In July, 26-year-old Tasmanian and reigning three-time Moloka'i world paddleboard champion, Matt Bevilacqua, will be racing for four in a row on a custom-made, ocean-going 18ft 'clubbie' malibu across Hawaii's infamous Ka'iwi channel, the 'channel of bones', a 52-kilometre span between the islands of Oahu and Moloka'i.
It takes a world class paddler five hours to traverse the 52-kilometre Channel of Bones, five hours using nothing but the surface area of their two palms for propulsion; kneeling in the centre of their board, reaching forward, plunging both hands in as far ahead as the arms allow, elbows high to maximise stroke angle, then pulling both back in one motion, gaining about three to four metres a time, then repeating the act another 15000 times, alone in the middle of the ocean. Two palm power.
In late July, 26-year-old Tasmanian, Matt Bevilacqua, will be aiming to take his fourth title in a row. Last year he paddled the trip in just under four and a half hours, breaking the record he set the year before. Unbeatable speed and power, all down he says, to hours spent as a 12-year-old nipper at Clifton Beach Surf Lifesaving Club, about 30 minutes drive south of Hobart, Tasmania.
A sense of community is what most inspires Bevilacqua most. Here he is with some competitors before the 2017 event. PICTURE CREDIT: Jianca Lazarus
“The sea off Clifton Beach is about 12°C – way too cold to be in the shore break, and the wetsuit you need to avoid hypothermia is too thick and cumbersome for paddling, so when we were 11, 12, 13-year-old nippers, we’d paddle through the break zone and just catch runners all day out the back, staying on our boards out of the water,” he told Outdoor recently, just before leaving for the Australian surf titles at Scarborough beach in Western Australia.
Paddleboard steerage is a tricky skill, a mixture of swimming, surfing, kayaking and perhaps even sailing. No artificial blade or paddle is used, just the hands in a similar fashion to butterfly or freestyle swimming. Like swimming, stroke efficiency is paramount. The advantage the paddle-boarder has over the swimmer is the buoyancy of the craft they pilot. It’s light and maneuverable so surf skill and wave awareness – spotting and catching running swell, or ‘runners’ – becomes the most important attribute during a long race in open ocean.
“You’ve got to be able to quickly recognise runners when they’re there, but you also need power and fitness to ride onto them, time and again, for the whole five hours you’re out there,” Bevilacqua says.
To properly develop power and fitness, and put the cold water of Clifton Beach behind him, Bevilacqua decided, after finishing high school with marks good enough to commence a medical degree, to join a training group on the Gold Coast. That was more than ten years ago, he’s never gone back. Dr Bevilacqua will probably never come calling.
THE GOLD COAST
“It’s such a great community here on the Coast,” he says, “in a way it’s exactly the same as Clifton Beach and it’s probably the main reason why I love the sport so much – the community spirit in surf clubs is so strong – it doesn’t matter if you’re in Tasmania or on the Gold Coast”.
Winning an iron-man event on the Gold Coast.
He puts this strength of community down to the club lifesaving system around the beaches of Australia being an inherently voluntary gig. Every clubman or woman, regardless of status – from the Coolangatta Gold or Australian Ironman champion to 13-year-old newcomer – has a requirement to do voluntary surf patrol duty on their home beach.
“The spirit carries through and is the reason, I think, the community vibe of surf clubs is so strong”.
Despite the beachy idyll, the amount of work the group Bevilacqua is a member of does is eye-watering. It’s a bone crunching, muscle-screaming pile-up of kilometres in pool, on the road and in the ocean, day-in day-out without let-up.
Bevilacqua the ironman, during the Nutri Grain series. PICTURE SUPPLIED
“The key for me is I rarely miss a session,” he says. “I might ease off a bit if I’m feeling stuffed and just cruise through, but I try not to miss anything”.
He keeps a keen eye on his diet and sleeps a minimum of eight hours a day, “some tablespoons of honey when I wake up before getting in the pool, then maybe some poached eggs and avocado on rye bread after the pool session, followed by meat and salad for lunch with some steak and sweet potato for dinner”.
Shipsterns is one of those waves that people tend to watch on YouTube while killing time at a bus-stop. Unlike the more famous Teahupo'o, a wave which sucks up off a shallow reef and curls menacingly before an exquisite tropical Tahitian mountain valley, Shipsterns has a massive battleship-grey cliff backdrop that resembles the prow of a looming death ship.
It’s alright to get air off a tree root as a nine-year-old racing around the streets on your BMX, not so much while in the middle of a descent down the freezing cold face of a Shipsterns monster-wave the size of a semi-trailer. Bevilacqua decided he’d like to have a go aboard a 14-foot 10 kg paddleboard.
Bevilacqua on a runner during the 2017 Moloka'i PICTURE CREDIT: Jianca Lazarus
“It was probably the most nervous I’d ever been," he explains," I wasn’t sure I’d actually do it until I jumped into the water, and even then I didn’t want to think too much about it".
“I did it, it’s on YouTube with all the rest of the Shipsterns stuff,” he says. “I honestly don’t know how those big wave guys do it, it felt like a bus running over me, it has so much power, it just completely overwhelms.”
Prior to his attempt, Bevilacqua spent months doing specialised breath control training, a program all big wave surfers adopt these days. Basically it involves learning to completely relax so that when something with the impossible weight of a bus mows down on top of you, driving you to the bottom like a sack of rocks in a well, you remain calm instead of freaking out. Tensing up in a ball of mortal anxiety, despite being the obvious reaction, is the worst thing to do.
Bevilacqua and best mate, 2014 Moloka'i paddleboard champion, Matt Poole
One such set, ‘blow-outs’, is as it suggests. You go to the bottom of a pool, blow out all the air in your lungs and then swim as far as you can underwater. A word of warning: this is an extremely dangerous training set and should only be performed by the extremely fit, competent and under strict and constant supervision.
THE HAWAIIAN ISLANDS
The rhumb line between Clifton Beach and the Ka’iwi channel between Oahu and Moloka’i stretches north north-east directly across the Pacific for about 9,500 kilometres.
“The Moloka’i isn’t something you approach half heartedly. You’re basically heading out into the open sea where there can be strong unpredictable currents and dreadful weather. Often you completely lose sight of land and literally feel you’re in the middle of the ocean,” he says.
For paddlers, the worst possible conditions are when it’s still and flat. Flat seas without much swell or wind means that the runners are few and far between and the paddlers, therefore, have to paddle most of the way in the baking sun without much breeze or assistance. When conditions are innocuous, the overall completion time blows out by an hour or more, from five to six hours.
Training on the Gold Coast with his girlfriend and first time Moloka'i entrant in 2018, Brielle Cooper.
“It’s much better when there’s some swell, flat conditions are ferocious,” he says. “The last time it was flat I was nearly hallucinating towards the end, the heat and sheer exhaustion was overwhelming, but it’s still just awesome being out there, there’s nowhere like it in the world”.
The swell that surges into the 52-kilometre channel routinely travels across the vastness of the Pacific — over even longer distances than the 9,500 kilometres from Tasmania to Hawaii. It’s little wonder that Bevilacqua feels at home, slotted and happy when deep in the channel, out of sight of land, concentrating on the next runner.
Riding the sapphire blue Hawaiian swell is just like what he used to do as a kid 20 years ago, except rather than risk hypothermia in the cold water at Clifton Beach, he’s under the blazing sun in the warm seas of the central Pacific.
“Another amazing part of the Moloka’i is the sea-life, it’s everywhere — birds, whales, all sorts of fish, turtles, even sea snakes,” he says.
“And the water is magical — the bluest sea you can imagine”.
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