Esibill, Shields Complete Channel Crossing in Molokai 2 Oahu Paddle Race

By DAVID BIGGY | Aug 07, 2019
Photo by: Supplied photo Chris Esibill (left) and Hugh Shields gather after completing the 32-mile race at the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships on July 28.

Surf City — Daunting challenges are made to be conquered. Crossing the Ka’iwi Channel in Hawaii, a 28-mile stretch also known as the “Channel of Bones,” is one like none other. Still, Chris Esibill and Hugh Shields set out to conquer the course in this year’s Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships on July 28.

“I’ve been lifeguarding since I was 16 years old, and it’s always something I’ve wanted to do,” said Esibill, a native of the Philadelphia area who spends his summers as the Beach Haven Beach Patrol Lifeguard-in-Training instructor. “Why I waited until I was 46, I’m not sure. For one reason or another, I never got around to making it happen. But this year, it seemed to be my time.”

For Shields, a 15-year-old from Philly, he didn’t start thinking about it until December, after a trip to Farias Surf & Sport in Ship Bottom to pick up a stock paddleboard and some time spent watching the independent film “Paradigm Lost” – featuring world-class waterman Kai Lenny – convinced him it, too, was his time to give the Ka’iwi Channel a go.

“I went to my parents and asked, ‘What if I did this?’ I wanted to go for it this year,” said Shields, a Barnegat Light LIT who for years has spent his summers surfing and paddling on Long Beach Island. “They didn’t take me serious at first, but once they realized I was serious, we developed a plan for me to train.”

The paths to Molokai for Esibill and Shields were a bit different. Esibill, who for years was a lifeguard in Australia during North America’s fall and winter months and whose brother, Derek, lives in Hawaii, already had a lot of knowledge and insight on the world’s most difficult paddle race.

“It all came together within about a week’s time while I was visiting my brother for Christmas,” Esibill said. “He knew a boat captain, and Travis Grant, who I used to guard with in Long Beach Township and lives in Hawaii now, had an ocean-racing paddleboard I could use. So, logistically, I had two of the most important components to the race, a boat with a captain and a board. Then it just came down to me, whether I was going to put the time into training.”

Shields and his family had to come up with people and equipment to fulfill many of the logistical requirements, but once they did ,Hugh also had to physically prepare for the 32-mile race.

“I did a bunch of smaller races and a 13-mile race in North Carolina,” said Shields, a soccer, swimming and track athlete during the school year. “I read this long training guide specifically about training for Molokai. A lot goes into it.”

But besides all the training, they both ended up tapping the same resource for further insights – Ship Bottom Beach Patrol’s Jonny Skolnick, one of the Island’s premier paddling gurus, who completed the Molokai 2 Oahu race last summer and had been planning to go back this year before neck and back problems sent him to the sidelines.

“I’ve known Jonny for years, and I was excited that we would do it together,” Esibill said. “Unfortunately, medical issues forced him to pull out of it. But there was no backing out for me. I was in full swing with my training.”

One day, Shields went down to Holgate so he could do an 18-mile paddle along the Island’s coast.

“My dad dropped me off and we saw this guy paddling northward, and my dad said, ‘Go catch him.’ So I caught up to him, and it was Chris,” Shields said. “That’s when I found out he was training for Molokai, too. So we paddled together up to Barnegat Light, and it was awesome.”

Months later, it was Race Day. Esibill, who for decades has competed in regional, national and international events on several fronts, already had enough experience to mentally handle Molokai to Oahu. For Shields, this was going to be a whole new experience that would put his youthful mental game to the ultimate test.

“My parents kept asking me if I was ready, how I was feeling about it,” Shields said. “But I wanted to be one of the youngest guys to ever do it. That was one of my motivations to go in the first place. But the funny thing was I’ve never been so not nervous about something as I was going into Molokai. I get more nervous for LIT competitions on the Island. I was so ready to do it.”

Of course, being ready and actually crossing the channel – with its powerful currents, massive waves and, at times, fierce winds – are two different stories.

“Everybody starts in the same spot, and it’s really chaotic once the race begins, because you have 200 competitors and all these guide boats moving around,” Esibill said. “But then soon, everybody just disappears into the vastness of the ocean, going their own ways, and then it’s just you and your guide.

“I told my guide to tell me when I hit two hours and four hours, and when I hit the 20-mile mark. But otherwise, I didn’t want to count down time or mileage until the end. I just wanted to get into a rhythm and keep going.”

Having his father, John, in the guide boat with the captain, provided plenty of support for Hugh, who cruised along at a steady pace for most of the race. At one point, with about 5 miles left, he was struggling to keep things together, but his dad was able to talk to him and encourage him to keep plugging away.

“I felt physically fine for most of the race,” Shields said. “The distance didn’t get to me. But I did some little things wrong, like deciding not to wear knee pads to prevent them from getting bruised up, that started breaking me down mentally. But once I got to the last mile, I just went for it.”

Esibill described the final 100 yards as “super emotional.”

“I’ve sacrificed a lot of things to train and prepare for this race, and I was physically and mentally exhausted at that point,” he said. “But at the end, I could hear my little baby cousins yelling. I could hear my wife and my brother’s wife cheering for me. I wanted to collapse, but it was so awesome. I was part of this 1 percent of the world that gets to do something like this.”

Esibill finished in 6 hours, 44 minutes, 41 seconds to place 112th overall and third in the men’s 40-49 age group. Shields crossed the line a slight bit sooner, in 6:37:11, placing 108th overall and 15th in the 29-and-under age group.

“In the movie I had watched, I saw what the start and finish were like from Kai Lenny’s viewpoint,” Shields said. “But in real life, it was so cool. For as hard as it was, everything about it was fun. I’m already getting ready to go back for next year.”

Esibill, a physical education teacher, said being one of two paddlers from LBI to conquer the Ka’iwi Channel was special.

“There’s so much talent on this Island, it’s crazy,” he said. “And for Hugh, at 15, to do that was mind-blowing, and it was so awesome he had such great support from his family. I’m really proud we were able to represent LBI for this race. Sometimes you do something like this and you’re not successful. But we both had a great crossing, a great finish, and we were successful.”

Hugh Shields crosses the Ka'iwi Channel. (Photo by: Supplied photo)
Chris Esibill paddles across the Ka'iwi Channel. (Photo by: Supplied photo)
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