Images by Mike Caputo
The sun is setting on a summer Monday as Kainoa Tanoai and Daniel Chun trade the lead in a fleet of one-man canoes racing along a 12-mile course. They accelerate in uneven bursts while surfing bumps of unbroken waves past familiar Kona landmarks: the jagged black cairns of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, the rust-red roof of Kona Inn, the dry brush of the old Kona airport. The pace is a stark contrast to that on land, where oppressive humidity gives the impression of a perpetual nap.
“Good job boys! Round the inside buoy at the church and finish at Honokōhau Harbor!” yells Mike Nakachi, the paddling team’s de facto promoter and coordinator, from the fancy escort boat we are standing in. Nakachi throttles past the racers, gives me the title of timekeeper, and drops me off at the rocky jetty at the mouth of the harbor. I clock Tanoai and Chun tying at 1:24—a blistering pace. The next teammate to paddle in arrives 10 minutes later. The one-man time trial determines rank within the crew, the equivalent of a football scouting combine or a basketball-skills test. In addition to racing their teammates, Tanoai and Chun are training for the Super Aito Va’a (aito roughly translates to strong in Tahitian; va’a, like the Hawaiian word wa‘a, means canoe), a one-man race that consists of three days of brutal, hours-long competition outside of Papeete in Tahiti. Much of their training has been inspired by their French Polynesian counterparts, from the delicate, rudderless outrigger canoes they use to the rigorous practice necessary to propel them forward efficiently.
The reason Hawai‘i crews model their training after their South-Pacific counterparts is simple: Tahitians almost always win. As the fastest team in the Hawaiian Islands, Na Koa O Kona is the closest crew challenging this dominance. Last summer, this team, formerly known as Mellow Johnny’s, and before that as LiveStrong, became one of few from Hawai‘i in the last generation to win first place against a formidable Tahitian crew. At the 44th annual Queen Lili‘uokalani long distance race, these mostly self-coached athletes beat Paddling Connection, a team of all-star paddlers from Papeete. It may not mean much for those who don’t paddle, but for the outrigger racing diaspora, which stretches across the Pacific and has ports in Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, New York, and Toronto, it’s major news that the title of fastest crew may return to Hawai‘i, where modern outrigger racing was first developed.
In Polynesia, paddling has always been more than sport. Prior to Western contact, outrigger canoes were both the day-to-day vehicles of commoners and the finely tuned vessels of both royalty and open-ocean voyages. Traditional Polynesian society developed from a lifestyle intertwined with the sea. The construction, use, and social hierarchy of canoes facilitated that relationship. Like the rest of Polynesia, Hawaiians used their crafts for transport, conflict, fishing, and play. Unlike the rest of Polynesia, the usual and favorite mode of transportation around the islands was paddling rather than sailing. In the late 19th century, Hawaiian outrigger racing, like hula and chant, was nearly lost due to missionary influence and tragic indigenous population decline.
A century ago, the canoe culture of Kona was essential to the sport’s revival. Many outlying fishing villages off the rugged coast were nearly inaccessible by land until the development of 20th century roads. The placement of these villages only makes sense when considering that the fastest way to traverse the islands historically was via canoe, and that everyone, from child to elder, was adept at its use. In 1906, Prince Jonah Kuhio, an avid paddler, commissioned the building of two racing canoes for speed, named Princess and ‘A. One went to Kona, and the other to Honolulu, creating an inter-island rivalry. Summer regattas for sprint competitions and associations of canoe clubs to manage the contests were created on all major Hawaiian Islands. In 1933, a 40-foot, 400-pound canoe named Mālia (Hawaiian for peaceful) was crafted out of blonde koa wood by Kona boat builder James Takeo Yamasaki. It was the culmination of Hawaiian racing canoe design. In 1952, after A.E. “Toots” Minvielle of the Waikīkī Surf Club created the Moloka‘i Hoe race, which traverses the Ka‘iwi channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, Mālia’s dimensions became the standard for the competition. Minvielle brought the canoe to California for the first Catalina to Newport Beach race in 1959. Before the canoe was packed on a barge and set for home, California paddlers made a mold of Mālia, and fleets of Hawaiian-style, California-built canoes were crafted from fiberglass and shipped to destinations around the world.
A parallel history occurred in Tahiti, where sprint races for youth and adults date to before Western contact and were integrated into Bastille Day celebrations by the French colonial government. Tahitian paddlers didn’t attempt inter-island races until teams from the villages of Tautira and Pirae competed in the Moloka‘i Hoe in 1977. The Tahitian crews applied an alternate logic for this race, treating it as a series of all-out sprints rather than a journey to be survived. Their ferocity sparked an international revival and coincided with the Hawaiian Renaissance, when Hawaiian culture and political power emerged from a near century of dormancy. Hōkūle‘a, a replica of a wa‘a kaulua, or deep-sea voyaging canoe, was built by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. New canoe clubs joined venerable ones. Long-distance races were organized in California, New York, Japan, New Zealand, and exploded throughout French Polynesia, where races are covered on local television the way football is in the United States. The reasons for Tahitian dominance are multiple: Children learn the sport earlier at little to no cost (one-man canoes are nearly as common as bicycles), have more options to enjoy the sport through school programs, train harder, and are rewarded with decently paid jobs for being on company teams. In Tahiti, corporations got in on the action in the 1990s, creating all-star teams of blue-collar workers. Shell Va’a (representing Tahiti’s primary oil refinery), EDT (Électricité de Tahiti, the electric company), and OPT (Office des Postes et Télécommunication, the nation’s post office) became the preeminent crews in the now international sport.
In the last decade, Hawaiian teams have been attempting to catch up. It has been the era of the Great Hawaiian Hope: Local beer company Primo fielded a crew based out of Honolulu, and venerable teams Outrigger, Lanikai, and Hui Nalu instituted rigorous training programs. “We were trying to change the local mindset about paddling, paying for guys to compete the same way the corporations do in Tahiti,” Nakachi says. Seth Koppes, a paddler in his 40s and a friend of bicycling superstar Lance Armstrong, facilitated a sponsorship by the famous athlete that led to the development of a warehouse and gym in an industrial park near the Kona airport. The team born of this, LiveStrong, became a competitive force: In their second year, they won second place in the masters division of the Moloka‘i Hoe. In 2012, after the controversy about Armstrong’s steroid use went public, the team changed their name to Mellow Johnny’s, the name of Armstrong’s Austin, Texas bicycle shop, and a homophone to the French maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, like the one worn by the winners of a stage of the Tour de France since 1919. A veritable who’s who of Tahitian paddling coaches, including Gerard Teiva, Mario Cowan, Thibert Lussia’a, and Jean Louis Urima, have coached the athletes from Kona for months at a time.
Much of the speed of Kona’s paddlers has to do with the town itself, which offers a slow place for its fast watermen. Historically a site of Hawaiian political power and missionary influence, Kona is an odd mash-up of ancient and modern. The Ironman Triathlon has been held in the town since 1982, and a steady stream of wealth has followed. Like the south shores of Maui, Kaua‘i, and O‘ahu, the town has become a destination for the global 1 percent. It’s not uncommon for a new Tesla to pull up next to a beat-up Toyota pickup at an intersection. In addition to skyrocketing property values, wealth has brought new conceptions of athleticism. Next to the LiveStrong gym is the build shop of Pure Paddles, run by 27-year-old Odie Sumi, whose technology-driven paddles and canoes are in high demand by competitive clubs. The gym has everything a paddler needs to make one’s neck disappear in muscles. In Kona, there are few other distractions for guys in their 20s and 30s. “We can train here because there’s just not much to do,” says Ikaika Hauanio, the team’s de facto captain, after a 6 a.m. workout. “Most of these guys are beach boys or laborers or work with their families. That doesn’t mean they can’t be strong too.” Hauanio is something of an exception. In amazing shape for his 40s, he’s a wealth manager at the regional Merrill Lynch branch.
Last year, the Mellow Johnny’s shop decided to lend support only to the masters team, leaving the younger members of the crew, the fastest paddlers in Hawai‘i, on their own. They are now under the moniker Na Koa O Kona. Nakachi’s oceanic adventuring company, Aloha Dive, which offers private tours and caters to global elite who have chosen Kona to vacation at, has acted as a resource. In 2012, Nakachi and others created the Olamau, a three-day race that traverses the northern coast of Hawai‘i Island, and is the Hawaiian answer to the Hawaiki Nui. It was the first race in Hawai‘i without any restrictions on canoe dimensions. Hawai‘i’s paddlers were ready, and Nakachi came through: When Team Primo took top honors, they were presented with a $20,000 check. By the second running of the race, in 2013, Shell Va’a traveled from Papeete to compete, and won. Mellow Johnny’s took a close third behind EDT, the guys from the Tahitian electric company. Based on their success at the state championships and recent races, they are still considered the fastest team in the islands. “There are so many people that want to see this program succeed,” Nakachi says. “We’ve done it all by committee, and we’re organizing a load of sponsors and, frankly, wealthy individuals who think the sport should be perpetuated to keep it alive.”
From afar, paddling can be mad boring to watch. But the perspective in the canoe is entirely different. It’s one of focused labor. Time contracts to the rate of the stroke, and stretches to the expanse of the ocean. Most of what I know about the Pacific—the peoples of Oceania and the ocean itself—I know from experiences in and around canoes. The pre-Western contact ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, the book of ubiquitous proverbs of Hawai‘i—which includes sayings like, “Pupukahi i holomua” (unite to move forward), or “E lauhoe mai na wa‘a; i ke ka, i ka hoe; i ka hoe, i ke ka; pae aku i ka ‘āina” (Paddle together, bail, paddle; paddle, bail; paddle towards the land)—makes sense only when you’re stuck with five sort-of friends trying to get back to the parking lot without flipping and being eaten by a shark after a buoy sprint. Having never considered myself an athlete, I surprised myself by pushing the pace in the “stroker” seat at the front of the canoe during long-distance races. A decent stroker gets a malevolent satisfaction in his crew’s heaves and curses, a masochistic enjoyment when lungs and arms catch fire. I’ve often thought of the quote attributed to runner Steve Prefontaine that goes, “The only good pace is suicide pace, and today’s a good day to die.”
It’s in this seat that I’ve felt most alive. There’s no greater feeling than a suicide sprint to match a wave’s speed off the stern, when the canoe becomes weightless, and labor is rewarded with a surf. It’s the ideal sport for the introverted. Long distance paddling has the same enjoyable loneliness and exertion of long distance writing: solitude within a team, helping without exchanging a ball or words. My canoe club, Ānuenue, created by the famous Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon, who has competed in the Moloka‘i Hoe 57 consecutive times, is a club for writers. This has included Peter “Doc” Caldwell, who authored a history of the Moloka‘i Hoe; English professor Lisa Linn Kanae, who penned the magnificent short stories of Islands Linked by Ocean; and the late Tommy Holmes, one of the three founding members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who wrote the comprehensive The Hawaiian Canoe. In 1993, Holmes died of a heart attack while paddling a course I know well. In other sports, athletes apply overt aggression or try to steal something. In the canoe, a winning strategy is to ignore the competition. Speed is gained through the appropriate application of technique and focus, of blending with each other and the canoe, of reaching further towards the horizon to pull the destination closer. From the front of the canoe, this feels like freedom.
There are many fine waters on which to paddle, but few can compete with the beauty offshore of the Keauhou Boat Ramp on Kona’s south end, where Na Koa O Kona practices. From park benches on a grassy slope, one can see the setting sun flanked between the narrow bay’s stone walls and docked boats fronting a resort. At day’s end, Kona’s oppressive, still haze gives way to an explosion of Technicolor flash. The place feels regal. If I wasn’t shown a plaque commemorating the site as the birthplace of Kamehameha III, I might have guessed it myself.
There are enough paddlers for three full canoes at the day’s practice, and I’m invited to sit in the canoe Tanoai is steering. As a steersman, Tanoai is a positive motivator, becoming alive when contacting water. “Straight out for eight minutes, then eight-minute sprints,” he and Chun agree as we push past the harbor. We never settle to a dull rhythm; there’s no time to catch a full breath or acknowledge pain. Tanoai’s intensity pushes paddlers to constantly change their pace to exploit the subtle current, backwash, and side waves that pass under the bow. Just as we set into a pace, he exclaims, “This one! Catch it, don’t lose control!” and soon we’re killing ourselves, but beating the other canoes.
Back at the boat harbor, after retiring the canoes for the night, the team discusses next week’s training in preparation for the upcoming sprint championships and the long distance season: more weights, more running, longer practices. No one complains. Outrigger paddling continues to grow in Hawai‘i and around the world, with new clubs, and new and recurring races like the 2016 Olomau. There is even talk of it becoming an Olympic sport. One day, this Kona crew may beat their South Pacific counterparts. Like those athletes, they live in provincial Oceania, and compete in a sport that originated in indigenous culture and has since been shared with the world. I have the urge to linger in Kona, to meet the crew before dawn for a run, and in the afternoon for sprints. To not speak a word while reaching our arms farther, pushing for the elusive horizon.
This story is part of our The Sea Issue.