilomi whom Owens calls his ‘spiritual advisor,’ and me. I’ve known Owens since the 1980s, when I was a University of Hawai’i student watching him play guitar with the hardcore band Something Really Offensive at 3D. I wrote about his sixth Moloka’i attempt for the Weekly, and in a later profile for FreeSurf, Owens first divulged his dream of paddling to Kaua’i. We’re all slated to spot Owens, who we meet offshore of Camp Erdman. The reef keeps Erika Marie a half mile out, where we’re in 30 feet of water.

Owens glides up to the boat. After he swallows a ginger pill to keep his stomach calm and inserts a bottle holding a protein-drink mix in a holder affixed to the front of his board, we set out for Kaua’i at 5:25pm.

‘The sea is as flat as you could hope for,’ says Yester. To me it looks like a constant churn. Owens, his face intent, says little as he begins to paddle in sets of four to five strokes, digging his hands into the water while on his knees. After a few minutes he switches to a prone position for an interval. The horizon–and Kaua’i–seem a million miles away. ‘It’s going to be a long night,’ says Stevens, as Owens paddles at about four miles per hour, the current behind him.

The first try

After more than a year of contemplation, Owens made his first attempt at a Kaua’i crossing in May. He followed in the wake of Gene ‘Tarzan’ Smith, who in 1940 paddled a heavy wood board for 30 hours–through two nights–taking off from Ka’ena Point and landing at Po’ipu Beach, according to an article on the website Legendary Surfers. Smith’s paddle is documented in articles, but there is no photographic record of his grueling trip, reported to have been interrupted by stinging Portuguese man o’ wars and a massive manta ray. In 1998, Tom Stone and Sandy Hawk attempted the crossing, and failed.

Owens left from Sunset Beach at 12:40pm on May 17. Fifteen hours later, he was in pain physically and mentally. It took Owens’ father, Bob, saying ‘I think you’ve had enough,’ for him to finally allow his friends to pull him from the water. Two months later, he entered the Moloka’i race for the seventh time and came in second in his age division. Feeling at his peak, and undaunted by his draining first experience, Owens reassembled Kaua’i his crew. With the help of friends, he cobbled together $2,100 in donations and sponsorship from Surf and Sea, Haleiwa Joe’s, Cholo’s, Da Hui and Hawaiian Soul Surfing.

Owens had read in the Legendary Surfers article that in the 1960s, Duke Kahanamoku had said of Smith’s crossing, ‘[he] alone set a record that will be long in being beaten. Where is there someone to match that today?’ Owens was ready to be that someone.

Wednesday 8/17 6:40pm

As the sun sinks, the day’s heat switches to chill, and all of us on board pull on long-sleeve T-shirts and jackets. Owens dons the hood and wetsuit. Soon, he is trailing the boat, paddling in a silver strip of water illuminated by the fat moon. The strobe light attached to the rear of Owens’ board doesn’t work, so he ties a Glow Stick to the front–at times, the thin green line is all we can make out against an ocean of pitch.

Around 9pm a red-footed booby alights on the boat’s rigging. ‘It’s your ‘aumakua!’ shouts Yester. Owens smiles as he watches the bird.
Barely an hour later, everyone is wondering whether Owens can continue. Taking short breaks, Owens grabs protein gels and refilled bottles of liquid–sometimes water, sometimes fizzy Emergen-C mixes.

But somehow Owens keeps paddling through the four- to six-foot waves, and by 1am, he has a second wind. ‘Maybe next time you can get a psychiatrist as a sponsor and have him do a study on you,’ he jokes, using a megaphone so Owens can hear him through the wind and the boat’s chug-chug-chug. ‘Sorry, just trying to humor you.’ And it works. Owens paddles on.

All this time, I am struggling with seasickness. Loaded with Merazine and eating bits of preserved ginger, I feel human only when horizontal. I want to take photos of Owens paddling in the dark, but the thought of making it into the hold on the lurching boat, digging in my backpack for the flash and attaching it to my camera is tantamount to making an assault on Mount Everest. Instead I lie on deck under a fluorescent light in my humid sweatshirt, feeling I’m making a superhuman effort just to stay awake–while Owens paddles.

At 11pm, I stumble to the back of the boat and plop into a fold-out chair to take my turn as a spotter. Emery is next to me, a towel over his head. Owens asks for an Emergen-C. I get up to pluck a packet from the box of supplies, nearly falling over the railing. Back in my seat I grapple with a water bottle before nausea overwhelms me. I hold out the packet and bottle to Emery and blurt, ‘No can.’

Owens paddles on. His distance from the boat lengthens as he flags. He blows on a whistle around his neck, signaling the boat to stop. The spotter shouts back at the cabin where a drowsy Stevens puts the boat in neutral. Owens catches up and the process starts again.

What makes him tick?

When Owens was 18 months old, his family was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The toddler climbed into a sink where water from the faucet scalded his right leg. The injury was severe, and Owens underwent 17 major surgeries by the age of 5. But he’s almost thankful for what he endured.

‘My father had orders to go to Iran to be special operations adviser in 1966. But they didn’t have any hospitals there for me. I had to have ongoing surgeries. So [the military] gave us a chance to go to Hawai’i instead,’ says Owens.

‘I think it was actually a good thing, what I went through. We wouldn’t have made it to Hawai’i, my brother [Bobby] would never have been a pro surfer, I wouldn’t have been a surfer or skateboarder or the musician I am. I really believe in fate. I think God has a thing called free will–he puts us here on the planet and lets us do what we want. He doesn’t necessarily protect anyone over anyone else, and whatever happens happens. It’s kind of like a test, to see if we can handle it.’

That said, Owens still feels the effects of the accident 43 years ago. ‘The joints in my right foot start to ache after about three hours of paddling. But then I get past the pain, I learn to forget about it. Sometimes I have a hard time walking up the beach after a race.’

Growing up on the North Shore, Owens got to mingle with people like Eddie and Clyde Aikau, Butch van Arsdalen and Jock Sutherland. As a junior surfer, he went up against the likes of Dane Kealoha and Michael Ho, but soured on the cutthroat nature of competitive surfing, while his older brother Bobby went on to pro status and big-wave renown. Owens gets by as a housepainter on the North Shore, where he still surfs–sometimes with his son, C.J., a 12-year-old up and comer–but paddleboarding, which he took up in 1999, is where he’s finally making a lasting mark.

Thursday 8/18 6am

‘I don’t know how he’s getting on his knees,’ says Yester, as he watches Owens in the growing light. He has been paddling for more than 12 hours and has covered 40 miles, and he still alternates from the prone ‘Hawaiian style’ position to the on-your-knees Australian style. All of us think of him at 10:30 the previous night, yakking into the ocean. What kept him going? Later, Owens tells us he just didn’t want to fail again.

Fifteen minutes later Yester pours a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup into a plastic container, warms it in the ship’s microwave oven and calls Owens to breakfast.

Up close, Owens looks worn, but gone is the pallor of seasickness and the fixed grimace. He’s relaxed, and he scoops up the soup–something he couldn’t do in May, when he couldn’t hold down solid food.

‘That’s just what I needed,’ he smiles. ‘It’s all in the noodles.’

‘Another Moloka’i to go,’ says Yester. ‘You look good.’

Southeasterly winds were predicted, but they’re blowing squarely east now, and Owens has to work harder. Still he finds the energy to catch waves, even standing up a few times, to the cheers of his spotters.

‘How was the night?’ Emery asks Owens. ‘I don’t want to mention the night,’ he replies.

No matter how exhausted he is, Owens is careful not to drop a single scrap of packaging in the ocean. Once, when a bottle he tossed on deck bounced off the other side, he paddled round to retrieve it.

After 16 hours, Owens is strong on the water. ‘We’re witnessing one of the greatest feats of human endurance ever,’ says Yester. ‘This makes Moloka’i insignificant now.’ We mull over other athletic equivalents to Owens’ paddle. I suggest the Leadville 100–the 100-mile running race in the Colorado mountains. Yester says perhaps, but ‘your body is made to walk and run, it’s not made to lie down and paddle. This is harder than a 100-mile run.’
I ask Yester if he thinks Owens’ milestone–because at this point we’re sure he’ll reach Nawiliwili–will inspire more Kaua’i crossings. ‘I don’t think anyone else is crazy enough to attempt it,’ he replies.

Eighteen miles from Kaua’i, Owens asks us to call his father, who opposed his son making a second attempt–witnessing the first try had shaken the 78-year-old man. Owens timed the trip to start while his father was away. ‘He’s back. I didn’t want to scare him. I’d like to let him know I’m okay.’ I leave a message for Owens senior.

At 11:10am, with Kaua’i in sight, Yester megaphones to Owens: ‘You’re averaging 4 knots. And Catharine says your hood is sexy.’ Three hours later it’s the final stretch and Owens stops for a drink. He insists on taking the videocamera from Sheppard, who has been scrambling all over the boat filming, to shoot tape of the crew on board.

Owens beelines for Kalapaki Beach, passing the lighthouse, and we follow up to the surf break. Emery shouts, ‘This is Chris Owens, who just paddled from O’ahu!’ and the lineup explodes with yowls of encouragement as Owens catches a long, last wave to the shore. Yester, watching Owens through binoculars, shouts, ‘Twenty-two hours, 6 minutes and 33 seconds!’

On the beach

Chris Cook, editor of the Garden Island newspaper, was on the beach awaiting Owens. Sixty-five years ago, the paper’s then publisher and editor, Charlie Fern, was at Koloa to greet Gene Smith. ‘He arrived at 9:45pm on October 15, 1940,’ says Cook, a surfer who moved to Kaua’i 25 years ago. He went ‘to honor Chris–it was a great achievement–and sort of to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Fern too.’

Owens walked up the beach to Duke’s Restaurant and Bar. Yester administered oxygen to Owens, who said, ‘I feel like I’m about to collapse.’ But when the musical duo entertaining diners called Owens to the microphone, he lucidly addressed his audience. At the table he said, ‘I kept telling myself, hang in there, when the sun rises, everything will change. When I committed myself to this paddle, I felt I was destined to finish no matter what.’

A little later, a boy named Ryan Helmers from Orange County, Calif., sidled up to Owens and asked for an autograph. As the boy’s family left the restaurant a few minutes later, the father turned to Owens and said, ‘You’re a rock star.’