When Team SOF (Special Operation Forces) competed in the Molokai Hoe Oct. 7, the goal was not to beat seven-time returning champions Shell Va’a from Tahiti, but to claim a victory for all the wounded warriors who have served their country valiantly.
Representing all four major branches of the U.S. military, the nine members of Team SOF crossed the Kaiwi Channel in 7 hours, 31 minutes. While it was more than two hours slower than Shell Va’a, the team still finished respectably in 90th place out of 137 boats.
Not bad for a team of paddlers — some of whom are disabled from their military service — racing in the world championship of outrigger canoe paddling for the first time. For most of the crew it was their first time competing in any paddling race.
The team came together because they work together at Camp Smith, the Marine Corps installation in Aiea that serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Command as well as Special Operations Command Pacific. Members of the team include Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Special Operation forces and an Air Force combat controller and pilot. One civilian was also part of the team.
One of the guys decided about three months ago it would be a good idea to promote the Wounded Warriors Project. So why not put a team together to take on the most challenging paddling race in the world to help their military brothers and sisters. After the sacrifices made by these warriors the least they could do was suffer through a grueling race.
Given the various schedules and responsibilities of the team members, getting them all together to practice was a challenge in itself, according to team member Ken Connatser, a Navy SEAL. (Full disclosure: Connatser is my brother-in-law.)
About twice a week the team would meet at Kaneohe Marine Base for practice. Connatser was the only member who had ever paddled in a regatta before, but still the team came together well.
With no trade winds or open ocean swells to help push the boats through the 41-mile course, this year’s Molokai Hoe was one of the slowest in history. Even Shell Va’a was more than an hour off its world-record pace of last year.
Despite the difficult conditions, Team SOF pulled through with no problem. “I felt good through the race, surprisingly so,” said Connatser. After the team’s first change they were not passed by any other boats, said Connatser.
Arriving the day before the race, the team received a gracious Molokai welcome from local veterans. Hanalei Kauka put the members up in his house. Jerry Johnson and Earl Norton from Paddlers’ Inn generously donated a spaghetti dinner to the team the night before the race.
“These are active military and veterans doing this for all the men and women who have serve this country with honor and dignity,” said Larry Helm, commander of Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans. Team SOF helps the families of those, “who paid the ultimate price and for many of those who survive with the wounds and scars of war forever,” said Helm.
“It was wonderful,” said Connatser. “Everyone was supportive of us and the wounded warriors.”
Team SOF supports three non-profit groups that raise funds for wounded warriors: the Wounded Warrior Project, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the Navy SEAL Foundation. Donations are still being accepted.
Team SOF plans to come back next year for the Molokai Hoe. It may have different members, but with more practice and improved paddling technique, Connatser believes they can do better.
“It was very fulfilling for everyone,” said Connatser. “It’s a good cause that is helped by doing this type of event.”