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Napoleon lies on his back and strums his guitar as the sun sets. It seems only a moment until you awaken, but the moon is now high and full. Napoleon is sitting up, listening to the sea restlessly smoothing its bed.
At first light a kahuna sprinkles water over two new Waikiki Surf Club canoes and then, chanting, blesses the entire field. The men's ceremony is brief, the paddlers distracted. Under gray clouds and in spitting rain, 45 canoes flail away from the starting line. Panamuna of Hamilton Island in Queensland, Australia, with kayak Olympians Grant Kenny and Clint Robinson, takes the early lead.
In the channel the swells are quartering in from starboard, slowing the canoes and slamming their bows constantly to port. There will be no surfing in these conditions. Lanikai, on the north side of the pack, decides to stay there. "Everybody's gonna get pushed south by wind and current," says Lanikai paddler Mike Smith. "We're on the right track."
"Make a difference!" yells Tresnak as he sends fresh men to replace half of the six starting paddlers. Climbing into the escort boat, the heaving paddlers seem close to their limit but recover quickly, devouring fruit and juice. It is an experience that stays with you: diving out of a canoe, hot and sick, into the cool sea, seeing the slate black of the depths suddenly spread out below, feeling the fearful quiet of that benthic realm and then turning and breaking the surface to see the canoe departing over a wave.
In the Lanikai escort boat, several paddlers keep themselves charged less with pleasure than with anger, roaring at the idiocy of the boats that have gone south. Magnificent are the epithets of stroke Charlie Cates, who drives the canoe at a powerful 74 to 76 strokes per minute and then comes out of the sea wild and mad. "Gotta believe! howls Cates. "Nobody else will. Everybody else is a pain in the ass!"
Despite Cates's force and fire, Panamuna still leads. Lanikai, steadfast in its belief in the northerly course, is amazed to see Outrigger of Australia, the defending champion, give up on it and paddle across Lanikai's bow, angling south. Past halfway, with Oahu looming, Lanikai is in fifth place and grim. Tresnak rallies the paddlers, keeping hope alive with a desperate move. On rare occasions, canoes have found waves rushing along the south shore of Oahu and ridden them to the finish. Lanikai heads in.
"Time to cash in!" the paddlers yell. Cates is a banshee of profane encouragement. His obscenity is oceanic, his fury appropriately pagan.
But there are no miraculous waves. And worse, the boats that went south early have caught a change in tide that brings them effortlessly back to the line. The realization becalms the Lanikai men. They fought the sea when they should have gone with it. They will finish fifth.
Cates swears at his fellow paddlers to hold their heads high and takes a blood oath to win this thing before he dies. It is a pledge he first took at the age of seven.
Ahead, Panamuna is holding off Hawaii Canoe and Kayak—a crew that had never paddled together before—and Hawaii C and K can see that. So on the last turn, at the Diamond Head lighthouse, when Panamuna goes outside the breakers, Hawaii C and K cuts the corner, dangerously, going inside the surf, over the reef and right by the beach. The move thrills C and K coach Billy Whitford and will be historic if it lets his boat sneak past, but Panamuna's lead is too large. The Queensland boat wins, 5:30:57 to 5:33:22. Outrigger of Australia is third and Outrigger of Oahu, having faded late, is fourth. "It was fitness that made the difference, not tactics," says a haggard Conner. "It doesn't get any easier, but it's not a lot harder, either."