It’s calm on Catalina in the pre-dawn dark. The world’s best paddlers are lined up in the shallows off Isthmus Cove. Ahead of them: cold open ocean, a strong west wind, and the finish line for the Catalina Classic — the world’s most historic paddleboard race.
Against the wind & the odds, after what some called the most grueling conditions in recent memory, competitors hit the sand 32 miles later.
A week after becoming the youngest to ever solo paddle Molokai to Oahu, 14-year-old Test Pilot Toa Pere took on the Catalina Classic.
TOA PERE, TEST PILOT, OCEAN ATHLETE
“After the adventures of Molokai, I was exhausted but excited to hear the Board of the Catalina Classic approved me doing the race. They don’t normally take anyone under 18 years and definitely not a 14 year old! If I finished, I would be the youngest ever to race that crossing from Catalina to Manhattan Beach!
I took a full week of total rest which was awesome then started to prep for the next adventure. It was pretty challenging because school started and I was still tired from Molokai. I did full school days and would come home trying to do something to rally for flat water training. The actual Molokai race was the best training ever for the next race.
We had a great time in the days before the race exploring California was super fun. Aunty Megan and Uncle Andy Bark hosted my Mom and I which was so nice. Their house looks toward the Manhattan Pier from PV so every day I could see where I was going to be doing the last 8 miles. We went to Dana Point and visited my escort boat driver Uncle Rob Pelky. He and my Dad go way back in all kinds of ocean races. Uncle Rob is so chill you would never know what a badass in the water he is – not to mention a legendary California lifeguard. I felt safe and lucky to have him on my side.
I also got the major privilege to visit the Florence Marine X Headquarters. I really loved meeting everyone there and also getting to see the guys I already knew again. Their vibe is so rad. I got to do product review and chat about products in the making which was super cool.
After the fun with Florence, we drove to the Bark boards warehouse and met up with Emily and Joe Bark. I’ve known them since I was a small grom and it was cool to see where all the boards are made. I got to check out the custom Bark board Uncle Joe so kindly made for me to race on and made plans to paddle with Emily in the morning to shake off the plane ride.
My Mom and I got so lucky and rode over to Catalina Island on the Disappearance boat. It has led the race for many years. They made room for us and offered a spot to sleep the night before the race. It was exciting getting to the island, seeing the other paddlers and old friends of my Dad’s and Mom’s, jumping on my board trying to calmly paddle around and loosen up trying to hold back all the energy I would need for the race.
Little did I know Catalina would be a pain fest.
I was supposed to sleep on a boat the night before the race but it was blowing wind and rocking a lot. I've never slept on a boat and my Mom didn’t want to test it! I didn’t want to get sick, so at 9pm night before the race we were luckily able to get me into shore and I crashed on a mattress in the lifeguard building. Our friends Ryan and Bodie Addison drove over from Malibu on a jet ski to watch the race and squeezed me in. Ryan has won the race in years past and I was lucky they came to cheer. Got some very good rest then woke up the next day at 4:45am recharged and ready to race. Lining up on the cold dark starting line at 5:50 am was super neat.
The gun goes off and we race between all the boats anchored in Two Harbors. Now the race had begun I didn’t know what to expect, everyone said the first two hours would be glassy but it was all side chop constantly knocking you off course. Every side chop corrected was energy burned, Cold wind in the face and cold water = more energy burned.
I thought my watch was off, but it only said mile 10. I had burned almost half my tank of energy. Then the unthinkable happened. I started cramping, I thought I wouldn’t start cramping up until at least mile 20. But my body had other plans, the cramps set in when I couldn’t even see Cali yet. In my mind a million scenarios and doubts came to mind. I was also freezing cold. I was paddling as hard as I could and was freezing. My Mom was my support in the escort boat and suggested a mustard packet, she loves mustard and I hate it lol. I was up for trying anything though and but downed it. The cramps subsided a little. My Dad was on the phone from Hawaii (I found out he was on the phone a lot– he was so worried and excited) he suggested throwing the Lei Lei’s beanie on my head so I wore that for a good hour and it really helped until it got soaked with cold water too.
I knew I wanted to finish this race, so I put my head down and paddled. I paddled and paddled and paddled, after 10 more miles of cramps, the R10 buoy appeared(the R10 marks there are ten miles left in the race). The doubts about finishing the race were gone. I just knew I would finish, and I wouldn’t stop paddling until I made it to the finish line. Uncle Rob driving the boat kept such a good line. He was so calm and confident. And my Mom all smiles giving me whatever I needed and trying to get through to me all the way across. Bit by bit my mental and physical energy refueled, I was picking the pace back up again. After the R10 I passed three more participants dealing with battles of their own.
Two miles left, so close but my body was shutting down and was screaming to stop. I had my Mom toss me anything and everything to try to get through it from little snickers to gummy worms. While my body was totally done my mind would not let me stop. I crawled closer and closer, then finally I crossed the buoy. I did it, one of the hardest Catalina Crossing conditions and I finished as the youngest in history. Just like Molokai I was ecstatic, it was hard to show my happiness because I was so tired. I was happy to see everyone there supporting me, forever it will be the greatest and worst experience of my life.
The paddleboard community both in Hawaii and California and new friends from Australia and New Zealand have been so supportive and cool. They have been generous with time and tools and support. Super grateful for all of it. It’s really special.”
Miles for Maui
In between the time of Molokai race and Catalina, a shocking and devastating thing happened to our neighbors on Maui. The fires burned down hundreds of local peoples homes. Families lost everything and lots of people died. There are lots of ocean kids like me that live there. I wanted to help. I came up with Miles for Maui. My Mom helped me set up a Go Fund Me and shoot a little video. I was pretty nervous doing it and wondering if anyone would donate. We set a goal of $2500 and put it up on instagram. Friends and family shared it and we ended up with so much support from all over the world. It was awesome. We raised $12,275!!! We are working with Maui Paddling Hui to get equipment to the three canoe clubs of Lahaina. The hope is they can have something at each canoe hale for the kids to share to get back on the water. When the time is right, the plan is to go over to Maui and meet the kids like me and deliver.