By Jan TenBruggencate

Two native Hawaiians are seen here with outrigger canoes in Waikiki circa late 1800s.

Two native Hawaiians are seen here with outrigger canoes in Waikiki circa late 1800s.

Let’s face it. I’m a canoe nut.

I’ve built them and rigged them, surfed them, sailed them, raced them across interisland channels, voyaged on them, fished off them. At various times, I’ve steered and stroked and been the “engine room.” I’ve even coached a few unlucky souls.

But as much as I love the things you can do with a canoe, I recognize that canoes are more than what you can do with them.

“The Hawaiian canoe is the metaphor for everything in Hawai‘i,” said my friend, Maunakea Trask, whose day job is serving as Kaua‘i’s County Attorney.

He says he learned key lessons in life from his days messing around in canoes.

Many of us can make that claim.

I was in the middle of a discussion on sustainability and responsibility with another canoe guy, Luke Evslin, when he recalled a Hawaiian saying, “He wa‘a he moku, he moku he wa‘a.”

Loosely translated, it means a canoe is an island, and an island is a canoe.

The longer you think about that, the deeper it gets.

The crews on the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a talk about this all the time. The community of the canoe is entirely dependent on its individual members. If one member doesn’t pull his or her weight, the performance of the whole group suffers. If one is sick or injured, and another needs to tend that person, then the team is weakened by two people. It gets very clear that the group needs to treat all its members well, to nurture them and to see to their safety. And correspondingly, the crewmembers have a responsibility to pull their weight.

In racing canoes, a few fortunate paddlers have experienced perfect timing in a canoe. It’s that moment when every paddle starts its power pull at the same moment, snaps through the stroke efficiently, exits the water and quickly re-engages. Everybody in synch. The canoe sits up in the water and seems to slide. Paddlers sit taller and lift their chins. Paddling suddenly becomes less of a chore and more of a joy.

And the boat goes really fast.

Once you’ve felt it, you want to feel it again. And again.

It’s that good.

Jan TenBruggencate

Jan TenBruggencate

This message of the canoe is that we’re all in this together.

A lot of folks argue that islands are good examples for how we should live together. As discrete places, isolated, with limited access to resources, with small populations, islands readily demonstrate impacts of change.

“The boundaries of the island encourage us to think we can get to truly know it. The scale seems human. Indeed the scale of islands allows many of us to understand the loss when we destroy what makes them special,” wrote W. William Weeks, an executive vice president of The Nature Conservancy.

Hawaiian paddlers know islands, and an island may be a metaphor for the planet. But the canoe is the ultimate metaphor.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.


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