On a nearly flawless afternoon at Port San Luis, Dave Parmenter and Matt Mohle fix their gaze over the horizon and envision the final few steps of the journey they’ve long been approaching.
Two 14-foot paddleboards lay in the sand to their left — Parmenter’s an aqua blue and Mohle’s a vibrant green — each painted with two rows of shark teeth near the bow.
There’s a little less than two weeks before the longtime friends and San Luis Obispo County residents travel to Hawaii to compete in the Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championships race.
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It will be a homecoming of sorts for Parmenter, a former professional surfer who lived in Hawaii in the 1990s and early 2000s and is known as a pioneer in the development of modern stand-up paddleboards (SUPs).
He’s the one who first introduced Mohle to the sport 14 years ago, and together they’ve navigated some of the most treacherous and unforgiving open ocean in the world. They’ll be among the more than 180 world championship qualifiers on July 31 fighting to complete the 32-mile course that separates Molokai and Oahu, known as the Molokai Channel.
“It’s the only chance that an outsider can ever have to be part of the Hawaiian experience,” Parmenter said. “If you paddle that channel and open your heart to it and see what all the millennia that’s gone on and all the canoes launched for exploration or battles, or inner-island trade, you become part of that — and the Hawaiians know it.”
Competing in the two-person stand-up paddleboard division, Parmenter and Mohle finished 75th overall out of 167 participants a year ago, good enough for 13th in their grouping. Though the course is generally considered “the holy grail of downwind racing,” last year’s event featured an unusually flat day on the water, and it took Parmenter and Mohle 6 hours, 24 minutes, 30 seconds to cross the finish line.
Each team or individual competing is assigned an escort boat that provides aide and carries reserve equipment throughout the race. Parmenter and Mohle like to alternate roughly 20-minute shifts paddling while the other person rides in the boat and recharges.
The most important, and perhaps overlooked, factor in the race is heat management. Well-trained athletes are capable of paddling all day, but without proper knowledge of the channel or a thorough race strategy, many of them drop out well before the end.
“There’s a death of a thousand cuts in that race,” Parmenter said, “and almost none of it has to do with paddling.”
Against the grain
Many in the local surfing community will likely recognize Parmenter’s name.
A Southern California native who moved to Cayucos as a teenager, Parmenter arrived on the professional surfing scene in the early 1980s. Once described by Surfing magazine as “the most interesting surfer in the world,” Parmenter developed a reputation for his outside-the-box shaping and designing of surf boards.
He founded Aleutian Juice Surfboards after leaving the professional circuit and in 1995 began living in Makaha, located on the west side of Oahu. Parmenter became entrenched in the Hawaiian culture and, along with Brian Keaulana, he co-founded C4 Waterman, a company that specializes in SUP equipment.
As lifelong surfers and ocean enthusiasts, Parmenter and Mohle recognize there remains a stigma associated with SUPs among the surfing community.
“I’ve been out sitting in the lineup and had somebody that paddles up on a standup paddleboard that doesn’t have etiquette, that doesn’t know what they’re doing, and it’s dangerous,” said Mohle, who works as a San Luis Obispo County Park Ranger. “They’re huge boards. They’re losing their boards through the lineup.”
Parmenter said the opportunities provided by SUPs are an untapped resource along the Central Coast, and many surfers would be blown away if they were open to trying something new.
“We’ll be out there in March at the coldest time of the year when the water’s 50 (degrees),” Parmenter said. “We’re in board shorts and we’re surfing bump after bump all the way to Pismo.”
Aside from being considerably warmer, SUPs also help improve overall balance while fine-tuning the fast-twitch muscles that are essential on a short board.
Given his surfing pedigree, Parmenter isn’t surprised SUPs have been met with some resistance both locally and nationally, comparing it with the long-board revolution in the early 1990s.
“People said that about leashes; they said that about wetsuits,” Parmenter said. “The old lumberjacks that were riding redwood boards hated balsa boards. They thought that was the end of the world because no sissys could carry boards down the cliffs at Palos Verdes.”
Under your skin
While a lot has been made of the recent shark sightings in local waters, it doesn’t compare to what Parmenter and Mohle see as they navigate the 2,300-foot deep Molokai Channel, known locally as the Ka’iwi Channel.
The Polynesian history there goes back thousands of years, and each human-powered race is considered a crowning achievement of the sport. Perhaps the most well-known story stemming from the channel is the tragic disappearance of Hawaiian big-wave surfer Eddie Aikau in 1978.
Mohle said it’s not uncommon to see multiple sharks, whales, dolphins and flying fish along the way. Having the higher vantage point of standing up on the board, coupled with polarized sunglasses, makes for an almost psychedelic experience on the water.
“It’s like being on safari, the (things) you see,” Parmenter added. “It’s insane.”
Parmenter and Mohle will make the trip to Hawaii one week ahead of the race to get their supplies and equipment in order. They plan to take the escort boat from Oahu over to Molokai — a trip that took about six hours last year — on July 29 and get acclimated to the conditions.
Even for two veteran watermen, describing the Molokai Channel to an outsider proves difficult.
It’s a seemingly spiritual experience, but one that requires heightened senses and a keen understanding of the environment.
“The channel,” Parmenter said, “is just something that gets under your skin.”
Molokai-2-Oahu World Championships
When: July 31
Starting point: Kalua Koi on Molokai
Finish line: Maunalua Bay Beach Park
Rent local: Avila Beach Paddlesports, 3915 Avila Beach Drive
Quoteworthy: “For someone that wants to just get started, Avila itself is perfect.” — Matt Mohle