Somewhere between the islands of Hawaii and Maui — with fiery molten lava glowing in the distance, in a shade of water so profoundly blue it looks black — the sea life was confused.
Flying fish hopped out of the water and did double takes. Giant humpback whales breached and waved their barnacled fins. Dolphins swam by and shook their heads, perplexed but amused. There was a young man moving gracefully downwind, but somehow levitating a few feet above the water. Perhaps even Old King Neptune scratched his soggy beard beneath him, looking skyward at the strange shadow flying above the surface.
That strange shadow, however, was Maui’s Kai Lenny. And he wasn’t flying per se, but rather foiling on a hydrofoil shortboard during this particular crossing. It was actually one of five different channel crossings Lenny did that week on his mission to hydrofoil downwind from shore to shore connecting nearly every island in the Hawaiian chain.
These crossings, by the way, are 30 to 50-mile (on average) open-ocean, perilous affairs.
“At one point coming into Oahu, we had a six-knot current coming out of Hawaii Kai harbor,” said Lenny. “And when current rushes against swell, it jacks the swell up to incredible heights. So, the swells were about 10-15 feet, which are pretty giant open-ocean swells. That was probably the most treacherous part of the journey. But honestly, also the most fun.”
Fun because hydrofoiling upon open-ocean swells for up to five hours at a time ain’t Lenny’s first rodeo. In fact, the 24-year-old big-wave surfer/windsurfing champion/kitesurfing extraordinaire/six-time SUP world champ has crossed these waters many times.
He’s paddled most of the channels between the Hawaiian Islands already (as an adolescent), both prone and standup. And windsurfed and kitesurfed between them, to boot. But this time, as if by accident, he actually broke his own record on the standup hydrofoil crossing by a whopping 41 minutes. Not only is that a huge gap, it’s a world record.
“It’s unofficial,” Lenny corrected. “But when the race comes around this summer and I have the opportunity to do it again — I’ll make it official. But by breaking the Molokai-to-Oahu record, my confidence to do it again and to continue to set new personal bests is at max capacity. I feel like the door has officially been swung open to try new things on this channel and in this sport.”
To be exact, Lenny crossed the Big Island to Maui channel on a hydrofoil surfboard (towed into the initial swells by the Red Bull Wa’a outrigger canoe team). Maui to Lanai and then Lanai to Molokai, he crossed on a hydrofoil kiteboard. Molokai to Oahu, he crossed on a standup paddle hydrofoil board. And on the final crossing from Oahu to Kauai, he used a sailboat.
We asked Lenny if at anytime along the multiple journeys he thought he couldn’t make it.
OK, well, what about the food and drink sitch?
“Yeah, I’d pass by the follow-boat and grab water or a Red Bull or… burritos.”
But back to the crossings, perhaps you noticed a theme? The whole downwind thing? Yeah, that’s part of the whole reason Kai Lenny embarked on this epic undertaking. Trash, litter and plastics of all kinds that get dumped into the ocean drift downwind, collecting in gyres (large-scale systems of wind-driven surface currents in the ocean).
In an effort to raise awareness about the importance of keeping coastlines clean — and stopping plastics from entering the ocean — at each shore Lenny foiled to, he organised massive beach clean-ups. With the help of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and The 5 Gyres Institute, Lenny staged the biggest statewide beach clean-up Hawaii has ever known.
Indeed, communities and crowds on six different islands cheered Lenny in — who just hovered over from some other island 30 miles away (like a boss) — and then everyone got to work. At one of the beach clean-ups, they collected over three tons of plastic debris.
“We can clean up all day, but we gotta figure out a way to stop the flow and put a plug in it,” said Lenny. “The ocean has really been the biggest provider for me aside from my parents, of course. So it’s only fair that I give back and protect it.”
We asked Lenny about any other highlights along the way in that blue-black wilderness between all those islands.
“Seeing the islands that we’re normally on, but from out on the ocean — that was special. Just riding open-ocean swells and using that energy to go between the islands. But sadly, I also learned how much trash is in the ocean. Now, I really want to bring awareness to it and make it a preventable thing.”
Perhaps somewhere off Oahu, on Lenny’s way to Kauai, the confused sea life finally figured it out. And maybe, Old King Neptune even threw Lenny a thank you shaka from many leagues below.
Click here to take a stand with Kai on this global issue and pick up limited edition merchandise that benefits the 5 Gyres Institute and Sustainable Coastlines.