By Léo Azambuja
For early Hawaiians, canoes, or wa‘a, were an essential part of their lives and society. They were the vessels — literally and figuratively — that moved them forward in life; from voyaging and finding food to celebrations and fighting wars.
But early Hawaiians were also fond of sports. And outrigger canoe racing, or heihei wa‘a, was a popular sport among Hawaiian chiefs.
Mauna Kea Trask, who grew up paddling outrigger canoes, said they are “the ultimate metaphor for Kaua‘i.” There are six people paddling together, moving forward, everyone with a specific role, just like a community.
“That’s how you get anywhere. And I love that you move forward, you’re always moving forward,” said Trask, adding outrigger canoes are some of the most seaworthy vessels around, but they can’t go backwards.
“They’re terribly inefficient going backwards. You can’t stop them going forward, but backwards they don’t work,” he said.
Despite a period during in which the sport almost disappeared in Hawai‘i, mostly due to missionary influence starting in the 1820s, Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing made a comeback in 1875, when King Kalakaua declared Nov. 16 as the official annual regatta day.
But it is Kaua‘i-born Prince Kuhio who is credited as promoting outrigger canoe racing as an international sport, after he commissioned the first canoe to be built specifically for racing in 1906. Today, it has spread all over the world — even to places without an ocean — and is Hawai‘i’s official team sport.
“Hawai‘i put it on the map for racing,” said Mauna Kea Trask’s father, Pepe Trask, who has been paddling for more than 20 years.
Art Chow, a coach at Kaiola Canoe Club in Niumalu, started paddling in the late 1950s for the now-gone Kaua‘i Canoe Club, the first outrigger canoe club on the island and “the heart that branched out” to the majority of the existing outrigger canoe clubs here.
“My parents used to paddle, so it was a big thing for us. We see our parents paddling, we like go there too. Eventually we reached age and we started paddling,” Chow said.
Back in those days, there were no racing canoes; they paddled in 800-pound koa fishing canoes. At one point, the club had 16 koa canoes, he said.
Like on Kaua‘i, the sport has also grown exponentially elsewhere in the state.
Every year, more than a thousand men and women from all over the world compete in an grueling 44-mile race between Molokai and O‘ahu that originally started with only three canoes in 1952.
The Molokai Hoe, the men’s race, and the Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the women’s race, are considered the Olympics of outrigger canoe paddling, and winning it is the most prestigious achievement for an outrigger canoe team.
When Chow competed in the Molokai Hoe for the first time, in 1967, all canoes were made of koa, he said.
Today, the few koa canoes left on Kaua‘i — less than a handful — “are worth more than their weight in gold,” Pepe Trask said.
In the early 1970s, the fiberglass canoes came out, Chow said. All of a sudden, the weight of the canoes dropped to 400 pounds, and the price dropped to a fraction.
The use of fiberglass made the sport accessible and affordable, according to Pepe Trask. It also helped to standardize the canoes. The uniqueness of each koa tree caused each canoe to be different, whereas fiberglass construction allowed all canoes to have a standard length and width.
Still, the standard for the Hawaiian outrigger canoe race was taken from the Malia, the old koa canoes, while in Tahiti boat design was quickly evolving.
As a result, in 1976, Hawai‘i teams were badly beaten in the Molokai Hoe by Tahitians who were racing boats they had designed, according to Luke Evslin, a lifetime canoe paddler and a coach at Pu‘uwai Canoe Club in Wailua.
“They just kinda smoked us,” Evslin said of the Tahitians who placed four or five teams in the top spots and beat the Hawaiians by a large margin.
From then on, Hawaiian outrigger canoe associations started enforcing their standards more strictly, according to Evslin. The adopted standard for outrigger canoes, still in place today, states the canoes should be no more than 40 feet in length, have a certain water length, no deck, a blunt entry and a blunt exit.
This sort of stopped the evolution of the canoes in Hawai‘i, while elsewhere the boat design kept evolving, according to Evslin.
While some purists defend the current regulations, he said he would like those regulations to open up soon.
“That’s definitely the thing to be changing, Hawai‘i is the only place left in the world with these restrictions,” he said.
Evslin and two of his high-school buddies, each with a different area of expertise — design, manufacturing and business — own a company on O‘ahu that produces ultra-fast boats measuring 45 feet in length and weighing less than 200 pounds. This different class of boats is called unlimited. He says they are also easier and safer for children to take out in the open ocean.
While the women from Hawai‘i have not lost a Molokai race since 2005, the last time a male team from Hawai‘i won the race was in 2005. Evslin said this is because the Tahitian men have strong sponsors back home.
Last year, three Kaua‘i teams, Pu‘uwai, Hanalei and Namolokama, joined efforts to come up with a strong contender for the race. They came in 8th place overall, and have higher aspirations this year.
“We have a potential this year to be the top Hawai‘i team,” Evslin said.
But racing is just one facet of outrigger canoe paddling.
“You get to go off land, you get to go on the kai, on the ocean,” Pepe Trask said. “It cleans you out, it refreshes you.”
And then you become more physical, more alert, more disciplined, you get to go to different beaches on Kaua‘i and to compete on different islands, he said.
“Those are a lot of the tangible benefits, and you get life-long friendships,” said Pepe Trask, adding you meet people from a broad spectrum — dentists, lawyers, carpenters, teachers, construction workers, cooks — in a neutral place.
“It’s a great sport, it’s physically demanding, it’s spiritually fulfilling,” he said.
Chow says he’s still in it to stay physically fit and mentally strong.
Tough he still comes around at Kaiola to help with some coaching, Mauna Kea Trask has taken a break from paddling to spend more time with his young family. But he’s not done.
“It’s like a life thing, right? You’re never really out, you just gotta do what you gotta do,” he said. “I’m going to come back.”