There’s no denying stand up paddling is one of the fastest growing sports on the planet. Unheard of 10 years ago, waterways from Lake Tahoe to the Mekong River are now home to dedicated groups of paddlers who are stoked to walk on water. Aside from being a challenging workout, what makes stand up paddling so immensely popular is the versatility of the sport, which allows it to be enjoyed in a wide array of conditions. Whether it’s gliding along a placid lake at sunrise, pulling into an eight-foot barrel, or flying along on a classic downwinder, there’s a stand up board to match your mood.
For those not familiar with the concept of a downwinder, it’s a point-to-point excursion where the paddler keeps the wind at their back and navigates through the constantly morphing ocean swells. Throughout the paddle, the main goal is to position yourself properly on one of the rolling swells and use the energy to literally surf the wave until it fizzles out and dies. Ideally, a downwinder should consist of more surfing than paddling, and the stronger the winds, the larger the swells are, and ultimately the better the ride.
While there are a number of runs across the globe that meet the criteria for an epic downwinder, none are more notorious and better suited for the sport than the famed Maliko Run on the north shore of Maui. While it’s highly recommended to acquaint yourself and get comfortable with the sport before attempting a run such as Maliko, here is a “how-to” to give you something to shoot for.1. Get a good stand up board and a light, carbon fiber paddle
As mentioned above, there is a proper stand up board for every activity you plan to undertake. The same board that you would use for stand up surfing an overhead reef break is not the same board you would use for an epic downwinder. As you are going to be navigating open ocean waves and needing to cover a fair amount of distance while paddling, a longer and more narrowly shaped board is preferable for a downwinder such as Maliko. At a minimum you should have a 12-foot-6-inch stock stand up board, although anything 14 feet and over is a better choice. Want to get real professional? Spring for an F-16 downwind board that’s tapered in the nose and specifically meant for catching swells. While a carbon fiber paddle isn’t essential, your arms are going to be feeling it by the end should you opt to use anything heavier.
2. Take a few practice runs elsewhere.
Just as you wouldn’t attack a double black diamond run or attempt heli-skiing immediately after your first lesson outside of the lodge, so goes the same for stand up paddling. The Maliko Run usually puts the paddler over one mile offshore depending on the wind direction, which is a terrible place to find yourself if you’re struggling and don’t know what you’re doing. If you can put the wind at your back while close to shore and paddle for at least a mile without falling, you might be ready for Maliko.
3. Find a partner
The same way you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) go scuba diving or mountain climbing solo, so goes the same for when you put yourself at the mercy of the ocean a far distance from shore. Not only is having a partner a safer option for doing the Maliko Run, but it’s a lot more enjoyable. Although the sensation of stroking solo through the deep blue Pacific can be immensely calming, it can get a little bit lonely offshore, and having a partner there to share the moment with you is a markedly safer and a more enjoyable experience.
4. Wait for the right conditions
It should go without saying, but one of the chief ingredients of a downwinder is a good amount of wind. If you go out on a calm day you’re going to be in for a brutal paddle. Twenty knots of wind will be enough for a nice paddle; get over 35 knots and you’re in for a fast-paced screamer. The Maui trade winds are at their strongest and most consistent during the summer months of May through September. Also, since the Maliko Run is located on the island’s north shore, the winter months of October-April can bring surf that tops out at over 30 feet, turning the run into a death wish that only the most talented watermen should ever attempt. While it’s possible to tackle an extreme Maliko Run in the throes of a massive winter swell, it’s most likely best to stick to the summer months of steady winds and calm waters.
5. Drop a car
Such is the crux with one-way sports (such as whitewater kayaking), seeing as if all goes as planned you are going to end the day in a different place than where you started your journey. Although it may have taken you anywhere from 1.5-2.5 hours to paddle from Maliko Gulch to Kahului Harbor or Kanaha Beach Park, it’s only going to take you 20-30 minutes to drive back there. Without the car, however, trying to hitchhike with a 14-foot board suddenly becomes an unenviable task.
6. Paddle out at Maliko Gulch
A rare protected cove on the otherwise exposed coastline of Maui’s north shore, Maliko Gulch is the same place where many of the world’s best tow surfers launch their jet skis for a tow surf session out at Jaws. Drop your board in the water and paddle through the protected gulch until you reach the tumultuous ocean swells awaiting you on the outside. Depending on the direction of the wind you’ll have to paddle at least a half-mile offshore to get a good angle on your end destination. If the wind is from the east you will have to paddle further out than if it is blowing from the north (rare) or northeast (more common).
7. Bring a leash and let someone know where you’re going
Nothing’s worse than losing your board while over a mile offshore and in 500 feet of water. Save yourself a terrifying situation and wear a leash, preferably around your upper leg to avoid it creating drag in the water. While hopefully it will never come to it, if someone knows you’re doing the Maliko Run and you still aren’t back by dark, it’s better than swimming aimlessly offshore (or worse) and not having anyone know that you’re there.
8. Shoot for Kahului Harbor or Kanaha Beach Park and enjoy the ride
You’ve done all the hard work of training, dropping a car and driving all the way to Maliko, so now it’s time to reap the fruits of your hard work and enjoy the epic ride. If the conditions are right you could literally just sit on your board without paddling and still end up near your destination, but that pretty much defeats the purpose of tackling one of the world’s best downwinders. Why not make a workout of it and test your balance and paddling skills by navigating your way through the heaving open ocean swells, which, if played properly, can get you an adrenaline-inducing ride.
As a tip, when you’re paddling you should keep your weight a few steps forward of the middle of the board, and once you’ve caught a swell you should back up a few steps so as to avoid the dreaded “pearl dive,” a move where the nose of the board dips beneath the water and you end up taking a deep water swim. Do your best to stay out of the water, keep up your momentum and you’ll be entering next year’s Naish Maliko Race before you know it.