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Outrigger Canoeing

When it comes to paddling sports – kayaking, outrigger canoeing and SUP – Hawai‘i reigns supreme.

Presented by November 20, 2015

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Outrigger Canoeing


Outrigger canoe racing is the official state sport of Hawai‘i, and an interscholastic high school team sport just like basketball or football. It’s also a very popular club sport for people of all ages, with 60-plus outrigger canoe groups around the Islands, both competitive and recreational. It’s not unusual to see someone leaving the office toting a paddle, headed to a late-afternoon practice.

            But for the people of Hawai‘i, outrigger canoeing is more than a sport or a hobby; it’s a cherished part of their cultural heritage. For outrigger canoes, you see, are the very first way any humans arrived in the Islands. They came in huge, oceangoing canoes from either the Marquesas or Tahiti; researchers still debate the origins. But we do know that the early Polynesians were incredible seafarers and expert navigators, and once they settled in Hawai‘i, they continued to use outrigger canoes for transportation, exploration, fishing and war. Their canoes were carved from sturdy wood, such as koa, but a modern wa‘a (canoe) is usually crafted from carbon fiber materials, though you will still see some wooden models around. That ama, or outrigger arm that curves off to the side of the canoe, is what helps stabilize it in the waves.

            If you want to try your hand – well, your arms – at paddling an outrigger canoe, there is no shortage of opportunities throughout Hawai‘i. Tour companies can provide everything from a quick, 10-minute wave slide in Waikīkī; to a family-friendly, one-hour tour of Kailua Bay on Hawai‘i Island; to a four-hour, challenging paddle out to Molokini Crater, off Maui.

Canoes seat six paddlers; the cool thing is that each seat has an important role to play. Seat six, for example, is the steerer, who provides direction and motivates the crew, while seat three is a “power” seat, and seat one sets the pace. The whole crew has to rely on each other. Just like a family.

If you want to watch some serious paddling, check out a race. The most well known are the Moloka‘i Hoe (hoe means “paddle” in Hawaiian), a 41-mile race from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu. That grueling event is the men’s world championship and the finish line is in Waikīkī. While much of the race takes place on the ocean, you can also watch a live feed, shot via helicopter, at www.molokaihoe.com/liveTV.html.

Every Fourth of July, the Outrigger Canoe Club, hosts the Walter J. Macfarlane regatta. At 72 years old, it’s the longest running canoe paddling event in Hawai‘i, and held in Waikīkī. The 2015 event saw more than 1,500 paddlers participating.