Jimmy paddling Ehukai OC1 outside of Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki

Jimmy Austin: Always Longing for Another Session

The sun was out in full summer glory yesterday. We decided to put in our first OC6 distance training of the year, 10 miles of intervals at various rates. As I write this today, I’m feeling the effects of sore muscles and sunburn. “Money in the bank,” I recall Coach JB Guard saying at Hawaiian Canoe Club. After a long and grueling practice, he would scowl and then break into his trademark, ear-to-ear smile. Looking forward to this weekend, I think of all the hours of training that canoe paddlers around the world have invested, as they prepared for the Kaiwi Channel Solo OC1 World Championship that’s happening this Saturday, June 13th (Event page @ Pa’a Hawaii).

OC1 distance training is a different mindset then OC6 training. It requires an overt motivation, and a hell ton of discipline. Without the support of crewmates and coaches at the club, you push forward like a lone warrior. I am fortunate to know many warriors in my life whom I consider to be exceptional human beings, individuals who are humble yet ambitious. I often wonder ‘what makes these guys tick’? How do they navigate life’s challenges and come out on top in spite of it all?Jimmy Austin at Outrigger Canoe Club

It Takes a Village

One of these warriors is Jimmy Austin III, who was raised at the Outrigger Canoe Club, the heart of canoe paddling and the source of its revitalization. Jimmy first began paddling at the age of ten and then continued through high school, only taking a break during college years. Along the way, he took time to surf and prone paddleboard in the ocean, where he says he finds his balance. Jimmy is a dedicated and passionate individual, his energy is charged and inspired. “I’m just trying to be the best that I can be in everything life throws my way,” he says, which sounds reasonable enough. “So how has life treated you?” I ask, curiously. “I have been blessed and very fortunate throughout my life. I am grateful for a solid education, a professional career as a pilot, a beautiful loving wife, healthy happy kids and the support of my family. To be a successful waterman in addition to everything is humbling and is the icing on the cake.”

I’m just trying to be the best that I can be in everything life throws my way

It hadn’t always been so smooth. Jimmy credits his upbringing at Outrigger Canoe Club as helping him to get through the rough patches and provide a training ground – not just literally but metaphorically as well. The paddling community is a tight knit family. It’s what makes it such a unique sport, providing mentorship, experience and skills for those who choose the path. Not only did Jimmy work his way through the ranks, he also received training in canoe building and distribution with Puakea Designs. As his medals racked up, he was rewarded sponsorship (current sponsors include Puakea Designs, Oakley, Olukai, Kona Red, Surface Sun Systems, Vestpac, On It Pro, Broadreach Hawaii and Virus International).

Jimmy Austing, pilot with Aloha AirlinesOn March 31st, 2008 as Jimmy celebrated his birthday, Aloha Airlines took its last flight. As a pilot based in Hawaii, there were not a lot of options for work, and he faced the end of his career. “What helped keep me going during that period was canoe paddling. I pretty much paddled 6 days a week twice a day like my life depended on it. It helped keep me sane.”

Connecting The Dots

While paddling culture strengthens family bonds, training as an athlete can be devastating to a relationship or a career. I have experienced this struggle myself “Dude, how do you make it work?” I have to ask.

He replies, “my wife is what makes everything possible. She keeps things running so I can train when I need to, and so much more. As moms and dads who paddle know, it’s a balancing act between paddling, work, and family, and I do my best to keep attention and focus on each aspect of my life when it is needed most. Family comes first, then work, then training. Often, my work schedule forces me to workout at odd times. My dedication is questioned when it’s cold and dark, but you do what you gotta do. The ocean keeps me in balance, and having that influence fosters good choices.”

I know it sounds weird, but enduring pain is a huge part of paddling. Building mental toughness has been my method to success, and I believe is what makes a great paddler.

1 (1 of 1)Through experience on the ocean and paddling with legends like Walter Guild, Mike Judd, Kai Bartlett and Karel Jr, Jimmy learned how to develop mental toughness. “I found ways to use pain as something that was good for me, to enjoy the hurt. I turned the tables. I know it sounds weird, but enduring pain is a huge part of paddling. Building mental toughness has been my method to success, and I believe is what makes a great paddler.”

Jimmy’s training is rigorous. He has learned over the years from Johnny Puakea that it’s not about how hard you train, but instead about how smart you train. You must make each workout count. Jimmy uses new tech like the NK speed coach to maximize efficiency by monitoring stroke rate, heart rate, and speed. He also uses a detailed training calendar and the latest in recovery techniques and supplements. But nothing can beat time in the water. Experience is key, especially when the ocean gets rough. If you don’t have experience then build it; if you do have experience, build more. Having crossed the Kaiwi Channel over 50 times, Jimmy is still learning with each session on the water. There’s not a day of paddling that goes by in which a new layer is not peeled back, a new challenge exposed. “Knowing your body and intuitively knowing when to push, when to rest and when to get help is a big part of the knowledge base,” Jimmy explains. “Body work is key to fine-tuning the machine so it’s ready to perform. I have found healing arts to be vital, including chiropractic medicine, therapeutic massage and acupuncture. It takes time to find out what works and who to work with, but it is well worth it. Injury avoided is better than injury mended.”

Jimmy Austin and Johnnie Puakea paddle Ehukai OC1 canoes as they prepare for the Kaiwi Channel OC1 Championship


As I learned about Jimmy, I could see a similar pattern in other elite paddlers: a supportive family, time on the water, mental toughness, taking care of the body, were all common factors. Yet I was also curious about his perspective on technique. “There are several things that I have found that make a real difference,” Jimmy says, and goes on to illustrate.

1. Set the blade correctly on the catch so it feels like it’s stuck in cement.

2. Use the leverage of your legs and core to drive through the stroke in connection with your upper body.

3. Discover ways to relax on the recovery stroke, while moving forward somewhat quickly.”

“Good feedback on what to do, but what would you say are things ‘not to do’?” I asked Jimmy, thinking I could dig deeper into the war chest.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in races is worrying about all the details and giving them too much power over me. My advice to you is to look past it. When something goes wrong, which it will, don’t get stuck in the funk. Just get back up and running, push to a new level, and believe that you will come out on top.

Jimmy austin on ehukai by puakea designs

Gear Talk

Jimmy Austin, Danny Ching and Lauren Spalding are some of the fastest and most respected OC1 paddlers in the world, they also ride the Johnny Puakea-designed, Ozone-built Ehukai.

“I truly believe it’s the best-made design on the market as well as being built stronger and stiffer than any boat I have ever paddled. The Ehukai has really changed the style and thought process of how I paddle. It’s an OC1 that took time to figure out. This canoe allows me to catch bumps easier and go over bumps with such acceleration that I’m hitting new top speeds and transitioning from bump to bump with less effort.

Coach John Puakea talking to the team

Coach Johnny Puakea talking to the team

We have a tendency to get stuck in a comfort zone, only willing to paddle within a confine of an old model. The Ehukai pushes this confine, and challenges the comfort zone. The Ehukai has changed the direction of the sport of OC1. Instead of just riding the bump it’s now about finding ways to constantly go over the bump in front of you and to the next.”

Jimmy’s input as an athlete is critical to the design and construction of canoes at the design centers in Hawaii, California, and all the way to the factory where fabrication and production are continually improving parts and process. Jimmy has been working with Johnny since high school days, kayaking for Punahou and HCKT. He has a deep respect for his coach and designer of his wa’a. “He is by far the best coach I’ve ever had. He is one of the main reasons that I have been so successful at canoe paddling. I have found that his expertise on technique and training programs is one of the best in the world. He is willing to take input from us paddlers to make the boat run faster and more efficient. His new unlimited six man, Malolo, is by far the best OC6 on the market. Built at this advanced level I know I can push the canoes to new limits. I don’t think people realize how incredibly advanced these canoes are. They are built in the same methods as spacecraft. It’s just insane.”

The Sky Is The Limit

This year, Jimmy has been setting new records for himself. He took first place finish in Maui2Molo, 2nd place overall at Hawaii State Championship, 1st place overall in the Olukai Ho’olaulea, and most recently surprising even himself by winning a couple events in the Maui Jim Oceanfest, competing in not just oc1, but kayak, SUP, swim and prone paddleboard. There are a few races still to come, and the big one is just a few days away, the 2015 Kaiwi Channel Solo OC1 – Molokai World Championship aka: Molo Solo. Jimmy embraces the opportunity to push himself beyond the threshold, mentally and physically, to battle the best paddlers in the world for a chance at the crown.team puakea molo solo

“It’s anyone’s game come Saturday,” he says. “A ton of credit goes to the escort boat captain, coach and support crew. They call the strategic decisions that can make or break the result. Tides, winds and shifting conditions all play a big part in the channel crossing and you never know how it ends up.” I try to coerce some coarse tips and strategy from Jimmy, but no go. He ignores those questions and quickly brings it back.

More than winning, I love my time on the water. Every day on the ocean is different. There’s always something to learn and enjoy. The ocean keeps me hungry, always longing for another session.”

We wish you and your teammates a solid crossing, with wind at your back and sun on your face. To all the paddlers crossing the channel this weekend: stay safe, be focused, and as always grateful to be on the water.

OC1 World Championship

The Kaiwi Channel Solo OC1 World Championship is a yearly race event organized by Paddling Athletics Association that crosses the Kaiwi Channel, from Kuluakoi on Molokai to Hawaii Kai on Oahu, roughly 32 miles. Competitors from around the world converge to test themselves against the elements and competition.

Kaiwi Channel

Kaiwi Channel

Throughout the years the race course has proven to be moody and unpredictable, sometimes dishing out wind, swell with following seas which assist the paddlers (downwind run), other times the wind might come from the west or south directions adding to the already arduous journey with headwind and chop. Jimmy Austin holds the course record at 3:31:54 on a downwind course, on that day the final finisher came in at 5:24:25. On a flat or headwind course the final finisher times have been as long as 8 hours, with many paddlers saying the words “this was the hardest thing I have ever done”. All finishers deserve and receive respect for crossing the channel. Additionally, we  tip our hats to the organizers (especially Manny Kulukulualani), safety, volunteers and sponsors who make this event possible.


Photography by Brock Deem
Article by Naim Ferguson