Hard Paddling in Paradise: Hawaii's Passion for Outrigger Canoe Racing

In Hawaii, outrigger canoe races are more than a beloved sport. They're a cultural touchstone.

Jul 30 2015, 5:15pm

Photo by Danielle Elliot

"Come on, boys. Yes-a, boys," an older man called out on a sticky afternoon in Hilo, Hawaii. He stood at the edge of Hilo Bay, his potbelly rolling over red board shorts; a purple lei sat on his shoulders, and a black trucker hat was cocked atop his head, with sunglasses perched above. At his feet, brown waves washed up onto a mix of sand and stones.

Hilo Bay isn't one of the picturesque beaches travelers dream of finding in Hawaii. What tourists do make it to Hilo are merely stopping for a bite on the way to or from Volcanoes National Park, or following their guidebook to the lookout at Rainbow Falls. But during the summer, Hilo Bay is home to something as Hawaiian as the hula dancing that they'll see at a luau: outrigger canoe racing.

READ MORE: Why Canoes Still Matter

Outrigger canoeing is to Hawaii what football is to Texas. On the Big Island, more than 4,000 paddlers and another thousand or so friends and family members gather for a hotly contested regatta most Saturdays in May, June, and July, as 16 teams that make up the Moku O Hawai'i Outrigger Canoe Racing Association battle for a spot in the state championships. The regattas alternate between Hilo, on the east side of the island, and Kona, on the west coast. When there aren't regattas, there are long-distance competitions.

Each regatta features 40 races, starting early in the morning with the 8-year-old division. Each team can enter one boat in each race; each paddler can race in two events. The best teams paddle perfectly in sync, arms extended and shoulders hunched to help them execute short, quick strokes along the quarter-mile course. The person in the front sets the pace, the last paddler steers. Everyone follows the commands of the person in the second position, who calls out "Ho" to signal when paddlers should switch from the left side to the right.

"At the beginning you're relaxed," said Gerri Hala Latu, a veteran paddler with the Puna club. "Then when your race is coming up, the blood pressure goes up, the anticipation. You train so hard all week and then the race is over so quick."

Teams set up tents on regatta day, just like you'd see at a track meet. --Photo by Danielle Elliot

Winning a regatta requires strategy, as scoring depends on the number of boats in each race: if 16 teams enter, the winning team earns 16 points; last place is always worth a point. Small teams have a shot if they rack up enough points in the big races, while big teams often enter a boat in each race just to get at least one point. Most races are won or lost on the turns. The longest race of the day is a mile, requiring three turns. The wind and the currents can also wreak havoc on certain lanes—and the team that wins each week gets the advantage of choosing its lane the following week.

At the end of the season, points from the regattas are added up, and the top three teams in each age division advance to states. All 16 clubs could earn at least one spot, or three dominant clubs could claim them all. While states are the ultimate goal, teams take pride in winning weekly regattas.

Richard Kimitete, the man on the beach, is the head coach of Kai 'Ehitu Canoe Club. His family founded the club in 1982. "It's unique. The beauty, the fellowship of bringing together any age," said his sister, Healani Kimitete. Their team is a perpetual second- and third-place finisher. On June 20, Kai 'Ehitu carried a 25-point lead through the first 24 events. Kimitete was cheering on his 13-year-old boys, hoping a win would give the club more of a cushion over perennial power Kai 'Opua. Founded in 1929, Kai 'Opua is the island's oldest club. It's also the biggest. And the best. Drawing on the talents of more than 400 members, the club had a five-year, 38-regatta win streak coming into this season.

"Yes-a-boys," the coach yelled as they pulled within a boat length of the leaders. "Come on, boys."

Kawaihae Canoe Club carries a koa canoe out of the water. --Photo by Danielle Elliot

Outrigger canoes are 44 feet long and weigh 400 pounds, with a beam, or ama, attached to one side that balances the weight of the six paddlers, who sit on small wooden seats inside the narrow hull. Long before Hawaiians started racing these hand-carved boats, the islands' earliest settlers used them as fishing vessels. When the U.S. annexed the kingdom, in 1898, the government banned the use of the Hawaiian language in schools and government offices. It was an attack on the native culture, but no one attempted to stop Hawaiians from paddling, at least not officially. The earliest written records of races show that heated rivalries had formed by 1906, but that year marked the beginning of a still unexplained 23-year hiatus in competition. Kai 'Opua's formation started the first revival.

A few years later, in 1945, an 11-year-old girl named Maile Mauhili decided to try the sport. "I started because I was inquisitive," she said, in a soft tone that doesn't quite match her sun-leathered skin. The next year, a tsunami devastated Hilo, killing 96 people and leaving most roads and buildings in ruins. Paddling was the least of anyone's priorities. The sport again "went to sleep," Mauhili told me, but the second lull was short lived. She raced her first state championship in 1954, using a borrowed koa canoe because her team couldn't afford its own. The next year, she recalled, most of the clubs once again fell apart. Another decade passed before competition started to pick up again. By 1986, outrigger canoeing was the official team sport of Hawaii.

Where the Hawaiian language was once forbidden, public high schools now feature outrigger canoe teams. On the club side, there are more than 10,000 paddlers across Hawaii, Kaua'i, Oahu, Maui, and Moloka'i. Each island has an association that oversees its clubs and regatta season. The length of their seasons and some of the rules vary, but all are rooted in the same traditions.

"This is the Hawaiian culture. It's very important our children learn the culture," Mauhili said. "During our days, when we revived canoe paddling, to me, this is where our language started up again, and our culture. We have to keep it going."

Mauhili hung up her paddle in 1977, but she never left the sport entirely. She has coached a number of clubs on the Big Island, a few of which might have otherwise folded without her efforts. By 2013, she was working at the Kailana Club, keeping it going with only a few youth teams to enter races. The small size meant Mauhili often footed most of the $3,000 cost of hosting an annual regatta (the money goes toward buying medals and trophies and renting and crewing safety boats). She didn't want the Kailana children to miss out on this tradition, she said, and each club is required to host either a regatta or a long-distance event. She's served as director of the Big Island's association for so long that the championship is named the Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii Championships. Now 81, Aunty Maile sits in the scorer's booth at the weekly regattas, five leis draped over her shoulders in a traditional sign of respect. In keeping with her mission, her great-grandchildren are now paddling. "It means a lot to everyone," she said. "Because it's pride, yeah?"

When a team isn't entering a specific race, the boats are pulled up onto the beach. -- Photo by Danielle Elliot

As the islands have diversified, so has the sport. Today the teams feature nearly as many mainland transplants as native Hawaiians. Dale Kerrigan is a retired science teacher from Monta Rey, California. He and his wife have been vacationing in Kona for years. Kerrigan kept seeing outrigger teams practicing while he was out running or cycling. Eventually, he said, he decided, "I want to be that guy."

Kai 'Opua welcomed him at practices, and Kerrigan soon traded triathlons for regattas. "When we come here now, we're locals. It changed the way we vacationed," he says. Three years in, the Kerrigans started spending full summers in Kona, leaving shortly after each summer's state championships, in early August.

This year's state championship regatta, on Saturday, will be especially important to the Big Island clubs, as Hilo is hosting for the first time since 2009. Kai 'Opua and Puna will be looking to claim the title. Kai 'Opua finished second in the division in 2009, as close as any Big Island team has come to the elusive victory.

Whatever happens in the water, it's secondary to what's happening on land. In outrigger canoeing, native Hawaiians found a way to teach future generations about their culture, to pass on the language and the traditions of their ancestors. Aunty Maile need not worry that the sport will "go to sleep" again anytime soon. Paddling is more than a sport here—it's a way of life.