The Blind Man & The Sea
Photos By Amanda Gregg
A blind man in a rudderless canoe? That’s Vic Allen, who has crossed the Molokai Channel four times with teammates, including the open-water seat changes, and recently competed in one-man at the World Sprints in Canada
Vic Allen may be blind, but he can see into the future, and sees a lot more paddling on his horizon
Competitive paddler Vic Allen has nice eyes. As lovely as they are, they offer little use beyond aesthetics. Bright and deep green, they’re made of plastic and hand-painted.
It’s hard to notice his eyes are synthetic, however. Perhaps that’s because one would assume he can see. After all, his athleticism doesn’t exactly lend itself to pigeonholing him as a “blind person,” though Allen seems to enjoy tackling the stereotype with a playful attitude.
“It’s actually an advantage for a blind guy,” he says of the sport that has taken him across the Moloka’i channel four times (yes, he even did the water changes).
And though all paddlers are supposed to trust their steersmen implicitly, Allen has to. In those tense moments where huge or rogue waves threaten to huli the canoe, Allen doesn’t flinch or balk. He just paddles.
“He says, ‘Go,’ I go. He says, ‘Paddle,’ I paddle. I just dig harder,” Allen says of listening to his steersman. “There is no fear.”
Originally from Huntington Beach, Calif., Allen certainly isn’t one to let hurdles get in his way. Having lost his sight completely at age 38 (wrong place, wrong time when a bar fight broke out), it’s perhaps surprising how often Allen, now 56, puts his complete trust in others.
It’s the kind of faith that allows him to continue to live a “normal” life (if normal means taking on athletic challenges outside the comfort zone of most sighted people).
“I see. It’s just not what others consider sight,” he says, tossing his paddle back and forth, from one hand to another. “Yes, it’s completely dark. Maybe it has increased my other senses, I don’t know. But ever since this happened I’ve become the most blessed person and gotten so many experiences.”
Allen first got his taste for the water at the age of 2, and was surfing by age 4. Age 2 was when he was big enough to hold onto his stepfather in the ocean, he says.
“My stepfather, he was a Navy UDT underwater demolition specialist,” he says. “He taught us how to swim.”
He and friends made their own surfboards.
“They were ugly but affordable,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of money. My stepdad and mom divorced. She raised us since I was in the fourth grade. But we still lived close to beach and could hitchhike or ride skate-boards. We made carriers for our boards rigged out of roller skates and 2-by-4s.”
Growing up, his closest friends were the Parkers, related to the Waipas. A Hawaiian family, they were the first to introduce him to paddling at a young age. “They’d always be out paddling, mostly canoe surfing. I just remember paddling past all the rich houses and we’d just paddle by the harbor.”
Calling himself and his siblings “mischievous,” Allen says he, his brother Nick and sister Teresa didn’t have it too tough.
“My brother was more into basketball and football, I was the longhair surfer in the water. My sister was a hippie.”
Following a permanent move to Kaua’i and meeting and falling in love with wife Annie, Allen again was offered a seat in a canoe, this time by steers-man Chris Kauwe.
“We went out at Waiohai and went surfing,” he says, adding Kauwe invited him to paddle with Niumalu Canoe Club.
Not all that familiar with competitive canoe racing, Allen was excited to try it out.
“I like water sports and competed in surfing in high school, but I thought canoeing was something you did for fun like fishing on Sunday,” he says.
Learning the stroke by feeling the movement and motions of paddler Kenny Denton, Allen was hooked.
“He taught me so much fundamental-wise and has such deeply ingrained values and this sense of shared tradition,” he says. “Even things like not to step over the ama. He taught me that.”
Of course, there’s a long list of those who contributed to his knowledge and athletic growth, including his coach, Luke Evslin, and wife Annie, who also is a paddler. Annie helps him practice water changes for races, going along on the escort boat and jumping in, treading water alongside him for the change.
“I’m usually seat four and when five gets in, she cues me,” he says.
Annie certainly has been there beside him – both physically and mentally. Some may remember last March at the Prince Kuhio race when a canoe went missing for six hours with Allen aboard. His distraught wife handled it well, especially given that race officials were arguing that all the paddlers had come in already.
But Allen was fine, he says, just as he always is.
“In the beginning, someone said they would never get in a canoe with me because I would be a liability,” he says. “It took many years to show these guys, ‘Hey, I’m OK in the water.’ The first time we huli-ed was at Po’ipu. Chris (Kauwe) was steering and we mistook the women’s finish for the men’s. So we thought we won, and were passed by two canoes who were yelling, ‘Hey, why’d you stop?’ Then this wave hit us and it was funny, I was the first one to flip it back over and get back in. Meanwhile people on the shore were like, ‘Oh no, the blind guy hulied.’ But all was good.”
Having been one of the “original six” to start off with Evslin last season, Allen says he got extra training time for the World Sprints in Calgary with the young coach. But he’s quick to add he wasn’t given special treatment.
“He makes everyone do time trials to compete for a seat,” Allen says. “So I asked if I could do it in the OC-1, and he said, ‘You’re doing it in the V1!’ But it was a blast, we had fun.”
In preparation for competing in the World Sprints with Evslin as his eyes, Allen trained for three months on a V1 rudderless one-man canoe in Wailua River. Not as “easy” as the OC-1 one-man canoes with pedals that steer, V1s require that all steering is done by the paddle.
As far as just “how” Evslin guides him, most is command, and much is trial and error.
“He just tells me when, but we do run into the bushes,” he says.
Evslin says Calgary was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences he has had in his life.
“Going into it, I knew that he had the strength and skill to win the race,” Evslin says. “As his eyes, I felt like I was his only handicap out there.”
Allen says he and Evslin aimed for Allen to get a time to 2:43 to be competitive. Allen fundraised and got sponsorships from Maui Jim, Kiaola paddles, Shred helmets and X-1 Powered by H2O Audio, to name a few. Though the sprints didn’t quite pan out as planned, Allen says he was happy to go and humbled by his time for the V1 500: 3:15:37.
Evslin calls Calgary a “good learning experience.”
“We didn’t do as well as we had hoped, but I only blame myself. Most importantly, he taught me how to lose. While I sat feeling defeated on the finish line he said, ‘Time to start training for Rio in 2014.'”
Evslin adds that Allen is a good role model. “Without a doubt, Vic is the most inspirational person I have ever met,” he says.
As for what he loves most about paddling, “It’s like a roller coaster. It’s the best and there’s nothing like it,” Allen says, who already is training for Moloka’i Hoe 2013.
When he’s not paddling, Allen works as executive director of Blind Faith Productions, or growing fragrant flowers.