The Hawaiians call it the "Channel of Bones," the body of water 26 miles wide and more than 2,000 feet deep that separates the islands of Molokai and Oahu. Also known as the Molokai or Kaiwi Channel, it is the blue-water paddlers' version of Mount Everest.
"It is one of the most treacherous bodies of water on the planet," said stand-up paddleboarder Christian Cook of St. Petersburg. "But if you want to make your mark, it is something you just have to see sooner or later."
Every summer for 15 years, the world's top watermen — a term islanders use to describe men and women who ride big water — gather for the Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championship. This year's 16th crossing is Sunday.
The hundreds of paddlers who participate come from California, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand and most recently, Florida, to compete in what is widely viewed as one of the most grueling open-water races in the world.
On a good day, the ocean swells can top 12 feet. The fastest paddlers can cover the 32-mile course in less than five hours. But most competitors are happy just to finish.
"I thought I was in good shape until I got out there and paddled it the first time," said Cook, who completed Molokai crossings in 2009 and 2010. "It is the most physically demanding thing that I have ever done."
Cook, a 45-year-old father of three, describes himself as an "eternal optimist." He joined the Army right out of high school. "It was great. Three meals a day and place to sleep. It was awesome," he said.
Afterward, he spent more than a decade managing restaurants. "You have to know your people … work as a team," he said.
Then one day about seven years ago, he saw a magazine photograph of big-wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton on a stand-up paddleboard.
"I told my wife, 'That's for me,' " he said. "I've just got to do it. And once I got a taste, I was addicted."
The sport, which originated in Hawaii, was beginning to gain momentum in the Sunshine State.
"It was still pretty new," he said. "So I threw everything I had into it."
Cook quickly realized that anybody could paddle, and paddle well, if they put their mind to it. He began offering classes for beginners and on-the-water fitness sessions for the more advanced. Eventually he opened a shop on Madeira Beach called NRG Salt.
"It is all about the lifestyle," he said. "Once you start paddling you won't want to do anything else."
From Hawaii and back
Nobody knows for sure who first stood up on a tandem surfboard and got it moving with an extra-long outrigger canoe paddle.
Some credit Leroy Achoy, a legendary Hawaiian surfer who used to paddle a large surfboard along the break at Waikiki taking photos of fellow wave riders in the 1970s.
Others believe stand-up paddleboards (SUPs for short) can be traced to the early 1900s and the father of surfing and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Duke Kahanamoku.
The sport went mainstream in the early 1990s, thanks to Hamilton, a 6-3, 215-pound Hawaiian waterman probably best known for an American Express commercial that showed him sliding down the face of 100-foot wave on a "strap-in" surfboard.
Today, nearly 20 years after the first modern SUPs appeared on the scene, paddleboarding is the fastest-growing water sport. Kids, women, seniors … it seems like everybody is paddling Florida's warm, calm waters.
But for the hard-core competitors, the Molokai Channel is still the ultimate challenge.
"I always tell my boys that anything is possible," Cook said. "If you see a star, don't be afraid to reach out and grab it."
So Sunday, Cook will be making the crossing again, this time as part of one of two relay teams consisting of local paddlers of varying skill levels and experience.
There will be two teams of three: Cook, Kacie Wallace and Marc Shen; and Dana Hart, Chad White and Shane White. In addition, there will be two local solo paddlers: Eric Shamas on a traditional prone board and Dr. Patrick Klemawesch on a SUP.
"It is one of those things that you will never forget," Cook said. "And that is what life is all about."
To learn more, call Cook at NRG Salt, (727) 260-2362, or go online at nrgsalt.com.