Good luck everyone who is racing this weekend in honor of Queen Lili`uokalani. Knowing that you are all about to embark on such a special journey, I wanted to dust off and share my first time racing in Hawaii, and hope that you all have the same magical experience I did. When you come home, be sure to bring that amazing feeling back to California with you, so we can continue to pay respect to our paddling heritage and share with other Cali Paddlers how amazing an impact our sport can have.
I had the great privilege this last week to race outrigger canoe in Hawaii. Kona, on the Island of Hawaii/Big Island, to be specific. Paddling this season has been a very special part of my life as I have been exposed to beautiful culture, coastlines, competition, and companionship. The trip out there was a culmination of it all.
We arrived Wednesday night, September 2nd. We were greeted by Dan (aka 'Coconut', aka 'Eh Brah', aka 'RiceCooker') and his wife Kim (aka 'radical wahine who supports our club more than I will ever come to realize') who came bearing malasadas (donuts) and smiles. What a great way to start the trip. We headed to our house for the week known as Honu Hale (shown below, view from the lanai) because of its proximity to swimming turtles (honu) just feet away. Our oceanfront home was great for 11 of us as we shared kitchen, cleaning and miscellaneous duties, and let us bond together as we geared up for the race. Wednesday night, after Costco and grocery shopping and a spaghetti dinner, we settled down to sleep to the very loud sound of crashing surf which kept us pleasantly awake throughout the night.
Thursday morning, myself, the lovely wife Stefanie and Bong (That is my teammate Joe's nickname, and not its not from too much 420. Shown above with back to camera) all headed south on a mission to find more malasadas that we had enjoyed three years prior when Stef and I honeymooned in Hawaii. We cruised south to the town of Kealakekua and found the "bakery with the squeaky spring screen door" where we talked story with the local owner and drank the best coffee I have had in years. From there we went to Captain Cook monument and snorkeled. Bong had equipment issuse but managed to rent a new snorkel and join us in the water. Nothing epic underwater except a cool eel and puffer fish. There we headed further south and went to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau. Place of Refuge.
Talk about sacred and hallowed ground, this was a fantastic place to learn about Hawaiian culture and should be visited by everyone who cares about how Hawaiians used to live. The area was sanctuary for fallen but losing side warriors and those to who broke society's rules or offended the Ali'i (Hawaii royalty). If the person could make it to Honaunau before the warriors caught him, he or she would be spared their life. And reintroduced into society or the army of warriors. But if they fell short, they would be put to death. Think of it as playing a game of tag and home base...but with your life on the line. :)
Another reason this place was special this trip was because our races ended and started there. The women raced from Kona to there. The men swam to the canoes and then raced back to Kona. So as we lined up to start the race, us men need only look around and realize we were in a very special place. And we should be honored to be there paddling. Taking a painting class in the Sistine chapel, playing baseball in Yankee stadium, and recording a song in Abbey Road studios would be similar honors in my opinion.
After visiting the sacred grounds, and seeing a very old koa (wood) canoe that quite possibly carried King Kamehameha himself (the king who united the Hawaiian islands), I gathered the mana within to bring with me for the upcoming race. We did some more snorkeling, and then headed north to the registration rooms back in Kona.
Thursday night was pretty uneventful in terms of exciting stories. That night we had a bar-b-que at the house for friends and teammates of other canoe teams, and then settled into another night of crashing surf to lull us to sleep.
Friday, pre-race jitters starting to find me now, was more registration, canoe unloading and rigging. My training the last month, long distance paddles and race starts every mile that Coach Gus has graciously subjected us to, was great for the physical part, but my fluttery insides were unprepared to seeing canoes, paddlers and legends everywhere I looked. Some folks walking by me had paddled this race 30plus times. Others had won medals here. Others used it as a warm-up for even more challenging events in their lives. Me? I'm just some skinny blond haole who's been paddling for 7-8 months or so. I felt naked and exposed where ever we went as a green paddler, but everyone there also had aloha, and that really trumped any ego that could have made me feel small. In fact, because of the aloha everyone there had, by the end of the day, my paddle and chin were held high as I further realized how lucky I was to be a part of this community. The town of Kona was taken over by a smiling, paddle wielding stoke. And me and my teammates were a part of it!
That night, I didn't sleep so well. With the alarm set for 4am, thoughts of logistics, shuttles, canoe preparation, and of course the race itself with its inevitable pain dominated any space a dream might otherwise occupy. A very full moon rose over the ocean in front of me by the time my alarm went off.
That morning we found our canoe. There was a beautiful tea leaf lei on it that Stefanie and Kim had made the night before. Sometimes things just suddenly feel very special. At that moment, seeing the canoe...seeing the lei...the sky starting to break with sunlight and the moon still visible. I had arrived at the right place.
Canoes are very special. They are a vessel. They are historically a way to provide for one's family. They carried warriors. They carried royalty. They carried the first Hawaiians to these islands long ago on a journey that rivals any. Canoes (wa'a in Hawaiian, pronounced vah-ahh) carry the mana and soul and spirit of everyone who has ever paddled in it. They personify our ancestors, regardless of culture. I took the time that morning to spend time with the canoe, to place my hand along the manu; to trace the gunnels. I felt the coarse rigging against my fingers. The canoe pulsed. The lei continued to hang on the front of the canoe. A slight breeze shifting it in the wind.
Our crew eventually completed the morning time together as we helped the women's team (who would soon be paddling/racing down) prepare the bailers, the seats, the rigging. The sun was up, we went over to our wahine crew and their canoe. They were preparing as well. They had the same look of nervousness as I felt. Our hugs of good luck to them were heartfelt. Our team gathered to hold hands and form a lei around their canoe. Our Hawaiian pule (prayer) asked the gods of the land (aina) and sea (kai) for blessing was spoken slowly and sincerely. Our women pushed off. We headed to the shuttle which would take us to their finish line. To our beginning. As the wahine canoes pulled out, "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas was being played over the radio (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXtCTixWR3g&feature=related). That song will always be special.
[This is a continuation from Hawaii - Aloha & Honor (Part 1). Please read that before this post. Mahalo!]
Sitting on the shuttle bus from downtown Kona to our race start, I enjoyed the view out my window. A few picturesque shots here and there of the women's race. I squinted to see our wahine in the pack but they were all too far away to distinguish different teams. An older paddler was sitting behind me and a teammate who paddled for a club in Hilo. He was very friendly, and sported a salty pidgin dialect that kept me chuckling as he talked story of this and that. He offered us landmarks to look for on the course to show us how far we had gone. I asked him what some words in Hawaiian meant as we drove through different towns and through different streets. He was happy for the company and I was grateful for the distraction of my upcoming race. As we neared our destination he pointed out that the lava fields we were going through was, at one time, a battlefield in the days of King Kamehameha. "Imagine land dis rugged for one battle. Ova dea you die, you don't get found by nobody." At that moment the bus turned a corner and we were there.
You wouldn't think lava rock would be a comfortable place to lie down and relax...but it can be under the right circumstance. It was heavenly as I found a patch in the shade, using my camelback as a pillow. About 20 minutes into a little siesta where I was dozing on and off, thinking about what the women must be feeling like out there, I was asked by a teammate if I had "heard about the girls?" I sat up to see if I had slept through their finish. No canoes were in the water yet, so I grunted a "huh?"
A little background on our wahine in the canoe, it was a mixed bag of 3 Ikuna Koa girls and 3 girls from other teams to complete the sixfecta. Our 3 were Jaclyn, Sung, and Esther. You would be hard pressed to find 3 wahine in smaller frames that pack more heart and power then these ladies. They trained hard for this day. 24 mile plus paddles were common-place of late. Showing up early to each practice. Staying late to latch on to any advice the coaches and elder paddlers might share. These girls weren't here to just race and finish. They were here to compete, and represent our club to their best ability and I would be proud to have any of them in a kane crew.
Knowing that they took this day as seriously as I did, it was crushing to hear that their ama rigging had started to look less than ideal on their paddle out to the start line. Where the two iako (cross bars) meet the plastic ama (outrigger) a noise started to get louder and louder as the ama would swing side to side the farther out they paddled. Despite thorough checking prior to the race, something had gone wrong. Maybe it was the way the amas from mutliple canoes were stacked diagonally the night before or maybe it was just 'one of those things' but, while the iako's rigging was solid to the canoe itself, the rigging on the other side was raising concern for the ladies. They continued their paddle out and discussed their options. I wasn't there but can imagine the dialog, "Will it be ok if we just leave it?" "Should we try and re-rig here in the water?", "Can we head back and get it fixed before the race starts?" From my understanding, the girls each had a chance to speak their mind on their predicament and took a vote. Despite the race about the start, they turned around and headed to the beach for the safe option to correct the problem. The girls were crushed, but knew it was the right decision.
So you can imagine my surprise when I heard this news. Their canoe was greeted with concern on the starting beach by many helping hands to see what was needed. Our coaches got a call from spectators familiar with the team and sprinted back and, with the help of complete strangers who also saw them pull back in, re-rigged the ama portion. The girls pushed off again, but the damage was done. They had missed the start. The canoe's were barely visible on their horizon by the time they got back to the start line. Their race would be lonely and more challenging than imagined. But with frustration, adrenaline, and a lot of heart, they charged ahead. Determined to conquer what looked futile.
By the time this story was passed along to me, the loudspeaker was blaring at the women's finish line that the first canoe was arriving. "Here they come, paddling strong, Hui Lanakila with a time of..." This narrative continued as other canoe's started to arrive.
We felt helpless at the news of our wahine. But with the arrival of our female racing counterparts, we had to start scanning the horizon for the canoes we would be using in our race. The team I would paddle with gathered together and we took some time to talk to each other and had a mini pump up talk. We spoke of this honor we were about to embark, and how this culmination of our training efforts should be met head on and embraced. We were ready to do battle. Eventually we found our canoe paddled by the Hawaiian Canoe Club. The women looked tired but finished in a fantastic place and time. We felt this a good omen that our canoe had arrived so swiftly. They hopped out, and we jumped off "two-step rock" into the warm water to swim to the canoe, cautiously avoiding stepping on any of the fragile coral and limu.
After warming up in the hot sun, jumping in the water to refresh as more canoes pulled in we worked our way to what would eventually be the start line. Our other team-mates' canoe was nearby. That team was a masters team and the Ikuna Koa members were again 3 of the 6: Jeff (fellow novice), Dan (the novice coach) and Gus (the assistant novice coach and na opio/childrens coach). These three had paddled hard for the past 2 months training. One goal...today. Jeff, who originally signed up for the trip to spectate and cheer, never thought he would be ready for such a challenge, but with the hard work and coaching of Gus and Dan, he was more than ready. Dan is an animal on the kai and would pull water as hard as anyone could that day. Gus, steering the canoe was in his element out there with water knowledge and experience. But what really made this crew shine, was the beautiful KOA canoe they were paddling. Having registered for the previous several years with the box checked next to "if available would you like to paddle a koa canoe?" (ok im not sure thats how its requested but I am guessing) the honor to paddle in such a wooden canoe...Gus's stars aligned. And man was that canoe beautiful. We pulled alongside, gave shakkas, and sporadically looked back to the race course horizon.
As a few other canoes finished in the wahine race, we kept looking to hopefully see our girls. And then....they arrived!
Our wahine looked stronger then anyone should after 18 miles of paddling. And they weren't alone! They had managed to catch up to the vicinity of two other crews! Despite starting so late and racing the entire way alone they had made up enough ground to still be in the race. My teammate Jeff in the koa canoe, who's wife Esther was the kapena of the women's crew went from solemn and nervous to proud and boisterous. Both our canoes hooted and hollered and screamed to cheer them on. And in the last 1/4 mile, those wahine, with small frames but packed with heart and power, passed a canoe and finished. They had competed. I was inspired and more ready to race than any carb loading and restful nights could ever provide.
Our kane crews began to assemble at the start line with the other 132 teams. Our race was about to start.back to top
[This is a continuation from Hawaii - Aloha & Honor (Part 2: The Wahine). Please read that before this post. Mahalo!]
One would think that after the wahine race the tale would be over, but alas, I still have my duty of paddling to perform, as did the crew I was with and the master koa team. Oh, and 130 plus other canoes competing. So, how to sum it all up....after the jet skis and official boats zig-zagged in front of the long line of canoes and told us to back up, move forward, wait, and hurry up to the line...(basically everything short of doing the hokey-pokey) I think a flag must have dropped. Because the next thing I know, our seat 1 had started paddling and the canoe was moving forward along with the rest of the field. Oh, did I mention I was the seat 1?
So suddenly the canoes were all speeding north taking up several hundred yards of water from the coast to the sea. Water being churned, captains yelling commands, teams bumping into each other, other teams turning to avoid each other. The usual first quarter mile race chaos. And there we were, in the mix with the island of Hawaii on our right and the world's largest ocean to our left. The water churned a little less violently beneath us as our crew settled into a more sustainable pace and rhythm. 17.75 miles to go until we finish.
Lining up for the race start
Our crew was made up of mostly malihini, (Hawaiian for new-comer), novice paddlers. However, at the kapena (seat 6/captain) position, we were very fortunate to have Dave Bloom steering us. Having steered this race before, as well as raced it from seat 1 another year, his experience was invaluable as our green paddling status would make this a rough go without some wisdom to keep us in check, motivated, and paddling each stroke as one solid unit. As malihini paddlers, our racing distances all year were 6 miles at most, so to jump up into the big leagues and 'power on' for 18 miles would be a substantial jump. Not to mention the crews we were racing against consisted of some of Hawaii's top paddling clubs. So, we did not expect any crazy top place finishes. We were there for the experience, and to paddle as hard as we could as a team, and hopefully finish in a way that those giving us their kokua (support) back home would be proud of.
That all said, it didn't take long for me to lose grip on the euphoria of everything and have lactic acid take its place. I had been training hard the last several weeks, paddling distances non-stop up to 26 miles back home in San Diego. But there is never a substitute for a race, and while all that training helps you a ton, it doesn't take the pain away...as I learned from a few previous races...it only lets you deal with the pain longer while you continue to perform at a high level. I was dealing with it at that moment and would be for a while to come still. :)
And the race has begun. Over 130 canoes participated in this years kane' (men's) race.
Canoe racing is interesting because making up a huge distance is very difficult. It's not a sport of insane surges and jockeying for position. It's a gradual pull away from the competition. A lulling into security that the canoe in front of you really isn't getting smaller, when in fact it probably is. I had a rate of around 60 strokes a minutes going into our 4th mile and the field had stretched out. Many canoes were in front of us. Several around us, and I wouldn't know until the finish who, if anyone, might be behind us. As a paddler, you look forward. Not to the side, and certainly not behind you. Stay centered. Stay focused. Stay strong. And in my case being in seat one, STAY IN TIME! The front seat (the stroker) can't go off of the paddler in front, so they work with some sort of internal timing machine or favorite song to keep the stroke rate equal on both sides as well as try to give ample reach with every stroke for the power seats behind him or her. Having sat behind some quality seat 1s in my first season (my teammate Marty and the afore-mentioned Dave Bloom), I had good examples to follow today. But I still wondered with each return motion if that last stroke was long enough? Is my my rate too slow? Did I catch enough water on that last pull? Should I-
"HUT!" [stroke] "HO'E".
The crew bellows out the call to change sides. I am left to ponder my questions again, now on the other side. All the while looking straight ahead at a pack of canoes and charging through the swell-filled water.
Around mile 6 was the last time I recall seeing the masters koa crew from our team in front of us. We had dropped a few surges in to try and make up some ground with them, but as each surge would end, we dropped back down in speed and their canoe would chug along...very very gradually getting smaller in front of us in a pack of about 6 other canoes. They were a strong bunch, and while I would have liked to have been alongside them, I was proud of their power and experience prevailing ahead up. Rivalries and competition are nice n all, but in a canoe, the battle with me is usually internal, and I am sure each of the crew I was with had their own internal battles being waged to continue pulling hard and staying focused.
At 30 minute time slots, our kapena called out seat by seat opportunities for very short water breaks. I had been training all season to not take water breaks; so I would not be overly dependent on them come a race. You never know if the straw from the Camel-back might malfunction, not to mention not paddling makes the canoe slow down and is a detriment to the timing. However, in this setting, I was grateful and looking forward to each water break, and would greedily power a few gulps before hopping back into the rate of the paddling again. Maybe wipe away that bead of sweat on my forehead that had been annoying me for the last 20 or so minutes. Once I was back in time, the next seat behind me would get their opportunity to miss a few strokes. I would come back in extra hard, to earn the little break I had just been given, and hope I didn't cost the canoe too much time.
There is a challenge when paddling to stay focused and to remember the core values we were taught early on and will spend a lifetime trying to master. Each stroke trying to:
"Get good reach!"
"Power up front!"
"Pop and Glide!"
"Watch your timing!"
I didn't have someone yelling to remind me this time of those valuable insights with each stroke, and as the race wore on, my internal voice would start to get a little quieter as it struggled to remind me of what my coaches had taught me. That is why staying focused is so important. Getting "lulled into sleep" where the paddle stops pulling as hard, catching as much water, and slowing down the rate, is a constant song of the sirens (Greek mythology people) to resist. As seat one, you have a battle to maintain your own rate, for the sake of everyone behind you. If you slow down, stop pulling as hard, or compromise how far you reach, a chain reaction will follow and next thing you know, the canoe, as a whole, is slower. No pressure or anything. So staying focused is key. And a good crew and kapena can help each other with that. Random encouragements being yelled out ("way to go seat 3!"). Reminders ("Keep the timing solid!"). Even blatant calling out of a seat ("Get that rate up seat 1 don't fade out now!"). I think I deservedly heard that one at least once.
The crew I proudly paddled with. Myself, Brad (guest paddler from Oahu), David, Fred, Bong, Dave.
I learned back in my running days that any distance race has different parts to it that present unique physical and mental challenges. The hardest in my opinion was always when you were coming up on about 3/4 finished. The race is in the second half, fatigue is fully setting in, the finish is nowhere in sight, and it's too early to get any finish-line adrenaline. Well in this race I started to feel that tough part right on cue. The canoes were all very stretched out now. We were in no-man's land, no canoes pressing from behind to motivate. The pack ahead, while having settled in to our same speed and not pulling away, was not getting any closer. We were on an lonely island on in the sea, and even the thought of an upcoming water break was little solace to keep me focused....around that time I started to really dig deep inside me and pull on some support I knew was being sent my way.
I started to think of all the teammates of mine back in San Diego who would have loved to be a part of this honor. How many times I'd leaned on them this season without them knowing it when I would start to hit a wall in a race. I thought about them in the canoe behind me. Sitting in front of me, on the shores screaming for us. These teammates (hallucinations are cool huh?) started occupying my thoughts with each side. I decided at some point around mile 12 or 13 (about when I felt like leaning right was maybe a good thing. 'Paddling joke, leaning right is the cardinal sin and will lead to a huli/flip') that I would start dedicating sides to some folks back home. Shortly after I started doing this though, the paddle got a little lighter. The water moved a little more efficiently, and I would get a restored strength. As one side would conclude and I'd feel pretty tapped, I'd switch and start with a new person. Saying their name to myself with each pull.
The last two years of challenges and triumphs has taught me many important lessons I hope to never lose sight of. Leaning on the support of those who care about me, especially when things are at their darkest is the most valuable lesson of them all. In that canoe, I embraced this lesson and really felt the mana and support of many as we paddled forward. After several sides of dedication to teammates back home, I dug deeper. I started pulling for some folks who wouldn't be greeting me home in San Diego anymore, having passed on to a new home up above. Uncle Pierce dis side for you. Uncle Dave mahalo for the strength. Ga-ga, I got choo here. Dad, I'm pulling hard I promise. My arms were numb. My paddle was heavy. Up ahead in the distance, I saw some radio towers and a great big hotel which marked our finish. A few miles to go still and they would hurt just as bad as the previous miles - if not more. But we'd make it just fine.
Information on this beautiful piece He Noho Kou I ko'o Wa'a (Paddler) is available here. I found this painting on cards two days after my race and was very moved by the appropriateness of them.
Now if there is one thing about canoe race finish lines I have learned in my rookie season, is that they are never as close as they look! I don't know if it is the heat off the water skewing the horizon, or just delirium setting in, but this race was like being on an escalator and walking backwards. I kept focusing on the tea leaf lei on the front of the canoe though that Stefanie had placed there for us. Man that lei looked beautiful. Eventually, we would make it. My crew and I had incorporated a finishing vigor. We were close. Pretty soon the sweat that had pooled on our foreheads, dried and re-pooled again repeatedly could be wiped away. We'd get to lean back in our seats with arms on the gunnels, paddles stowed between our legs and collapse. And you can bet each of us did just that as we crossed two buoys with a crowd on the pier screaming in a frenzy. The voice on the loudspeaker encouraging our canoe, "HERE COMES...IKUNA KOA!"......"Holy crap that's us!" I thought to myself. We'd finished. Nobody had bonked (when a paddler pretty much falls apart). And through the slits of what used to be my eyes, I looked behind us for the first time in well over 2 hours and saw there were canoes still finishing behind us.back to top
[This is a continuation from Hawaii - Hawaii - Aloha & Honor (Part 3: The Kane). Please read that before this post. Mahalo!]
Finishing the race as we did was a fantastic accomplishment and one that I will consider a highlight of my trip. But note that I said "a" highlight because a few events would still unfold that were right up there in terms of special-ness.
Ikuna Koa Single Hull Race Finishers
An hour or so after the race, we were sitting up in Uncle Dan and Aunt Kim's room overlooking the race site. We were covered in dried sweat, heavy in the arms, and talking about each one's experience a little while back. One common quote, "Man I thought we would never get to the finish hotel. It never seemed to get closer!" Apparently I was not the only one feeling like we were paddling to stand still as the big hotel by the finish line loomed on the horizon. At one point, as we were eating star fruit and spam musubi that Esther had made the night before, I turned to Uncle Gus and asked what he thought the chances were of his team having medaled. He replied with an "awwwhh brah" and side to side head shake that indicated "come on man - what you thinking? - we didn't medal". Soon however, as we were walking outside to our cars, Uncle Buli, his paddling kumu (teacher and guide) from Maui and someone I was very honored to meet, hollered over to Gus, "eh brah, you get gold medal!"
Man talk about being proud of my teammates. As I have mentioned before, Jeff, Dan, and Gus (the three Ikuna Koa padlers in their canoe) trained harder than any of the kane' for this race. They paddled long each workout. They hammered the whole way. And they did enough race-starts (painful workout technique) in mid-workout to fatigue even the most seasoned paddlers. And to see their efforts be rewarded with this race finish...just felt right. Jeff, who only signed up originally to go watch and cheer. Dan, who pulses waterman blood with medals in paddle boarding and surfing, yet is more ha'a ha'a (humble) than anyone you'll meet. Gus, the guy who has wanted the honor of steering a koa canoe in Hawaii for years and enabled this whole trip and experience for us. After 3rd place and 2nd place were called, the announcer then read off the place and team name. "First Place" ... "Ikuna Koa!" Our team name sounded so sweet. The translation of "Victory and Strength" has never sounded so appropriate and I am sure those there who spoke Hawaiian and Tongan agreed. In addition to medals though, in their eyes, the canoe was honored.
Koa Masters 1st Place
The next day, after a night of hanging out in downtown Kona, taking part in the torch parade (all the paddlers carry torches through the town for spectators to see) and stumbling through our weariness from a day of sun and racing, we again assembled at the race site. This time for the double hull races. Imagine a canoe, and strapped alongside in place of an ama, is another canoe. 12 paddlers all in perfect time (in theory) paddling all out for 5 miles. It is intense.
We were entered for co-ed double hull that day at noon. Our wahine and kane would get the honor of paddling together to finish the racing portion of the trip. Nobody took the race as serious as the day before as this would be a fun paddle....at least, that was before the flag dropped and the race began...but I'm still getting to that. You see, we were one wahine paddler short of fielding an eligible team.
If only we could find someone naive enough to subject themselves to 35 minutes of grueling pain. To race in the middle of the hot day. Enter my lovely wife. With no paddling experience and no idea how much the race might hurt to make her regret the decision, Stefanie agreed to be our twelfth paddler and complete our double hull ohana. She realized this was an opportunity that was special and an honor to be asked to partake in, not to mention we needed her to be eligible. She also had her concerns quelled from Uncle Gus that she would not be a detriment to the team and cause us to lose due to her experience. So with a crash course in paddling 1 hour before the race ("this end goes in the water...", ok not that bad but we did have to teach her some basic technique and changeover stuff) and everyone on the team very very very supportive, Stefanie donned a red jersey and completed our team.
Stefanie and Kim. Our amazing supporters the whole time!
The double hull race was painful. In fact it hurt so bad for me that I swore off paddling for the first 15 minutes of the race with each stroke. My efforts from the previous day's race were felt with each twist and pull of the paddle and somehow this hurt just as much. The first few miles were bumping and jostling as 35 canoes sprinted out of the starting line very close to each other and the kapenas were struggling to control twice the canoe they were used to with twice the engine. The water was a choppy mess with all the paddles entering. As we came upon the halfway mark of the race, and turned at a few buoys to return home, the pain subsided a bit and my body had gotten warmed up. Around us were a few canoes and suddenly it became a full on race to beat those nearby. With our 1st captain Gus and 2nd captain Esther leading from the rear, and 2.5 miles to go, we began the mad sprint dash to the finish line. Not knowing how many canoes may be behind us (if any), I looked at the ones beside us being essential to beat.
We sprinted home. Members of our canoe yelling encouragement as we paddled. Our captains yelling instructions. Each person vital to passing and holding off the competition. Man what a feeling adrenaline can generate. I went from tired, sore, and ready to jump out of this double rigged contraption and swim home to San Diego to digging harder and stronger and feeling every bit of energy I could muster being greedily pulled into my paddle. Our canoe was flying and the finish line was close by. We were racing alongside Team Shonan from Japan. Uncle Dan had told us great stories of how much respect that team felt for the culture of Hawaiian outrigger canoe. Being next to them was special in itself. And we were racing them for the finish. In the end...
1 Team Steinlager 28:39
17 Ikuna Koa 33:49
18 Keola O Ke Kai 33:51
19 Shonan Outrigger 33:53
31 --- --- 39:14
We finished right in the middle of the pack. And the honorable teams we were battling for the finish line, we eeked ahead of just barely....in large part to every person in our canoe digging deep within themselves and leaving all they had in the canoe! When we finished the race, I looked over my shoulder and saw in the back of the canoe the most exhausted, sweaty, beautiful and grateful paddler I have ever had as a teammate. This was a very special moment for me that I still get emotional thinking about as I type this. From the biggest paddling fan and supporter a husband could ask for to paddling in Hawaii with me in a race (and according to Esther and Gus "did pretty good") Stefanie had completed, and competed, the 2009 Queen Liliuokalani Mixed Double Hull race.
She promptly retired when we got back to shore. :)
The rest of our trip was kind of a wind down from the excitement. Stefanie and I spent the last day with the team cleaning up the house, packing, and saying mahaloz and good-bye. We were all so grateful for the bonding experience and honor we shared. The last morning before we all went our separate ways, everyone took took the beautiful leis we had been wearing the day prior and gave them gently back to the ocean. Individually pulling off the flowers and placing them on the ocean's surface at the beach by our hale (house). Giving back to the aina (land) and the kai (sea) what they so selflessly gave to us.
Giving it back
Our hugs good-bye to everyone were heartfelt and long. We closed the car doors, and slowly drove away to see what the other half of the island might share with us for two days before we flew back home to San Diego.
Clarke, Mark, Kahuna at Momi's family waterfalls
Fresh coconut, does it get any better?
The first of the days was spent with friends in Hilo who made every effort to make us feel welcome and loved. Stefanie and I were escorted by our friend Mark to many special places, to see old beautiful wa'a (canoes) being restored, and huge fallen koa trees that were destined to be beautiful canoes someday. We were invited into home's of his friends for food and story. We were given fresh grown pineapple and enjoyed the company of Mark and his lovely wife Momi (Pearl). These are two very very special people. Mark introduced canoing to me several years back and thereby lit a fire within. The ancient sport had come full circle for me as I got to share with him my enthusiasm and passion for canoe that he had instilled in me. We were taken to a special place on Momi's family land with a beautiful waterfall. An honor both Stefanie and I will always cherish. After swimming in the waters and climbing back up the rope ladder to the top area, Mark grabbed a machete from his truck and cut open the freshest, sweetest coconut imaginable for us to drink and eat on the pali (cliffs) overlooking the ocean.
Looking small next to a koa tree
Koa canoe restoration and building
Leaving town the next day, we found a cool building on the side of the road with a sign that read "wood carvings". I am a big fan of artisans and this man's workshop surrounded us with beautiful honu (turtles), waves, candle sticks, dolphins and paddles he had carved from koa over the years. His daughter worked the register and together they told us about their family business tucked away off the main roads and tourist traps. They kindly helped a local boy who wanted to buy something for his mother's birthday. Stefanie and I did some special last minute gift shopping with them and left gratified knowing we had stumbled on a special place.
Our last day was spent on the top most portion of the island, North Kohala. My friend and former co-worker Cheri moved there with her son and had invited us to come stay. We went on some wonderful hikes, enjoyed the company of her and her family, and ate breadfruit French fries for our last Hawaiian meal.
In the end, as we flew back to San Diego, I was tired but fulfilled. This trip was a climax of my outrigger season. A season that opened up new friendships. New appreciation of Hawaiian culture. New challenges. I was fortunate to have been able to go to Hawaii to have it all peak for me in one week. I try not to take opportunities like this for granted. And I promise I will continue to spread aloha in thanks for the gifts I was given. So to all of you reading this...please do the same next time you are in Hawaii...
- Think about those who have been there long before our modern fiberglass canoes entered the water.
- Think about honoring a koa canoe when blessed to travel in one with 100% effort as our master crew did.
- Think about finishing a race with honor, despite unfortunate and daunting circumstances, as our wahine did.
- Think about looking back in a canoe at teammates you just shared something special with, knowing each person feels aloha and gratitude.
Then when you are done. Say "mahalo".
Team Writer Clarke Graves - If there is water, he will paddle it (regardless of craft). Clarke is a surfer turned paddler who grew up in San Diego but has traveled every corner of California enjoying its beauty and appeal. He has had the privilege of racing SUP, OC6, OC2, OC1, Prone and can't wait to hop into a dragon boat and surf-ski for an extended length of time.
One of Clarke's goals is to paddle as much shoreline in California as he can, with as many paddling friends who are willing to join him. If you have an idea for Clarke to write about or any questions, send it our way and we will pass it along!