[Cali Paddlers' roots are often embedded throughout the world's oceans. Our desire to paddle waters beyond our state often runs deep, as we venture to Hawaii, New York, Austrialia, Europe and well, just about everywhere there is water to experience the magic. We are grateful to Cali Paddler Alyson Jackson for sharing her recent experience in Hawaii on her crossing from Big Island to Maui. Enjoy this special journey as she connects with her roots and ancestry through paddling.]
In the darkness of the early morning, with a sliver of moon and an army of stars watching over us, we carefully set our canoes on the water at Kawaihae Harbor on the northwest side of the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. The time had come for thirty five paddlers from around the world, many of us total strangers who share a passion for Hawaiian Outrigger Paddling, to embark on a long awaited voyage from Moku ʻo Keawe (Big Island, Hawaiʻi) to Mokupuni ʻo Maui (Island of Maui).
Together, under the direction of Uncle Kimokeo Kapahulehua, Hawaiian Practitioner, nephew of David Kapahulehua (Captain of the first Hokule’a), and the subject of the documentary film Family of the Waʻa, we would paddle approximately fifty-four miles of Pacific Ocean crossing the Alenuihāhā Channel. Alenuihāhā translates to “great billows smashing”. It is famous for its significant wind funnel effect which characteristically results in high winds and large surf. It is the second largest channel in Hawaiʻi and is known as one of the potentially most treacherous channels in the world. This channel served as a training ground for the crew of the first Hokuleʻa, testing both the crew and the Hokuleʻa itself prior to its first great voyage to Tahiti.
This voyage had great personal and cultural significance for me. It was about more than a cool experience in beautiful Hawaiʻi and bragging rights of an epic paddling adventure. After all, it is no small task to paddle across this channel. It is an amazing feat and an extreme undertaking. To understand how much this meant to me you need to know a little of my background.
My name is Alyson Kapiʻolani Jackson. I am of Hawaiian-French Canadian descent, born and raised on Mokupuni ʻo Oʻahu (Island of Oʻahu). Hawaiʻi. My mother, Sally Maile (Pihana) Gow, is of Hawaiian ancestry, born in Ulupalakua, Maui. My grandfather, Eddie Fabian Pihana, is of Hawaiian ancestry, born in Kipahulu, Maui. My grandmother, Mary (Keliʻi) Pihana, is of Hawaiian ancestry, born in Kokoiki, on the Kohala Coast of Hawaiʻi Island. So, in these two islands lies the existence of my Hawaiian roots.
Other than quick layover stops on my way to O’ahu, having never left the airport, this would be my first real visit to Maui. To add to the excitement, I was not flying in an enclosed aircraft with windows the size of a notepad, thousands of feet in the air. I was paddling there in an outrigger canoe open to all of earth’s elements. I was traveling the way ancient Hawaiians, even my own ancestors, traveled for centuries. As some of my cousins would say, this was… heavy.
This voyage would touch me deeply. I could sense it. It was a unique opportunity to connect to my culture, my ʻohana (family), my kupuna (ancestors), my koko (blood) in a way that I could only imagine in my dreams. I knew it would be emotional but I was in no way prepared for the intensity with which it would hit.
This memoir is my attempt to record this incredible journey in detail so that I can revisit the experience at will and share its beauty with my ʻohana. The memory of it will be forever engraved on my heart and buried deep within my soul. This was a journey returning me to my roots. I was going home.
Many of us on the voyage had just participated in the Queen Lili’uokalani Outrigger Canoe Race in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, one of the biggest outrigger canoe races in the world. With my crew, I had raced the women’s 18 mile race on Saturday which consisted of one hundred nine women’s canoes on the starting line. On Sunday, I raced the mixed master’s double-hull, a 5-6 mile full speed sprint which is as physically demanding as a distance race! The luau celebration is on Sunday after the completion of all races and many paddlers were taken straight from the luau to the voyaging campsite at Kawaihae Harbor for an early Monday morning departure.
That night at the campsite, I slept on a wooden picnic table with my small airplane blanket as a sheet and my tiny airplane pillow under my head. Several other paddlers did the same. Some people had air mattresses or pool inflatables, some opted for a beach towel on the sand. We were scattered everywhere. It wasn’t comfortable but it had its own unique coolness, and comfort didn’t really seem important. It was part of the experience.
Sometime close to midnight the lights finally went out and we settled in for some rest. This was one time I wouldn’t have minded a little extra meat on my body for padding. My bones didn’t exactly agree with the table’s hard surface and my mind was acutely aware that if I rolled over, I’d roll right off. My okole (butt) had to take the brunt of it for the night. There was no deep sleep for me. I simply closed my eyes and allowed my whole body to relax, my breathing was deep, slow, and rhythmic as I rested. I couldn’t help but anticipate what was to come in the morning. I tried to quiet my mind.
The sound of the ocean was soothing, waves sometimes quietly lapping the shore, sometimes crashing on the shore. It had been so long since I’d spent a night at the ocean’s edge. It reminded me of summer nights so long ago when, as a child, my family would camp at Mokuleia beach on the north shore of Oʻahu. My grandparents, parents, aunties and uncles, cousins, brother and sisters were there fishing, playing cards, venturing in and out of the water, exploring the reef, eating fresh limu picked straight from the ocean, rinsed, and left in a bucket for us to snack on.
Our biggest adventure was an encounter with a shark coming into shore once while we were swimming. One of my uncles had caught an eel, skinned it, put the meat on the hook of his fishing pole, and stuck the pole in the shoreline allowing the ocean to wash through it. Clearly that shark was nearby and sensed an opportunity for a snack. All of us kids were in the water busily playing and swimming when suddenly we heard our Auntie Bobbie yelling on the shore and banging a large spoon on a frying pan. Initially confused, we finally realized she was yelling, “Shaaaaaark!!!” We all looked around and spotted the dorsal fin cruising in toward shore. The younger kids, myself included, weren’t far out and got to dry land easily. To this day, my brother contends that he outswam that shark by imitating Olympian swimmer Mark Spitz.
Some of the older kids were on our Tutu’s inner tube floating around. They had jumped off and swam to the reef nearby leaving the inner tube to float aimlessly just off the reef. Well, Tutu loved his inner tube and the shark is our ‘aumakua (guardian) on his side of the family. So, there he stood on shore, pointing to the inner tube and yelling to the older kids to go get it. Hah! Many people would not understand that but we did. My eldest sister, Leolani, was the eldest of all the cousins there and wasn’t about to go on shore to face Tutu without his inner tube. So, she jumped off the reef and went to get it.
Each one of us has our own version of this story, all funny, all dramatic. Many wonderful memories, this being one of the best! How I miss those days. It felt nice to sleep out in the open so near to the ocean again.
I’m pretty sure I was the first one to get up. It was 3:30 a.m., dark, still, and quiet except for the sound of the ocean. Everyone else still lay in their “bed” of choice and there was no movement. I used my phone for light and made my way to the bathroom to clean up and change into my paddling clothes. The anticipation and excitement was starting to really build. Soon, the lights came on, everyone woke up, and camp got busy. We gathered our belongings and started to clean up camp making sure we didn’t leave a mess behind.
Under the cover of darkness was a perfect way to begin this voyage. After the scurry of cleaning up camp and loading our belongings on the boats, the darkness offered a sense of calm, quiet peacefulness typical of the night. We gathered together near the dock and the silence was broken only by the sound of Uncle Kimokeo’s voice as he ushered us into our crews with our skippers and crew leaders.
Uncle has a commanding presence. He reminds me of my kupuna kāne, my tutu, my grandfather. Being in his presence is comfortable and familiar, taking me back to the days of my childhood when Tutu was still here on this earth, still strong, humble, and hard-working.
Both of my grandparents were fluent in ʻolelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) as is Uncle Kimokeo. To listen to him pule (pray) and address the group in our native tongue was a sweet blessing, like beautiful, familiar music to my ears. On his instruction, we repeated after him as he sang his mele (songs). He spoke of aloha and mālama for Ke Akua (God), for the waʻa (canoe), for ʻāina (land), for kai (ocean), for one another. He wanted us to be safe and smart on the water. His words generated excitement and an anxious desire to get started. By the time he was finished, I was more than ready to go!
We started out on the chase boats towing our waʻa behind us with one person in seats one and six to steady and steer the waʻa. At first, I was disappointed I wasn’t chosen to sit seat one for that. It sounded like fun. As I watched the waʻa bounce around on the wake created by the boat, I changed my mind and was relieved I wasn’t sitting in that canoe. Once, the waʻa bounced so high I thought surely the person in seat one was going to be tossed into the ocean. I appreciated the smooth, quiet ride on the chase boat that allowed me to get deep into my own thoughts.
As we left the harbor I could feel my heart begin to race. I realized I was really about to do this. I was in the moment fully, determined to take it all in, to record it in my mind’s eye, to connect deeply to every second and not miss a thing.
Some people laid back and took a nap, some visited and snacked. For a few moments, I just sat there staring out into the deep, dark, navy blue sky, studying the shape of the crescent moon, gazing at the twinkling stars, listening to the silence that was now interrupted by the purring of the boats motor. Even that sound brought me comfort. My eyes seemed to bore holes into the darkness. I searched for something the eye could not see.
My mind wandered to thoughts of my kupuna. Where are they? Do they see me? Do they know where I am and what I’m about to do? Are they proud of me? The answer would soon come. Not in the form of words, but in a feeling that would penetrate the depths of my heart and permeate my entire being in a way that would be undeniable.
Several minutes into the cruise to our starting point, a gentle rain began to fall coming in at an angle. It softly pelted my face. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back welcoming it. It was cool. It felt so good. I considered it a gift. Ka ua liʻi liʻi, a light rain, was one of many gifts that would unexpectedly bless our voyage. It felt like a greeting, like an acknowledgement of the beginning of our journey, acknowledgement that we were there, that we were coming. I was grateful for it. The first of many tears came to my eyes. They’re here. They know. I smiled.
Soon enough, ka ua quietly left us and the darkness began to recede. Ever so slowly and gently, ka lā (the sun) began lighting the sky and our path across the ocean. One of my crew mates, Chavon, wanted us to chant E Ala E to welcome the rising sun. How appropriate. Being the only Hawaiian in our crew, I wished I’d thought of it myself. With a dismantled kind of uncertainty, we followed her happy, enthusiastic lead.
It was a nice moment that made us all smile and lightened things up a bit for me. Chavon’s upbeat, friendly demeanor broke the ice and helped to balance some of the intense emotions I was feeling. I was reminded to enjoy this, to enjoy my crew and connect with them on some level as well. I appreciated her and made the effort to mingle and get to know my crew.
Ours was the first boat to arrive at the point where we would begin paddling. We sat and waited for the others to arrive. We visited, hydrated, and put some nutrition in our bodies. The first crew to paddle had been set.
I would be stroking in seat one to start. We had several steersman so when our crew leader, Cam, asked for a stroker, hands did not go flying into the air. I volunteered. Ali, a beautiful, sweet young girl (the baby in our crew) currently living in Maui was sitting seat 2 behind me, seat 3 was occupied by a nice woman whose name I shamefully cannot remember, and my awesome Aussie friend Steve was in seat 4. I had met Steve in Kona last year at the Queen’s race. He’s a great guy full of energy, positivity, enthusiasm, a very cool Aussie accent and lots of smiles! I was glad he was in my crew. Lara, who is a prominent leader in the paddling community in the UK and for the World Sprints was in seat 5, and Chavon was steering us in seat 6. Sweet, my crew was awesome!
The other crews soon arrived and it was time, time to climb into our waʻa and begin paddling. I jumped in the water, wallowed in it for as long as I could and then climbed into my seat. I looked around me, took a long deep breath, smiled, and then… I paddled. We paddled. Our voyage had finally begun.
We couldn’t yet see Maui due to the morning cloud cover but we knew its general direction. Our skipper Sid instructed our steersman to follow him. He would set us on our course throughout the voyage. The vast expanse of ocean before us was exhilarating! I thought of my family, I thought of many hoaloha (friends). I was paddling the waters between Hawaiʻi and Maui, the Alenuihāhā Channel. I was stoked. I was connected and it was all I could absorb. I was in heaven on earth.
We started with thirty minute pieces. The first half-hour seemed to be effortless and went quickly. We paddled with a smooth, relaxed rate. This was not a race. This was a voyage. The weather was beautiful. The morning cloud cover obscured the direct sunlight offering a cool respite which would not last all day. The waters were calm. The Big Island coast was stunning.
We paddled in a northwesterly direction inching closer and closer to the north end of the island, the Kohala Coast where my grandmother was born. We were moving toward it and away from it at the same time, our northerly direction pulling us toward the end of the island, our westerly direction pulling us away from the ʻāina out into the ocean and towards Maui. I was well aware of Kohala’s location and presence. My sweet, beautiful grandmother was heavy on my mind.
At the end of our first piece, we catapulted ourselves out of the waʻa into the crystal clear water. Each time we made a change, we took a couple minutes to swim and enjoy the water. I always wanted to take my time getting back on the chase boat. It was rejuvenating and so great to feel the water around me. I kept dipping my head under the ocean’s surface, allowing my eyes to search into the deep, deep blue beneath us. The sun shot beautiful daggers of light into the deepness. It was spectacular. This ocean goes down 7,000 feet. That’s a lot of water. As I lazily cruised along the surface toward the boat, it was hard to comprehend the ocean’s massiveness. I felt so small and strangely enough, that felt incredible.
As my crew rested on the chase boat and the other crew paddled, we watched. What I saw was sheer beauty. Beauty in the rhythm of their stroke, beauty in the rhythm of the ocean swells, beauty as Cam skated the canoe gracefully down the side of a massive swell. I can still envision that so clearly in my mind. There was beauty on the horizon as far as the eye could see and beauty in the clear, powder blue sky. I just saw beauty… everywhere. Although the ocean through the channel was calm that day, early on, we had some nice, big, rolling swells out in the middle. The kind that made the waʻa and the chase boat appear and disappear from each other over and over again as the swells rose between us. The kind I’ve watched in complete awe in paddling videos on You Tube or posted on Facebook. The kind I’ve wished to experience on Hawaiʻi waters for so long. It was breathtaking. It was mesmerizing.
My eyes shifted from the ocean back to the ʻāina, to Kohala’s coast. I watched as it grew smaller and farther away. I bid a fond aloha and farewell as it finally disappeared tugging at my heart. By then, Maui was in sight and the joy of it conflicted with the sadness of watching Hawaiʻi sink below the horizon. I shifted my focus and allowed the joy to take over. There was Maui, grand, stately, strong, and beautiful in the distance.
In our second piece I sat seat two. In our third piece, I finally got to steer. Ahhh, happiness! It was a beautiful thing to steer the wa’a and my crew out in the middle of this amazing channel. I shared some of my ‘olelo Hawai’i with my crew as well as a little of my ‘ohana’s history in these islands. I felt on top of the world, humbled yet proud and incredibly happy. Starting with seat one, I offered each crew member a chance to honor someone special that we would paddle sides for. We paddled for hoaloha, for ‘ohana, for kupuna. We paddled for love, honoring these people of our past and present who had impacted our lives. It felt like a celebration of not only our people but also our passion for the waʻa. It’s one of my favorite things to do. It was amazing.
We didn’t see any wildlife on this day other than ka manu (birds). I counted five times that I saw a single bird come into view, gracefully skimming the top of the ocean’s surface, sometimes just barely kissing it with its beak. It’s amazing how long they can simply glide with their wings widespread and still. I loved watching that.
At this point, after feeling so many deep emotions, I just felt pure joy. I thought I might be past all the emotion. Little did I know that the fullness of this experience had not yet manifested itself to me. For now though, I lost myself in joy and we continued to paddle, increasing each piece to forty-five minutes and decreasing it again back to thirty minutes due to the brutal heat and humidity that was starting to demand attention.
Ka lā was hanging above us now in its full glory, unobscured, and strong. The cloud cover had disappeared taking with it any chance for cooler temperatures. We tried to provide some relief for each other by skimming our paddles across the top of the water during the recovery phase of our stroke, splashing each other’s backs to keep somewhat cool and energized.
As we paddled along Maui’s gorgeous coast, we caught sight of the Island Kahoʻolawe! We could also see the Ulupalakua Windmills going up the mountainside in one neat vertical line, like obedient school children returning from recess to class. It felt like forever before we reached and finally passed them. Wow, this was unbelievably awesome in so many ways!
We had come in now, much closer to the ʻāina. The three crews and chase boats, which had each taken a slightly different path across the channel, were now in clear view of each other again. We had our eyes on the crew just ahead of us. They were making a change and we decided to kick it up a notch, finally passing them. We couldn’t resist a tiny bit of race adrenaline, I think because we could feel how close we were to the end. Nearing the end tends to make you want to push the pace. Our moment of triumph would be short lived.
Shortly thereafter, we would find out that their crew had slowed because some of the paddlers were starting to feel the effects of heat exhaustion. We made a quick crew change and soon after, received the call from Uncle Kimokeo asking Sid to get the paddlers out of the waʻa, back into the chase boat, and tie on the tow rope. For everyone’s safety and well-being, we would be towing the canoes in the rest of the way. Some of the crew expressed disappointment. I refused to let one negative thought enter my mind.
I’m not sure exactly where we were. Somewhere between those Ulupalakua windmills and a point called Le Perouse. Our final cruise into Maui on the chase boat had commenced and so had the intense closing moments of my experience on this voyage. I settled into a spot slightly separated from the rest of the crew who were busily chatting and eating. I needed to be alone with my thoughts now. This was my chance, my chance to just be there, to be fully present in this place, in this moment without having to focus on reach or rate or the rhythm of paddling with a crew of six people.
I was totally in tune with my surroundings, deeply connected to ke kai, to ka lani, to the incredible ʻāina that was Mokupuni ʻo Maui, to kupuna, to Ke Akua. Just as my eyes had searched and bored holes into the darkness at the start of our journey, they now searched the landscape that was gloriously stretched out before me seemingly within my reach. Koʻu maka, my eyes, drifted between ke kai, ka lani, and along the expanse of ka ʻāina, going back and forth between them repeatedly.
This ʻāina was so full of the mana of my kupuna, my ʻohana, I could feel it. It was powerful. It was almost tangible and the feeling became so strong I began to cry. My breathing had changed and the tears just flowed. At first, I tried to stifle it. Hard as I tried, I could not stop. Our skipper eventually noticed and sent a crew member, Karen, to check on me. I was kind of embarrassed. I was aware of people around me but was trying to be very still. I didn’t want to attract attention or create a scene. When I was able to communicate to her that I was physically ok and just overwhelmed by emotions, she hugged me tight and we talked for a bit. I appreciated her compassion. After a few minutes of easy conversation about Hawaiʻi and the beauty around us, she left me to my own thoughts again.
I moved down to the floor right against the side of the boat so people couldn’t see me as well and my emotions wouldn’t be as noticeable. The flood gates opened again. My senses felt heightened. I didn’t feel like I could see enough, hear enough, smell enough or feel enough. I wanted more. I knew that this was a brief moment in time and that I needed to soak it all in like a dry, thirsty sponge.
My eyes scoured the landscape. The mountains stood tall, strong, and beautiful. What I saw was so rich and it felt like it was calling to me. Patches of red dirt and trails along the mountainside made me think of my grandfather, a paniolo (cowboy) in his youth. I could envision him riding his horse on this land, glorious in his Hawaiian print shirt or maybe his white shirt with a bandana around his neck, cowboy hat he loved so dearly firmly placed on his head with his feathered band around its rim and his proud, beautiful smile.
I was in awe of the contrast of lush green mountainsides, patches of dry, red dirt and black walls of rugged lava that framed the bottom edge of the land against the blue of the ocean. It was a sight to behold.
Images of my kupuna came before me as if a reel was playing old home movies in my head. The water splashed my outstretched arm and the wind caressed my face. It felt like a message from them in the only physical form they could use to touch me. I didn’t try to stop the crying anymore. I succumbed to it. I embraced it. I let it flow freely through me. I knew then, without a doubt, that my kupuna had come to me. They were acknowledging my presence and they knew my heart was overflowing and open to them. They had now completely surrounded me and I was in the midst of their warm, welcome embrace.
It was a reunion of our hearts, our souls. We had been separated for so long and though the physical separation remained, our spirits had met once again with deep respect, joy, and love. I saw their sweet faces, their joyful smiles. Memories of them continued to flood my mind. I saw my grandfather, my grandmother, my Uncle Lucky… always my Uncle Lucky. I saw them all, my aunties and uncles, cousins, too many to name, kuʻu anelalani… my heavenly angels. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced.
Eventually, I got back up and sat on the seat. This time Sid came to me, our skipper. He put his arm around my shoulders and asked if I was ok. I told him I was. We talked about the powerful mana that was so strong in this place. He understood and that was comforting. We stared out at this beautiful island that was his home too.
Yes, my kupuna had come to welcome me and finally… I was home.
Sid returned to skipper duty, taking command at the wheel again to steer us into our final destination. A calm, peaceful feeling came over me. It was as if they knew our journey was ending and it was time for them to go. I was content. My precious time with them had been enough, an unforgettable gift.
I went to sit next to Steve who put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a little squeeze. We smiled.
We cruised past a place called Big Beach, which is where we were originally going to take the canoes to shore. Big Beach had big, pounding surf so we had to change the plan and continue on to a safer location.
As we closed in on our final stop, Molokini and Lanaʻi were in plain view. Wow! This was beyond what I dreamed it would be for so many reasons! I could not have been happier. In all the days of my life, I’m not sure I’ll ever be lucky enough to experience something this powerful, this beautiful again in quite the same way. This day, this journey… a treasure I will never, ever forget.
Ke Akua has blessed me beyond words. I am so grateful that the path of my life has led me to the waʻa and to this voyage. Uncle Kimokeo Kapahulehua is a true ambassador of our culture. He so generously shares his manaʻo and truly perpetuates the living culture, educating adults and children alike so that we can honor the past and carry the traditions of our kupuna into the future.
May you, Uncle Kimokeo, continue to bless and be blessed in abundance. The words of your mele repeat in my mind often taking me back to the beginning. ʻŌiwi kākou, kupa ʻāina…
Aloha nō na kupuna. Aloha nō Hawai’i nei. Until we meet again... me ke aloha pumehana.
Team Writer Alyson - Living in San Diego, Alyson has embraced outrigger canoe paddling as part of her Hawaiian heritage, and values how its impact is so much deeper than races and medals.
You can often see Alyson steering paddlers across the waters, and humbling sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm, paddling her OC1, or biting into a spam musubi at local paddle get-togethers.
If you have an idea for Alyson to write about or any questions, send it our way and we will pass it along!