The M2O is back
It’s been 4 years since we had the last M2O. We all remember it very well, the winds were blowing and the conditions in the Kaiwi Channel were epic. That year was also the 2nd year the M2O management admitted SUP Foiling to the race. After the demand in 2018 it was clear downwind foiling is going to become the new thing.
In SUP James Casey beat Michael Booth by roughly 5 minutes, they were the only to racers in the age group of under 30 years in the unlimited division that counted 15 participants. Terrene Black won for the 2nd time that year ahead of Sonni Hönscheid who won the M2O 3 times. It was these two and Honolulu local Jennifer Lee who made the entirety of the SUP Unlimited Female participants. It is safe to say, the trend of a declining demand in SUP as a competitive ocean sport was well under way.
In the meanwhile, foiling started to catch on. In 2018 there were 10 participants with Annie Reickert making history as the first woman to cross the Kaiwi channel on foil. Kai Lenny was clearly the fastest and best downwind foiler at the time finishing in 2:52:58.
In 2019 the demand for foiling had a slight uptick as we counted 13 participants. Annie was still the only girl, but we saw more international participation in this division. Kai Lenny beat his time from the year before with a time of 2:29:38 beating Jeffrey Spencer who was first at China Wall only on the inside by roughly 8 minutes. It was a nail biter.
Nobody at the time had the remotest idea of what is going to come and that this race was the last for some years to come. The pandemic changed our sport in many ways: SUP became a flat-water sport and in Hawaii foiling and wing foiling started to explode like SUP did in 2008. The foil trend quickly caught on in Europe and the rest of the world faster than experts would have predicted. The lock down added fuel to this fire as people were buying up inventory looking for a new hobby.
Now the M2O is back, facing a new world, a world of wing and foil crazy people and world where the SUP sport has moved to Europe. Now we are all excited to have one of the most iconic and prestigious paddle races back this year. It was time to catch up with Shannon Delaney Executive Director of the Race and longtime organizer of the race. We are all wondering how the M2O team is adjusting to this new world.
Aloha Shannon, thank you very much for your time. It feels like a lifetime ago since we had the last M2O. July 2019 we crossed the Kaiwi Channel last time that’s almost 4 years ago.
SD: Crazy to think that we are finally on a pathway back to the channel and back to Moloka’i for our 24th annual race. The athletes and the community are ready for the M2O and we are thrilled to be able to once again, crown new world champions.
You and your team must be very excited to be finally back, but first tell us a bit about how the M2O team managed through the pandemic. What were your initial thoughts when your realized there will be no race for the foreseeable future?
SD: The first year was expected with the pandemic and with so many other events and communities affected. Felt good to get the virtual up and running and celebrate what we love. Once we shifted to 2021, we had hoped that we could return but the pandemic was still in full force and affecting the communities in Hawaii and of course globally. It was really a challenge to stay optimistic with no pathway to return in 2022. We are so grateful for the support with the Virtual and then our 22 mile Bluewater Classic race in Oahu last summer. Felt so good to see everyone again!
Virtual racing became a big thing because of the pandemic, tell us a bit about the overwhelming response from the community when you launched the virtual M2O?
SD: That first summer in 2020 it was great to shift into celebration mode with the virtual racing. Everyone was hungry to connect and be part of something. It was an amazing outpour with over 1800 virtual athletes with over 65% from outside of the US and Hawaii. We learned a lot. We didn’t have any experience in shipping or fulfillment. Custom forms and some shipments getting lost from the impact of the pandemic. In hindsight it was crazy. But overall, it was amazing to connect with a larger audience and we were honored to realize that impact and inspiration this event has for so many. And to think that the virtual racing would be a significant part of our race for the last 3 summers. We will have a virtual race again this summer due to demand.
We said it, four years is a long time, and the SUP Sport has pretty much completed its transformation from a competitive ocean downwind surf sport to a flat-water canoe sport. We saw the writing on the wall back 2019 with the success of SUP foiling and the decline in SUP participation. How are you guys adjusting in 2023?
SD: In 1997 the race launched with the prone paddleboarders with the inclusion of SUP in 2007. SUP has been an important addition of the race that also aligned with the exponential growth of the sport in the mainstream. The race was able to attract some additional sponsors and more athletes, which is always a good thing. As SUP aligns with so many different styles of racing and vision of the Olympic, doing a long 32-mile channel race can be disruptive and a hard race to recover from. We anticipated the SUP decline after 2018. We also saw in Hawaii, with consistent downwind conditions, FOIL was a natural next step for our SUP athletes. I think a final thought would be that it’s been great to see so many of the M2O athletes go back and forth between divisions – they really have helped to define what is next. I think of Kai who has done prone, SUP (Stock and UL), and now FOIL. James Casey and Andrea Moller have also seamlessly navigated both SUP and FOIL.
In 2019 the FOIL crossing was fast. The prone division is the root of our race historically, so the event will always manage wave starts so that prone finishes first. In 2019 we lucked out with top prone, SUP, and FOIL finishing in that order within minutes of each other.
We had 13 foilers back in 2019 since then many people mastered the downwind foiling, we may see an explosion in that division. Now we heard that you are also allowing wings, a non-paddling division in a traditional paddle race. Can you elaborate on that?
SD: in 2022, we were able to produce a 22-mile coastal race on O’ahu. The race was well supported by the FOIL community, including Wing. Again, we recognized quite a bit of cross over with our long time M2O athletes. When we looked at our return in 2023 it made sense to not rule out the FOIL divisions. In a perfect world we would be able to have the FOIL crossing under the banner of M2O on a separate day. But with the first goal being to get back to in person racing, we will let this summer define what is next. A few athletes have mentioned they would do both FOIL and SUP if we shift FOIL to a separate day. The Prone and SUP divisions are bucket list endurance events. The FOIL, although technical, is more of a joy ride. So, we certainly don’t want to cannibalize our event, but we do need to stay in touch with our audience. The event will never take Prone or SUP entry allocations and give to FOIL. The FOIL is an addition. We still have a lot to learn about the sport, but we all agree that the Kaiwi is an amazing backdrop for FOIL and would be great to be part of the future. The prone and SUP channel crossing at M2O lends so much credibility to this opportunity.
It is great to see that the M2O is adapting to the trend. How are you feeling about the fact that foiling and only be done when the conditions are right. Or in other words: How do you deal with the risk, even if it is small, that the channel might not be suitable for foiling on race day?
SD: That is part of the education process for us as we engage with FOIL and the FOIL athletes. The channel has quite a bit of energy and the FOIL athletes to date have harnessed it well in 2018 & 2019. Once we have the entries, we might modify the finish outside of Portlock, as the final 2 miles are upwind. If conditions are not favorable, I would imagine a few might shift to SUP or it will deter athletes. Again, we would like to evolve with this new athlete.
The same risk of course applies to participants, and we know how people are, they mostly wait until the last minute to sign up when they are certain the conditions will be good. Are you concerned about that?
SD: Our event sells out every year with between 160-185 entries. With our return to 2023, and the FOIL on the same day as the main race we might not have the entries to accommodate the last minute FOIL athletes. March 5th is the end of the registration window for guaranteed entry in the 2023 race. It’s an opportunity for the FOIL community to align with the M2O. So like I said, it’s their opportunity just as much as ours to create and grow this division.
Thank you very much Shannon we will keep a close eye on the sign up list and hope to see you in the Channel in July.
SD: thanks as always for the support and the enthusiasm for the race. We are all so excited to get back the channel. Mahalo.