Culture and competition on outrigger's hallowed water
This story is originally featured in the July 2008 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine
By Jeff Moag
Photography by Martin Sundberg
On a clear October day in the middle of the Ka’iwi Channel, the island of Oahu is a distant smudge on the horizon and 45-foot outrigger canoes, each carrying six strong men paddling full out, appear only as rocking torsos and slashing paddles glimpsed amid the swell rolling down from the north. A record 111 canoes are in the Channel today, racing the 41 miles from a low-lying corner of the island of Moloka’i to Duke Kohanamoku Beach on Oahu. They started in a brightly colored mass a quarter-mile across, but as they leave Moloka’i behind and the steersmen choose their separate paths, each trying to wring some advantage from the variables of wind, swell, current, and human endurance, the canoes will inevitably find themselves alone in the Channel.
The crew from Oahu’s Lanikai Canoe Club, winners two years ago and the course record holders until last year, has veered from the pack earlier than most. They are setting a trap for the new record holders, Shell Va’a of Tahiti, now charging westward and trailing a thin line of rivals. The Tahitians are driving a frenetic pace, but other than the sweat and salt spray glistening on their lean limbs, they show no sign of strain.
Already out of sight several hundred yards to the north, Lanikai has committed to a route that could pay dividends in the closing miles of the race, where the swell piles against the southwest-sloping shore of Oahu and sometimes yields long surfs. Three weeks ago in the women’s race, the homegrown Team Bradley trailed a stronger Australian crew from the gun before running down from the north to steal victory. It is a roll of the dice, but Lanikai doesn’t have the horsepower to match Shell stroke-for-stroke, and this canoe full of former champions has no interest in merely placing well. “The rest of the season doesn’t matter,” explains Lanikai’s 40-year-old steersman, Jim Foti. “If you give up every other race and win Moloka’i, then you won. You won.”
First raced in 1952, the Moloka’i Hoe is the oldest and most prestigious race in outrigger canoeing, a sport steeped in island tradition that has become wildly popular on the mainland and around the world. Outrigger clubs are now common on both American coasts and in heartland cities hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water. It’s a big step from Tempe Town Lake in Arizona to a big day in the Moloka’i Channel, but there is no shortage of mainland paddlers ready to make the leap. Finishing the Moloka’i Hoe or Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the women’s race on the same course, is a kind of outrigger equivalent of the hajj: something every paddler should do at least once because of its central place in the sport’s culture.
The lore of outrigger racing is rich with stories about the Channel and those who know it best. Old-timers speak of the great steersman Blue Makua taking the northern track and then driving his canoe within yards of Oahu’s crashing surf, and winning six times because of it. They speak of the 20-foot swell and 40-knot gusts of 1966, when six of the 12 crews failed to finish, two canoes were smashed to pieces, and a third was lost altogether.
Always in these stories, the Channel itself is a protagonist. It is less a place than a phenomenon, a moody thing of limitless power that cannot be controlled, yet lavishes favor on those who understand it intuitively. Just crossing the Channel in a six-man open canoe is a challenge, but to harness the wind and swell and ride them to victory is a supreme test of that most Hawaiian of attributes, watermanship. So now, as a new generation of Tahitian canoeists has begun to assert its dominance in the sport of outrigger canoe racing, Hawaiians look to the Channel and their knowledge of its fickle moods to deliver victory.
If any steersman has that magic touch, it is Jim Foti. When we meet three days before the 2007 Moloka’i Hoe, he smiles broadly, offering a calloused hand and a seat amid the clutter of the office where he and his wife, Joelle, manage no fewer than four small companies, selling everything from tapa-cloth souvenirs to Hurricane one-man canoes. He’s dressed for work in board shorts, sandals, and an open-collar shirt that can’t contain an unruly patch of graying chest hair, or disguise a torso layered with supple muscle. His eyes are narrow and permanently bloodshot from a lifetime of sea glare and salt spray, but nothing in his demeanor suggests that he is among the best canoe steersmen of all time.
We talk about the Channel and the importance of teamwork, and he warms quickly to the subject. This will be his 20th Moloka’i Hoe, and he will paddle, as always, in the Lanikai crew that coalesced almost three decades ago around him, his brother John, 44, and a group of their grade school friends. Over the course of more than two decades, they evolved from age-group competitors to wide-eyed Channel rookies and finally into the most dominant crew of the last decade. At a time when some clubs cherry-picked the best athletes in an effort to create an unbeatable all-star combination, Lanikai clung stubbornly to its own.
Using that home-grown approach, Lanikai won five Channels, most recently in 2005. In 1995 they set a new record for the 41-mile Moloka’i course, and in 2000, at the peak of their form and riding near-perfect wind and swell, they lowered the mark to four hours, 50 minutes and 31 seconds. That record stood until last year, when Shell Va’a of Tahiti beat it by more than four full minutes.
Now Lanikai, fielding a crew of savvy veterans and strong young paddlers spanning more than 20 years in age, will try to snatch back the title from the better-funded, better-trained Tahitians. There has even been talk of racing in the club’s koa canoe—for the sake of tradition and because, as Foti explains, “The koa canoe has mana. Love.” In Polynesian belief systems, mana is the spiritual force that resides in people and things, and from which all power stems. A koa canoe carries the mana of the tree from which it was cut, the artisans who carved it, and the athletes who race in it. The regular definition doesn’t include love, but in the case of Foti and his crewmates, it fits. The mana in the Lanikai crew, its power, is rooted in the bond they share. But they don’t need to paddle a wooden canoe to celebrate that connection; they need another win.
Winning this year won’t be easy. Shell Va’a dominated the summer racing in Tahiti, arguably a tougher circuit than Hawaii’s. The Shell paddlers seem more concerned with beating their new record than fending off challenges from Hawaiian crews. Tahitian crews have ruled the Channel before. In 1976, they swept the top four places, and Tahiti’s Faa’a seemed unbeatable in the 1990s until Lanikai unseated them. Other regions have also challenged the Hawaiian hegemony—California in the early 1980s, Australia in the 1990s. In 1985, a team of Midwestern paddlers won with Canadian marathon canoe legend Serge Corbin steering.
But those losses had something in common, at least when viewed through the sympathetic lens of time: The non-Hawaiian crews had not won in big water. If the Channel is flat this year, everyone agrees that the Tahitians will simply power to victory. But if the race comes down to a surfing contest, the superior watermanship of the Hawaiian crews, and the skill of steersmen like Foti and Karel Tresnak, Jr., of Honolulu’s Outrigger Canoe Club, could make the difference.
That evening we follow Foti’s hand-drawn directions to Lanikai Canoe Club, in a quiet beach community on the windward side of Oahu. A dozen or so paddlers mill about, chatting and stretching. Today’s outing will be short and easy; the athletes have been putting in the hard miles for months, making time to train between work and family commitments. The purpose of this last practice is just to stay loose, and no one seems terribly concerned that a visiting Brazilian crew is late getting back with the canoe they borrowed.
The men hoist a 400-pound canoe and maneuver it through a sandy alley to the beach that a travel magazine recently rated the most beautiful in Hawaii. A pair of kite boarders tear through the shallows close to shore, and, farther out, the picturesque Mokulua islands mark the way to the “outside,” the open sea.
This stretch of coast is responsible for much of Lanikai’s success. It takes the trade winds straight on the nose, meaning that more often than most places, Lanikai’s home water approximates the chaos of the Ka’iwi Channel. Today the trades are blowing stiffly out of the north, and the paddlers are in good spirits. This is Hawaiian water. Lanikai water.
The men push two canoes into the surf, climb aboard and fall into an easy, powerful rhythm. By the time we scramble onto a waiting Boston Whaler to give chase, they’re a quarter mile ahead. We catch them at the edge of the pass, where they pause briefly to strip off their shirts, gulp water, and question the wisdom of the motorboat going any farther. Our driver Dave Dunham, a veteran canoe steersman, shrugs. If we’re willing to risk injury and camera equipment, he’s willing to drive.
With that, all three boats power into a steep, 8-foot swell, the Whaler’s motor straining, the canoes knifing magnificently over and through the waves, the bow paddlers at turn crashing though blue walls of salt water, then reaching far over the gunwale to make the next stroke as the sea falls away. Behind the canoes the sun is dropping through a gap in the Ko’olau hills, briefly limning the wave crests in the day’s warm, last light. In the motorboat, the deck rises and drops like a defective carnival ride, and when the canoes turn to surf downwind it is impossible for us to follow in the diminishing light.
We limp back to shore, where the Brazilians greet us warmly. They have yet to arrange a place to sleep on Moloka’i, or secure a support boat for the crossing. Still, they say happily, they’re here, and they’re going to race on the Channel. They leave us with a lesson in Portuguese: Todo de boa. It’s all good.
It’s full dark when the Lanikai paddlers ghost into the beach half an hour later, their eyes and teeth flashing in the night. Conditions are shaping up. The trades have settled in and a big swell is expected on race day. Things are good indeed.
On flat water, paddling in a six-man outrigger is little different than a brisk outing in a tandem canoe. The paddles are nearly identical, and the same fundamentals of timing, blade placement, and leverage apply. Only the scale and speed are different. At the catch you feel the coiled strength of five fellow paddlers; the pull-through gives a delicious sense of shared exertion and acceleration. At speed, you can hear the rush of bubbles beneath the hull.
The steersman’s task is more complicated. An outrigger canoe is 45 feet long, and with six strong paddlers aboard it weighs more than 1,600 pounds and travels nine miles per hour on the flats, nearly double that on a good surf. To control this missile a steersman has only muscle, wits, and one square foot of paddle blade. “It’s exhilarating,” Foti says. “If you have a good motor pulling you through, it’s easy. It’s like driving a racecar.
The pit stops are equally exciting. In the Moloka’i races, teams consist of nine paddlers, only six of whom paddle at any given time. Throughout the race, motorized support boats drop relief paddlers in the water and the steersman drives the canoe straight at them. Then, in a precisely timed maneuver, three athletes roll out into the ocean, and their replacements grab the gunwale of the passing craft and deftly hoist themselves aboard.
Switching crew members makes it easier for ordinary paddlers to finish, but for elite crews it merely changes the physiological demands of the contest. If paddling a long course in which substitutions are not allowed, such as the Big Island’s 18-mile Queen Lili’uokalani, is akin to running a marathon, the Moloka’i is like running a series of flat-out five-kilometer races. At the front of the pack in the Ka’iwi Channel, no one is pacing himself.
Before sunrise on race day, Hale O Lono beach is alive with energy. Paddlers dart about in twos and fours, calling to each other, swinging their arms in circles, getting loose. Others stare into space, preparing for the coming test. The port-a-potty doors slap open and shut as nervous athletes come and go.
A fire-line of paddlers stands in water up to their chests, passing gear to a support boat flying American and Hawaiian flags tugging lightly at their hanks in the rising breeze. Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing comes on over the P.A. system. The Brazilian squad marches by, shouldering their borrowed canoe, faces stripped with zinc oxide as if it were war paint. The green-and-gold Brazilian flag duct-taped to the stern dances in time with the athletes’ gait, catching the first rays of the morning sun.
The music ends with a crackle, and a voice asks everyone to stop what they’re doing and gather around a makeshift stage. It is Cy Kalama, giving his customary mele, or blessing. He starts by congratulating Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon, who will paddle his 50th consecutive Channel today with a crew made up of his five sons and three of his grandsons. “Come on up here Naps, and get some blessing,” Kalama says. He speaks reverently about the Channel, asks that it grant everyone a safe passage, and then recites the Lord’s Prayer. When he finishes, perhaps 1,500 people from every part of the world stand silently, heads bowed. Kalama gives the moment time to fill the beach and linger there, and then begins to sing in Hawaiian. It is the Lord’s Prayer again, and gradually an undercurrent of voices joins in and grows stronger.
When the song finishes the canoes begin to stream into the water, launching 10 abreast with others stacked up behind. Standing in water up to their waist, John Foti and four seat Mike Judd embrace in traditional Hawaiian style, their foreheads touching, palms cupping the back of the other’s skull. The gesture is repeated all around, always ending with a grin, a slap on the back, a high five. John Foti lifts himself into the fifth seat, and his brother clambers into the stern. Without a word, they paddle to the starting line.
In the relatively protected water before La’au Point at the southwest corner of Moloka’i, the canoes jockey for positions that will set the tenor for the rest of the race. Shell immediately shoots to the lead. Close on their stern is OPT, a team sponsored by the Tahitian postal service, and a small pack of local crews. Among them is Outrigger, with Tresnak bobbing in the stern like a jazzman in his groove. The movement has purpose; though his steering duties often prevent him from taking power strokes, the rocking reinforces his crew’s rhythm. Still, Outrigger is 200 yards behind when the two Tahitian crews pass La’au point. Lanikai is already out of sight on their more northerly course.
If they don’t surrender too much of a lead, there’s still a chance they can surf down on the Tahitians, but as the canoes shoot past the point and the Channel reveals its current mood, that seems less likely. After three days of good winds, of high hopes and giddy anticipation, the trades have slackened and shifted north. Old-timers will later pronounce it an average day in the Channel, but not an ordinary one. The waves loom menacingly over the canoes, pregnant with stored power, but they’re coming from the wrong direction. Instead of riding the swell to Oahu, the steersmen must fight it, struggling to keep their canoes on course as the wind and sea pile in from the right. It is hard, demoralizing work.
In these trying conditions, the race is quickly turning into a Tahitian affair. Shell and OPT are dueling in the front, each crew striking 80 beats per minute, switching sides wordlessly after every eighth stroke, changing paddlers every seven or eight minutes. Even to an untrained eye, they are the fittest, best-drilled crews on the water. In mid-channel, long before the purple smudge on the horizon resolves into the rugged green cliffs of Oahu, the question becomes not whether a Tahitian crew will win this Moloka’i Hoe, but which Tahitian crew, and by how much. After three hours of jockeying, Shell Va’a answers that question with a powerful, sustained surge. The push leaves the OPT crew 200 yards behind, but still more than a mile ahead of the nearest pursuer.
Lanikai is also locked in a duel with an OPT canoe, as the Tahitian team’s number-two crew marks their every move. That is as demoralizing as the conditions; the former world champions and course record holders unable to shake the Tahitian team’s reserves. OPT’s style is precise and above all relentless, and on those rare occasions when the Channel presents a surfable wave, they catch it. But when Lanikai’s northern strategy finally begins to pay off late in the race, the canoe now catching bumps and screaming along the Oahu coast, the less experienced Tahitians finally fall back. The late run puts Lanikai just ahead of cross-island rival Outrigger, but the day belongs to Shell Va’a. When Lanikai arrives at Duke Kohanamoku beach in seventh place, the Tahitians are already posing for news photographers and celebrating a new and seemingly insurmountable record of four hours, 40 minutes and 22 seconds.
Canoes will keep coming for hours, their crews disembarking, greeting family and friends, and joining the party. A band is playing, paddlers devour five-dollar plate lunches and almost everyone is wearing a congratulatory lei. Nappy Napoleon arrives in the stern of the canoe with his sons and grandsons, and he is immediately draped with so many leis that he has to stretch his neck to peer over them. Foti also lingers, walking the strand with a beer in one hand and his two-year-old in another. He doesn’t want to talk about the race. None of the Lanikai paddlers are ready to re-live it just now.
When we speak again months later, Foti admits the conditions in the Channel hadn’t played to Lanikai’s strengths, but he doesn’t blame the weather. If it had been a surfing day, Shell would have surfed with the best Hawaiian crews and likely lowered the record still farther. The Tahitians simply have more money, more organization, and a more professional approach. They have raised the bar, and the only way that Lanikai or anyone else will beat them is to get better. The Hawaiians have been in this place before, Foti says. “The Tahitians won everything in the early ’90s, and people said nobody would ever beat them. And the next year we beat them and set the record.
“We just need to train harder. Guys just have to get pissed off, and that’s already happened. That happened in the Channel.”
—Lanikai, and Shell Va’a, will race in the 2008 Moloka’i Hoe Oct. 12th.