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Crossing Ka’iwi in an Outrigger Canoe

Ben Wilkinson  /  May 9, 2017  /  5 Min Read  /  Surfing

Held every year since 1952, the Moloka‘i Hoe outrigger race requires strength, skill and endurance. Crossing the open water of the Ka’iwi Channel to O‘ahu is a long struggle with wind, current, swell and fatigue. Photo: Tim Davis

Eight hours earlier, we were a canoe team without paddles. After a last-minute transport change, the Bad News Bears of outrigger racing had arrived at the start of the Moloka‘i Hoe having forgotten our most important equipment in another truck.

It was a tense hour or so until our paddles finally arrived. But now, halfway across the Ka‘iwi Channel, the pre-race butterflies are long gone and we’re locked in battle with a fleet of 94 canoes carrying almost 1,000 paddlers from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu. Out here, the ocean beneath us has an electricity to it—a bright electric blue I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.

There’s more to it, though, than just the color of the water. The Ka‘iwi, meaning “channel of bone,” has mana—power, strength or supernatural force. Changing out paddlers every 10 minutes, our team knows that the middle of the channel is where the 41-mile Moloka‘i Hoe is won or lost. Twenty miles in, this is where the real race begins. We dig deep for each other and haul the canoe forward.

Growing up in Australia, rugby league was my game. I was always a surfer, but playing rugby taught me that the camaraderie you find in a team sport is unlike any other. The pull of the ocean, however, was stronger than the pull of the rugby field, and I left the game behind to go chase big waves around the globe—a path that led me to settle on the North Shore of O‘ahu. It was here in Hawai‘i that I’d find the same spirit of camaraderie in outrigger paddling, when my good mate Smith Lemaire convinced me to join him at the Manu O Ke Kai Canoe Club, where the Anahulu River meets the ocean in the heart of Hale‘iwa.

One afternoon, taking Smith up on his invite, I headed down to the club. I’d been told to ask for Robert, the novice coach. At 6’3″ and 250 pounds, paddle in hand, I arrived to find a bunch of local boys standing around talking story. When I walked up to them, unsurprisingly, their guards went up. Some furrowed eyebrows, some looked the other way, and then someone pointed down to the water’s edge. One of the boys whistled and called out for Robert. He walked up with a huge smile and said, “Welcome.” The look in his eyes said it all, and I felt instantly at home.

There are some who think that outrigger racing takes too much commitment. It is a commitment, but the rewards far outweigh the costs. The training means plenty of time paddling up and down the beautiful North Shore, deepening my relationship with the ocean. But it’s the mateship that’s become most valuable to me. The crew is a family—they’re brothers to me, and I’m one to them. The connections and friendships I’ve made through paddling have made me feel more than welcome in Hawai‘i, and they’ve opened the door to a beautiful culture. Polynesian peoples have been paddling canoes for thousands of years to travel, gather food or go into battle—and today, battling for sport, we’re part of that ancient lineage.

Later in the day, as we come into the finish line at Waikiki after more than five hours crossing the Ka‘iwi, I change out of the canoe for the last time. Climbing into the safety boat, the first cold beer hurts so good. It’s time to celebrate a great season—and a great race that saw the Bad News Bears place 16th in the field. We’ve trained hard all year, backed each other up and we’re proud of our results. To be able to participate in an experience like the Moloka‘i Hoe is what life should be all about—sharing passion, love and respect for each other and the ocean.

But for now we’re spent, and all of our families are waiting for us at the finish with heaps of food, more beer and some Irish whiskey. It’s time to party. Before long, time’s flying by—and then, just as usual, Manu O Ke Kai is the last tent left on the beach.

Photo: Tim Davis

The pre-race pule, or prayer, is always a chicken-skin moment, with a Hawaiian kahu asking for good conditions, protection for all involved and fast passage for all canoes. Photo: Tim Davis

Photo: Tim Davis

Lashing an ‘iako, or outrigger spar, to an ama, or outrigger float. Using cordage for the lashings is one of the rules set to retain the Moloka‘i Hoe’s traditional character. Photo: Tim Davis

Photo: Tim Davis

The Bad News Bears execute a mid-channel change. Each team is escorted by a boat carrying spare paddlers who work in shifts; six paddlers are in the canoe at all times. Photo: Tim Davis

Photo: Tim Davis

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Wilkinson. “But don’t let the laughter fool you. If you see an orange canoe anywhere near you, you’re in for a battle.” Photo: Tim Davis

Photo: Tim Davis

The last hard yards to the finish at Waikiki. Photo: Reo Stevens

This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 Patagonia catalog

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