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 from six nations 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 to Oahu, 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 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.

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 Ka’iwi 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.

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.

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. 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 steersman 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 25 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. 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 rarely 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 steersmen like Foti and Karel Tresnak Jr. of Honolulu’s Outrigger Canoe Club could make the difference.