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by Renée Tillotson

We were in our early fifties when Cliff got completely wowed by a legendary Hawaiian waterman named Nappy Napoleon. At age 66, Nappy was just about to paddle his fiftieth Molokai Hoe. This long-distance race in a traditional 6-man Hawaiian outrigger canoe crosses the channel between the islands of Molokai and O’ahu. Cliff was in awe.

Please bear in mind, dear reader, that Cliff is today 66 years ‘young’ himself, the same age that that ‘old guy’ Nappy was when he was featured on the front of the Sports section.

Back then, as a recent convert to solo outrigger canoe paddling himself, Cliff felt honored that one of the Hawaiian outrigger 6-man teams had just invited him to fill an empty seat in their canoe. Just imagining the 32-mile paddle he was about to embark on seemed quite daunting to Cliff. And here was a man in the newspaper who must have begun racing over the channel when he was 16, now about to cross that channel for his 50th time! 

Once the Molokai Hoe race was over and Cliff had completed his first crossing, he had even greater admiration for Nappy.

Not that Cliff is a slouch himself. 

He’s a veteran Honolulu marathoner with many Finisher medals for completing the 26-mile run, usually running alone, sometimes with one of our two sons. Funny thing with that athletic event is that of all the possible dangers you might associate with dryland running, his closest brush with calamity was the time he nearly drowned.
Drowned? Yes. Cliff had been reading about all the bodily benefits associated with ice baths. So when he hauled himself over the finish line in Kapiolani Park, red-skinned and dripping with perspiration, he could have headed over to the shiatzu tent for a massage as he usually did. Not this time. This time our intrepid adventurer decided to change things up. He instead crossed the road and headed for the beach. He figured that considering how hot he was, plunging into the sub-tropical waters of Waikiki might feel something like an ice bath. 
Perhaps his brain was suffering from a bit of heat exhaustion… Thank goodness Cliff took that plunge in the company of our elder son, Shankar, a water-rescue firefighter. As soon as Cliff’s body submerged into the ocean water, all four of his limbs went into massive, lockdown cramps. It was all he could do to shout hoarsely to Shankar as he was sinking beneath the waves, self-paralyzed. Our son rescued his dad so that he lived to tell the tale and brave many other athletic feats. 

Of all the runners that Cliff raced with over more than a decade of marathon running, you’d think he would tell the most stories about the fleet-footed winners from Ethiopia and Kenya who would cross the finish line in about two hours flat. (Most people take five to seven hours to run-walk the race, and Cliff ran it once in three and a half hours.) No, it wasn’t the human gazelles who most inspired Cliff’s amazement. Cliff was most impressed with the short, elderly Japanese men that he heard before he saw them. As he describes them, they wore nothing but what looked like a strategically-placed piece of rope tied as a loin cloth and a pair of traditional wooden platform sandals! In this astonishingly improbable garb, these old men completed their marathons and impressed the heck out of Cliff! The guy in this photo is much more fully clothed than the old gents Cliff raced with! 

Back to our paddling story. Now that he had crossed the Molokai channel for the first time, while Nappy Napoleon had accomplished his 50th Molokai Hoe race, Cliff wanted to rub elbows with this remarkable old waterman man. So, he conceived this wild idea to do something he’d never heard of anyone else doing in one-man outrigger canoes: crossing the nine major channels between the Hawaiian islands in a 6-day expedition. Cliff figured Nappy was already so old that unless he convinced him to do the trip soon, they’d never get the chance. 
Remarkably, Nappy agreed to this crazy haole’s outrageous proposal. He, Cliff, and four other paddlers completed the 250-mile trek in six consecutive days. You can watch the story from 2008 unfold here​​ in an award-winning film called “I Just Love to Paddle” that our friend Marta Czajkowska made about Nappy and the trip.

I recall riding in one of the escort boats to support Cliff. Nappy’s grandson, Riggs, was driving the boat and Nappy’s wife Anona was making Nappy peanut butter sandwiches along the way. I watched her scoop her whole hand into the peanut butter jar and onto the bread, then pass the sandwich over the side of the boat to Nappy in his canoe, cheering her husband along the way.
“What a marvelous old couple!” I thought to myself.  Nappy and Anona must have been 67 way back then, and I’m 67 now.

I’m relieved to report that after nearly two decades of pavement pounding, Cliff finally decided that his body really didn’t want to perform any more marathons. He wasn’t seeing any of the old Japanese men running the marathon in their wooden sandals, inspiring him with every clattering footfall. Perhaps times had changed for them and him.

Nevertheless, Cliff continued to paddle, even after suffering an extruded disc that required back surgery. Done properly, paddling is a highly aerobic yet non-impact sport. Cliff finally discovered the importance of “listening to his body” that his wife (that would be me) was always preaching to him! And he got back into the canoe.

Of course, like most other sporting events, paddling races in Hawai’i suffered a setback during the pandemic. Cliff’s favorite race came to be the world championship solo race from Molokai to O’ahu, called the Ka’iwi Channel Solo. The race was flatly canceled in 2020.

For 2021 and 2022, Cliff diligently prepared in hopes that the organizers would run the solo outrigger canoe world championship race. I watched him two years in a row, following his usual practice schedule. Despite all of Cliff’s training, the race failed to materialize those years as well.

Undaunted, Cliff headed into 2023 determined to be ready for a good performance in the world championship, especially now that we were well out of the pandemic. Cliff’s regimen starts before Christmas time so that his body and mind will be ready for the race in May. His paddles grow longer and longer as the season gets closer to the race. His favorite practice course crosses Kaneohe Bay and circles around Chinaman’s Hat (properly known as Mokoliʻi in Hawaiian). It takes him about two and a half hours. Cliff figures that if he can complete that practice course and still feel fresh enough to turn around and do it again – even though there’s not enough time before dark to actually do so – he’s pretty well prepared for the race.

May ’23 arrives and the race is indeed on! Cliff reads the weather reports diligently, noting that weather conditions are becoming less and less favorable. His usual racing buddies start opting for the short course instead of the full race. Cliff continues to pound the water, no matter what the day of the race may bring.

Cliff, our son Govi and a good fishing buddy head over to Moloka’i on the Friday before the race. Cliff rests up Saturday in the relaxing atmosphere of that very traditional, no-hurry, island.  Sunday morning, Cliff is chomping at the bit to get started. He’s pre-packed his bags of poi, his Uncrustables (Bleah! 😝) and all his other traditional snacks that he superstitiously counts on to power him through a race.

The first three hours he’s riding high. Conditions are perfect, he’s “catching bumps” (riding little waves), and going fast. Then everything shifts. 

Because the race got off to a late start of almost noon, the tide changes while Cliff is in the middle of the channel, so now he’s fighting against the pull of the water beneath him. And as he gets closer to O’ahu, an offshore wind starts pushing him diagonally, threatening to spin and roll his canoe. 

Meanwhile, our son Govi – who is driving the escort boat – gets news of an urgent family situation that needs his attention. Conditions on the water are so dicey, Cliff can’t safely afford for their escort boat to abandon him. Fortunately, another boat is able to pick up Govi and take him to shore, while our friend continues to follow Cliff in the escort boat. Adding worry to adverse conditions, Cliff sends his good wishes along with Govi, puts his head down, and keeps slugging his way through the water.

Cliff is struggling. Looking at Cliff you’d see a long, lanky Scandinavian-looking cross-country runner, not a Polynesian powerhouse paddler. He makes up for what he lacks in musculature with pure grit and stamina. By this time many paddlers have dropped out of the race.

Our poor guy’s arms are cramping up and he’s nearing exhaustion. His normal 20 strokes per side falters, and he can only manage 7 strokes per side. With nothing but sheer willpower maintained by focusing on his breath, Cliff manages to cross the finish line and make it to shore.

For the last hour and a half of his paddle, I’ve been trying to get sight of him from a lookout at Portlock in Hawaii Kai. Failing to catch sight of him, I try to get to the finish line in time to congratulate him. I know from calling the guys on the escort boat that it’s been a rough crossing, and I can just imagine how disheartening it will be if no one is there to greet him at the end.  

I park and dash towards the race tent to look for Cliff, EXACTLY in time to see him staggering across the sand carrying his outrigger canoe. The guy is so tired, he’s nearly delirious. He sets down his canoe at the sound of my voice, not even able to really see me, his vision is so blurred. He asks to lean on my shoulder so he won’t fall down;  rejoicing that my crazy husband – now 66 years old himself, like Nappy Napolean was when he crossed the Molokai channel for his 50th Molokai Hoe – has survived yet another wild adventure.  And he wins 1st Place in his age category, probably the oldest paddler to finish the world championship this year.

Maybe it was more than just willpower carrying him along. Maybe it was the inspiration of “old man” Nappy’s example so many years ago. And come this December, Cliff will no doubt be on his outrigger again, rigorously training for the next season!

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.  
– Author Unknown

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)