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Original Issue

Digging to Diamond Head

High-tech training meets ancient tradition in the Molokai-to-Oahu outrigger canoe race

The Canoe is alive, sensate, surging. Its paddlers' strokes are not the smooth windmilling of kayakists but a downward punching and pulling, a stabbing and ripping that make the 44-foot, 400-pound craft pulse and throb. Six women from the Outrigger Canoe Club of Oahu are propelling the boat at 72 throbs per minute across the Kaiwi Channel in the annual outrigger race from Molokai to Oahu.

A six-foot swell angles in from astern. The paddlers sense the lift of the sea and drive the canoe down the blue slope, yelling as they surf for a moment. Not that this constitutes a rest. Traci Phillips, the two-time Olympic kayaker in the stroke's bow seat, keeps pounding out the pace, and the crew stays in forceful unison.

The island of Molokai has almost vanished in their wake, and Oahu is still a low, cloudy shape ahead. Flying fish, escaping something dark and cylindrical, explode from wave crests and skitter over the swells, gliding on fins of translucent purple. Phillips doesn't notice until one hits her on the arm. These paddlers are temporarily blind to beauty. They gasp and dig, concentrating only on holding their form, on pulling their weight.

They have paddled like this for almost three hours, and they will stab and rip for another three before completing the 40.8 miles from Molokai's Hale O Lono Harbor to Waikiki Beach. Yet no paddler need go all the way. Each women's team is allowed 12 members, twice as many as the canoe has scats. Every 20 minutes or so, an escort boat drops two or three relief paddlers into the ocean ahead. When the canoe reaches them, they duck under the outrigger struts and haul themselves into seats just vacated by winded teammates who have gone over the opposite side. It is all accomplished in the span of two or three strokes. Such crew changes make this race not a carefully paced marathon but a furious relay.

Down the wind come howls from Outrigger's closest pursuer, the Offshore Club of Newport Beach, Calif., which has won this race, the world championship of women's long-distance outrigger canoe paddling, the last six years. Offshore is a quarter mile back and gaining. A couple of Outrigger paddlers in the escort boat, studying the margin, seem near tears.

There are 27 canoes in the channel, but the red hull of the boat in third place is a speck on the horizon. The race is between Outrigger and Offshore.

Outrigger considers these waters its own, even though it has not won since 1985. Offshore has dominated the race with an all-star team powered by U.S. Olympians like Cathy Marino and Sheila Conover. "We're always intimidated by them," Malia Kamisugi, Outrigger's youngest paddler at 20, said before the race. "But this year we have our best chance in a long time."

That is because Outrigger has several former mainstays back after grad school or travel, including its own Olympian, Phillips. Among them are kayakists, triathletes, surfers, water polo and volleyball players. Overachievers all, they include a teacher, a graphic artist, a biology major, a practitioner of spiritual massage, a potter, a Special Olympics staffer and a fertilizer distributor. They are mothers to nine children.

They have been nudged into a team by their coach, Steve Scott, a manufacturer of sandals and sportswear. Scott is blond, pink and quiet, a sea-smoothed rock among the frantic athletes on the Outrigger escort boat. "Offshore's gaining about 20 seconds a mile," he says. "It's because they have their fastest combination in the canoe, and we don't. But I think we have enough of a lead. I don't want to cut this rotation short."

The swells are rising. Offshore is surfing them, its yells becoming predatory shrieks. Ahead, two of Outrigger's starting six leap into the sea ahead of their canoe. "Pay now," shouts Cathy Ho from the escort boat. "Pay now!"

The race began an hour after sunrise, four miles from the southwestern tip of Molokai, where a hook of jetty protects a few anchorages and a beach of shifting shell and rock. There, the day before, Outrigger's Lesline Conner had found a certain stone. Conner, 38 and the mother of four, was reared in Tahiti, in a family steeped in the old ways of Polynesia. She took the stone to Scott. "This is a phallic rock," she said with quiet gravity, "a symbol of power and faith. It will guard the canoe tonight." Scott took this in with a little bow, bemused, the picture of cross-cultural forbearance.

Later, Scott said he hoped all omens meant quiet water. "People say you want the trade winds and an ocean that's alive," he said, "but I'm frightened of losing a paddler. It's terrifying to make changes in big seas. Fourteen hundred pounds of canoe surfing at you is like a runaway train."

Outrigger's seriousness showed in how most of the team passed the night before the race. "You don't really sleep," said Ho. "You just lie there all night looking at your watch."

Before the canoes were launched, a Hawaiian kahuna, or priestess, chanted a prayer. The teams joined hands and sang Hawaii Ponoi, swaying until everyone yelled, hugged and moved to the boats. "Through the tears," said one paddler, trembling, "you can see the ancestors."

Outrigger's starting six leaped out to a lead over Offshore. "I had never been in front in this race," Ho would say. "But we were relaxed. We could breathe, we could talk. All you heard was, 'We're in front.' I was in awe of what was happening."

Past Laau Point, Outrigger took an eight-length lead into the channel. This is where currents come up from Lanai, and where Molokai no longer holds back the long northerly swells and trade winds. The jumble of crossing forces can create tossing, lurching turbulence, but on this day the sea remained fairly organized. "At the Point, the current wants to carry you north," says Scott. "I've found it's best to keep heading west toward Diamond Head and let the current take you."

Outrigger did just that, eventually moving almost a half mile north of the rhumb line. Behind, Offshore held to the shortest-distance-between-two-points theory and slowly bent away to Outrigger's left, but then steersperson Mindy Clark brought the boat back dead astern, and Offshore began the charge that now has it trailing by only 300 yards.

It is good that the Outrigger paddlers bobbing in the water before the next crew change are not in touch with a press helicopter hovering several hundred yards back. Beneath it cruises a shark 30 feet long, with a mouth wide enough to engulf the end of a canoe. It is not, as the pilot first thinks, a tiger shark, the species that will attack several Oahu surfers in the following months, killing two. It is a rare and benign whale shark. However, if its dorsal fin were to cut the water near the Outrigger women, it would cause a crew change for the ages.

As it is, this change is memorable enough, because Outrigger has returned to its strongest paddlers. Offshore slips farther back. When Outrigger's women see Offshore angle away to starboard in a Hail Mary search for coastal waves, they know they will win. "I couldn't stop crying," said steersperson Paula Crabb later.

As the Outrigger paddlers cruise past Diamond Head, it hits you that this is how the first humans came to see this shore. Outrigger canoes carried Polynesians from the Marquesas to Hawaii as long as 1,500 years ago. The greatest of Hawaiian kings, Kamehameha I, unified the islands between 1780 and 1810 with armies carried in fleets of canoes. The outrigger is the central artifact of that vanished age and of the mystery of Hawaiian origins.

The movement of canoe and athletes also has induced in an observer what author and surfer William Finnegan calls the "disabling enchantment" of oceanic forces. As Outrigger's paddlers near the last buoy, they seem to delve through the quicksilver membrane between mankind and nature. Or do they, in delving, reveal that divide to be an illusion?

Outrigger wins, in 5:49:02 to Offshore's 5:53:38. Holding hands, bedecked with leis, the victors walk up the beach to a solemn welcome by members of the Aloha Week Festival's Royal Court, who wear the feather capes of the ancients. Then the paddlers are embraced by children and family, who draw them across a shady lawn to the team's picnic. Crabb reveals that last night was her first away from her seven-month-old baby. "Last year I paddled him across in my stomach," she says. "So when he was born, we named him Kekaha O Ke Kai, which means 'to glide over the ocean.' "

In the air there is nothing but candor. "Everyone seems to think this is easy," says Cathy Ho, "but it's hard as——. And it's even harder getting out of it. It's so addicting, it's a part of you. You either hate it or love it."

Her words ring of summation. This sport, as these women do it in this place, demands that athletes blend with their team, their boat, their water, their history. Without a grasp of all those elements, an observer stays at a certain wondering distance. So as Outrigger's victory has convinced you of these women's endurance and unity, it has also impressed upon you your own ignorance.

But the men's Molokai-to-Oahu race is not for two weeks. You have time to make inquiries.

The double-hull voyaging canoes that brought the Polynesians 3,000 miles to Hawaii around 500 A.D. weren't tough enough to deal with the conditions they found there. Hawaii's navigable channels are classed among the roughest in the world. To survive, the new Hawaiians had to design and build better canoes than had ever existed. Fortunately, Hawaii provided the raw material: the tree Acacia koa, whose wood is beautiful and extraordinarily strong. High in the forest, miles from the sea, the Hawaiians cut koa logs at least five feet in diameter and more than 80 feet long.

From these logs they carved craft that, in the words of Tommy Holmes, author of The Hawaiian Canoe, "embodied the elastic tension of the tree itself. The canoe yielded to the sea in a way that the high, stubby, bulky, European ships did not. No other culture had its survival linked to the surfing ability of its indigenous craft, or surfed for recreation. Europeans tended to view the ocean as adversary, while to the Polynesians it was home."

The ancient Hawaiians were rigidly class-divided and energetically warlike, fishing with hooks made from the bones of their enemies. They inhabited a land of such richness and such danger (volcanic and oceanic) that it's perfectly understandable that they felt it to be filled with gods. "They embraced a theology of the earth," wrote Holmes, "and a marine conservation ethic so strong that death was a routine sanction for breaking certain protective taboos."

When Captain James Cook came upon Hawaii in 1778, he saw entire villages of men, women and children surfing upon boards and in canoes. Of course, after the boxy ships brought iron, cattle, whalers, planters and missionaries, everything went rapidly to hell. The Hawaiians had no immunity to Western diseases and died in waves from measles, cholera, typhoid fever and smallpox. Between 1778 and 1893, the native Hawaiian population shrank from 300,000 to 40,000.

Missionaries began arriving from New England in 1820, often complaining of the indignity of being splashed while being carried in canoes through the surf. They suppressed water sports because the Hawaiians loved to bet on them and because nearly naked men and women playing together in warm, effervescent water excited the exquisite Calvinist nose for sin.

Surfing and canoe racing languished until encouraged by King David Kalakaua (the Merrie Monarch), who in 1875 started an annual November regatta of sailing and paddling races. In 1908 the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded on Waikiki Beach, and three years later the Hui Nalu Club was formed to race against Outrigger. Something of a renaissance was on, driven almost from the first by rivalries between primarily haole (white) crews and those of ethnic Hawaiians.

The Molokai-to-Oahu race was first proposed in 1939 by the Outrigger Club's A.E. (Toots) Minvielle, who was promptly informed by every waterman who had ventured into the Kaiwi Channel that he was insane. Minvielle pursued the idea for 13 years. Finally, in 1952, he talked three crews, including one from Molokai, into attempting the inaugural crossing. Minvielle found a friend to put up a $500 prize for the victors. Immediately the good people of Molokai collected $600 for their team not to race. But it did, in a converted fishing canoe, and won, in five minutes less than nine hours. The event was established. In 1954, Minvielle built the first fiberglass canoe, and it proved equal to canoes made of koa, which was growing scarce. Today, most races have special divisions for koa canoes.

The 1966 race showed what the channel could do. One canoe was destroyed and several damaged in 20-foot seas and 35-knot winds. The Waikiki Surf Club survived and conquered with a crew that included two of the era's great Hawaiian champions, Nappy Napoleon and Blue Makua Jr. They contributed to 10 of Waikiki Surf Club's 12 victories between 1955 and 73.

In 1979 the women's race was begun, with 15 canoes. Outrigger won in 6:35:14, a time competitive with those of many men's teams. However, logistics and the scarcity of canoes always dictated that the men's and women's events be held separately. The women cross the channel in late September, the men two weeks later.

The race did not remain a Hawaiian preserve. The first four finishers in 1976 were Tahitian canoes. "They had teardrop paddles and short strokes," recalls Rona Kaaekuahiwi, the father of modern paddling on Oahu's leeward coast. "We had broad paddles and kept the blades in the water longer. That was the biggest change we had to make. But the changes have continued, in training, techniques, equipment, even food."

In 1978 a men's crew from California, the Blazing Paddles, became the first mainland team to prevail, and Offshore of Newport Beach won the 1981 and '82 men's races. Then, in 1991, the Outrigger Canoe Club of Australia won, broadening the competitive horizon by a few thousand miles. "The Aussies are year-round professionals," says Kaaekuahiwi. "To me, that's taken away from what local people have been used to. For us, paddling is a lifetime thing, not something so painful that after a couple of years you don't want to do it anymore. We have family programs. But the way the best crews train is so advanced now that if we want to win again, we'll have to start looking for thinner boys and thinner girls. And there goes our tradition. You don't see too many thin Hawaiians."

Native Hawaiians have the briefest life span of any ethnic group in the islands, and the highest rates of homelessness, imprisonment, unemployment and suicide. A great many of the remaining Hawaiians live on the sere Waianae coast of Oahu, where you can sit under a hala (pandanus) tree on Makaha Beach and chat with Kaaekuahiwi and big-wave surfer and waterman Brian Keaulana about the levels of meaning of the Molokai crossing.

"The cultural, spiritual aspect is connecting two islands," says Keaulana, who is 31 and supervises the district's lifeguards. "And in the middle is the competition. On the water I am your competitor. But on land, I'm your best friend. And in the end, coming out of the canoe, the essence of the race is knowing we did it, and now six guys can become 200."

Thus he expresses the legendary Hawaiian closeness, a love of cooperative effort that lets great clumps of this stressed community become extended family, as when the Keaulanas had a wedding luau for 3,000. "The ocean is life," says Keaulana. "It forms us and feeds us and consoles us. Our biggest treasure is knowledge, and our best people are kupunas, elders passing on the knowledge."

Asked for the name of such an elder, Keaulana recommends Napoleon and offers a nice distinction: "The classic Hawaiian paddling club is Anuenue, the Napoleon family's crew. The Outrigger Club is fierce, strong and intense. Anuenue is fierce, strong and playful."

At Hale O Lono Harbor the day before the men's race, 45 crews are preparing their canoes. Karel Tresnak, coach of Lanikai, a favored team, has been gently wet-sanding the hull of his team's boat for days. "The thousands of little scratches," he says, "hold some molecules of water, so it won't be the canoe's surface traveling through water but water sliding past water. It's faster, by some tiny amount."

Tiny, for Tresnak, is enough. A '72 Olympian and the 1973 and '75 world canoe champion for Czechoslovakia, he defected to the U.S. in 1986. In Hawaii he found himself an iconoclast. "History is out of it as far as I'm concerned," he told Lanikai, a club from a small community on Oahu, when it sought him out as a coach. "You have to break tradition to be competitive. You have to lift weights and run, you gotta take a lotta suffering, seven days a week, for months."

Tom Conner, 48, has steered the men's team of the Outrigger Canoe Club of Oahu to nine wins in 20 Molokai races and coached many of Outrigger's female crews as well. He is so coolly analytical that it's no great surprise to learn that he once was a Honolulu police detective. His wife is Lesline Conner of the Outrigger women's crew, who communes with the spirits of the sea. "Let's say she has a different outlook on this," he says, grinning.

Tom will spend the entire race in the canoe, calling upon years of channel observation for his steering decisions. "I'd say that in more than half of our winning years, there were stronger, faster crews," he says, "but we had more finesse, more expertise in a big ocean and perhaps more knowledge of ourselves than the dial-a-team crews like Offshore, who recruit paddlers for this race. We practice together for six months. I want to know as much as I can about my crew members. The basic idea is to start the race with your fastest six men so you can sprint for position, then put in fresh paddlers who can hold that level."

The reputation for efficiency that Outrigger has attained must be due in some part to Conner. But a rational man examining all the variables in this sport is soon overwhelmed, and a really rational man admits it. "The more you know about paddling," says Conner, "about the wind, waves, current, training, canoe design, pace, crew changes and your own limits...the less you know."

The rigging done, every crew jounces up a dusty red road and spends the night at the Colony's Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club. Every crew but one: the Anuenue senior masters paddlers (age 45 and over), headed by Napoleon. They unroll sleeping bags and gather firewood. One of the Anuenue men is Holmes, who once paddled for Outrigger but in recent years has found Anuenue's approach more congenial. "Nietzsche defined maturity as 'reachieving the essence of a child at play,' " says Holmes, "so these guys are ripe. They're always at play."

Napoleon, 51, is limping on a swollen, infected ankle as he arranges his bedroll and guitar. For years he was a landscaper for a bank. "But I quit my job," he says. "I told the kids to pay the mortgage, and I took a boat around to see all the Pacific island paddlers."

This will be Napoleon's 34th Molokai race. "Nappy is a throwback," says Holmes. "He understands the ocean not as Conner does, with science and observation. Nappy's skills come from his sensitivity, his harmony with the water. The ancient navigators steered by lowering their testicles in the water. Nappy is surely what the ancient Hawaiians were like. He couldn't sleep in a hotel tonight. He's communing with the energies already."

Napoleon is asked whether an ethnic Hawaiian team can ever win again. "If we could assemble an all-star crew of young Hawaiian guys from the different clubs, it could win," he says. "But it would be hard. There is so much more to it today, with faster canoes, better techniques. Outrigger has a tank to test and teach the stroke. They have a system."

He introduces you to a teammate, Willy Dunhour, a hard-muscled former Marine who is dripping wet from prying opihi from the harbor's rocks. Opihi are limpets, and these are the size of small abalone. Dunhour scoops one from its shell and lifts it to your lips. You permit its entry and bite down with honorable conviction. The texture is slippery, evasively muscular, and then there is a sudden blast of cold, seaweed, salt and sweet flesh that takes you unexpectedly through that alleged line between us and the animals. You eat a dozen of them, along with a feast of marlin and barracuda, steak and sausage and rice, peanuts and poi. The kiawe smoke is as sweet as pinon, and in a few minutes the Hawaiian family has been extended a little further. "Extended hell," says someone. "Distended."

Napoleon lies on his back and strums his guitar as the sun sets. It seems only a moment until you awaken, but the moon is now high and full. Napoleon is sitting up, listening to the sea restlessly smoothing its bed.