The Ultimate Guide to Hawaiian Downwinds – Interview of Robert Stehlik
Robert Stehlik is a true downwind expert. The founder of the Honolulu-based SUP shop and Stand Up Paddle brand Blue Planet, has a long history with the Hawaiian downwind scene. Despite being a full-time SUP entrepreneur, this diehard SUP Racer loves to participates in the major Hawaiian downwind races whenever he can. We naturally turned to him to know everything about downwinders in Hawaii.
Why is Hawaii a downwind paradise?
Hawaii’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and its predictable pattern of Easterly trade winds make it ideal for downwinders. The practice of downwind compliment SUP surfing perfectly as surfing is best in light winds and downwinding is great when the waves get blown out.
The trade winds are most consistent in the summer months and can also be very good in spring and fall. Trade winds are least consistent in the Winter months (November through February), when they are often replaced by Kona wind and variable winds. There are great downwind runs that work on non trade wind directions but in this article I’ll only focus on the runs that work best on trade winds that blow in a East/ NE direction, the predominant wind direction in Hawaii.
A great page to check the wind forecast is windguru:
Safety first: Always go with others, use a leash, bring a cell phone and/ or EPIRB and make sure you or someone in the group has local knowledge of the run.
Here is a good playlist of videos to watch for downwind technique tips.
What are the main Downwind spots and courses in the Hawaiian islands and what are their particularities?
I live on Oahu so that’s where I know all the best runs. The North shore has big waves in the winter that make it challenging for beginners but it’s small in the summer and great for getting into downwinders. A nice run for beginners is Sunset Beach to Waimea. A longer run is Turtle Bay to Waimea or for a longer, more challenging open ocean run you can do Turtle Bay to Mokuleia, which takes you further from the shore.
The best year-round run for getting into downwinders is Hawaii Kai to Kahala, which is about 5 miles. The most challenging parts are the beginning and the end. At the start the wind is more offshore and once you get out of the boat channel it can be challenging to stay on the inside line. Beginners often make the mistake of going out too far, which makes the whole rest of the run a struggle as you have to fight the slightly offshore wind direction. If you stay on a more inside line, the wind direction switches and comes straight from the back after the first couple of miles which can make for a fun, fast run with groomed bumps. Coming in through the reef at the end takes some local knowledge, especially on lower tides, so it’s best to do this run with an experienced guide. Our Wednesday’s training group does this run every Wednesday when there is wind. Going with a group is always more fun, safer, and you tend to push yourself harder. For more information on the training group and to sign up for the email newsletter, go to: http://zenwaterman.blogspot.is/2012/10/weekly-time-trials-in-hawaii-kai-video.html
The longer version of this run is Hawaii Kai to Kaimana Beach, about 9 miles. This is a great downwind run for more experienced paddlers, coming around Black Point can be challenging due to refracting swells bouncing off the rocks, the last part coming into Kaimana can have strong offshore winds, so it’s best to stay just outside the surf line after passing Diamond Head. For a bigger challenge you can start at Sandy Beach or even Makai Pier, where the water is rougher, which is great practice for the finish of the Molokai Race which rounds the rough waters of Portlock point at the finish.
Maui, the Valley Isle, has the strongest winds due to the Venturi effect that funnels the trade winds between Haleakala and the West Maui mountains. The Maliko run is the most famous run starting at Maliko Gulch and finishing at either Kanaha Beach, the Canoe Club, or in the Kahului harbor. On a windy day the Maliko run gets big wind swells combined with open ocean swells that makes for challenging and exciting conditions with big drops, fast acceleration and long, fast glides. In the winter the run can get big North Swells which can make crossing the reefs a challenge. Conditions can be very rough and challenging for those new to downwinders. I highly recommend doing a coached run with Jeremy Riggs or Bill Boyum if you don’t have downwind experience.
The south shore of Maui has great, groomed conditions that make for awesome runs on the Kihei side. Winds can turn offshore however, so this run can turn dangerous quickly, make sure to go with a group and follow safety protocol.
Molokai has one of the best downwind runs in the world. The bumps line up along the shallow shelf and the run from the eastern tip to Kaunakakai Harbor can be absolutely epic. The Maui to Molokai race is a 28 mile downwind race that is a lot faster and more fun than the more famous Molokai to Oahu (M2O) race. For those thinking of doing the M2O race I always recommend doing the Maui to Molokai race first.
The only downwinder I have done on Kauai is the Na Pali race course, which, in my opinion, is the most beautiful downwind course in the world. Conditions were excellent when I did it. Logistics are difficult as you need to drive all the way around the island to reach the pickup spot but it is absolutely worth it.
The Big Island has great winds and long coast lines with great downwind potential. I have not done any downwinders on the Big Island so don’t know of the specific runs and take in/ take out sports. The coastline is rocky, so it’s best to go with experienced local paddlers/ guides.
How is the Hawaiian race calendar organized over a normal year?
On Oahu you can race almost year round. There are many outrigger paddle races in the winter and spring that have SUP divisions. The main SUP race season is Spring/ Summer and runs into the fall.
My friend Jeff Chang puts together a SUP race calendar every year to help everyone coordinate the dates and avoid conflicts. You can find a link to the 2016 calendar here:
Can you introduce each major Hawaiian race to the world?
(Start of the 2016 Olukai Race. Photo credit: Marko Notar)
The three most well known and popular downwind races in Hawaii are:
Olukai Race– Maliko Gulch to Kanaha Beach Park, Maui: https://www.olukai.com/hoolaulea.html
Da Hui Race– every 4th of July on Oahu’s North Shore: http://dahuipaddlerace.com
M2O– The paddleboard world championship- 32 miles from Molokai to Oahu: http://www.molokai2oahu.com
Any secret downwind spots that you would like to reveal
On a Northerly wind direction the run from Kailua to Makai Pier past the Mokulua Islands is truly amazing and has a beautiful scenery.
Can you talk about the boards which you designed specifically for (Hawaiian) downwinds?
Our 14’ Bump Rider model is my favorite board for downwinders and has gone through many years of development. We have it available in different widths and the 12’6 Bump Surfer model and our unlimited models and based on the same design concepts of the popular Bump Rider model. I would say the secret sauce is in the rocker line, volume distribution and the bottom/ rail contours. Getting it just right takes a lot of trial and error and we keep refining the shapes with small tweaks every year. Designing and testing the downwind boards is one of my favorite things to do and I feel blessed to have a job that allows me to follow my passions.