By Léo Azambuja

Kaiola Canoe Club members, left to right, Phil Morgan, Kim Matzen, Pepe Trask, Joe Rapozo, Mike McHenry and Arthur Chow are seen here paddling in Niumalu.

Kaiola Canoe Club members, left to right, Phil Morgan, Kim Matzen, Pepe Trask, Joe Rapozo, Mike McHenry and Arthur Chow are seen here paddling in Niumalu.

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.

An outrigger canoe rests on the shoreline at Hale o Lono, Molokai in this picture taken in July. In October, this will be a whole different scenario. More than a thousand paddlers from all over the world, in hundreds of canoes, will start the 44-mile Molokai Hoe (men’s race) and the Na Wahine O Ke Kai (women’s race) toward O‘ahu.

An outrigger canoe rests on the shoreline at Hale o Lono, Molokai in this picture taken in July. In October, this will be a whole different scenario. More than a thousand paddlers from all over the world, in hundreds of canoes, will start the 44-mile Molokai Hoe (men’s race) and the Na Wahine O Ke Kai (women’s race) toward O‘ahu.

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 th