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Paddling in Maalaea Bay

February 6, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

When I told a younger friend – part Native-Hawaiian – that I was going out for a short paddling exercise, I was surprised when she said that she had never paddled on a canoe in her life. And she had grown up entirely on Maui.

On a recent Sunday I joined a group of youths and some friends on a short ride from the Kihei Canoe Club to the ocean beyond in Maalaea Bay. Like my friend, I had grown up (mostly) in Hawaii and never paddled in my life. Kalihi-Palama (and probably Wailuku or Haiku), just a few miles from the ocean, for many children and youth, is often remote from all kinds of ocean activities.

Before pushing the canoe into the waves, the group gathered in a circle to chant in Hawaiian. For myself, even if I am repeating the chant for the first time, I feel connected to Hawaiian culture and language. The youth group was training to enter canoe races in Canada, and some who had no Hawaiian blood recited the chants in a very moving way. Sports is not about winning nor losing, it is learning about respect, teamwork, and sportsmanship, plus history and culture, especially for a sport linked to ancient Hawai’i.

Pushing the canoe (it was a double-hull model) into the ocean was hard work. When the canoe hits the waves, one slips into the canoe, takes one’s seat, and then start paddling to one side or the other, depending on the lead paddler’s directions. What I realized was that I was sitting barely a foot from the water.

From the Kihei shore, the small brownish Kaho’olawe looks enticingly, tantalizingly close. In actual distance, the uninhabited island is only seven miles from Maui’s shoreline.

As the canoe travels further out, the waves become larger, as well. I accidently splashed water onto my spouse C.’s back and C. gave out shrieks.

I thought I was a fair, beginning paddler for an older individual, yet I could see that I would exhaust myself less than a third of the way to Kaho’olawe. Since the canoe is so low in the water, water splashes in easily, and so it is imperative to bale water out constantly.

Paddling is not easy as it looks.

Coincidently, just a week before, I met Kimokeo Kapahulehua (his Hawaiian first name, derived from Timothy, means to “Honor God” and his last name “refers to a drum made of lehua wood or, perhaps, to the drumming sound of lehua branches tapping each other in the wind” – very poetic and also reflects his evangelical powers).

During our short encounter Kimokeo*, an expert on canoes, ancient journeys, and Hawaiian culture, told me of the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society’s series of canoe journeys around the Hawaiian chain. The culmination was a when a crew completed a 480-mile, 73-hour journey through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, ending at Kure Atoll – the last leg of a six-year paddling epic. Our encounter of rolling waves at Maalaea Bay is insignificant compared to 10-foot high waves, spray and winds, and boiling heat. During one phase thirteen men and one woman paddled a six-person canoe in rotation for 28 hours.

Kure Atoll is at the far end of the northwestern islands of the Hawaiian chain – a distance of 1,380 miles, 55 miles west-northwest of Midway Atoll. Kimokea called remote Kure Atoll, a tiny outcrop of coral, the punana or geological "birthplace” of the Hawaiian island chain.

These intense challenging voyages tie together ancient history and geography via great athletic exhibitions of paddling through roaring ocean waves and pounding sun.

Of course people like spouse C. and myself are not embarking a voyage of over 1,000 miles. However, the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society’s great paddling expeditions are symbolic, defining "What is Hawai'i?". Through such epic feats, Hawai’i people are exposed to canoes and paddling, since by paddling in the water, a mile from whales** moving through the waves in Maalaea Bay (yes, the sight was magnificent in the wild, so much better than a computer game, salty pretzels and sugary sodas), one can feel the power and beauty of Hawai’i and gives rich, enduring meaning to our daily lives in the Hawaiian islands – except we have to get out to the ocean first.

*We talked about Kauai, his birthplace, the “unconquered” island, referring to King Kamehameha’s non-arrival with his forces to integrate Kauai into the new royal kingdom in the early 19th century. (Appropriately, one history of Kauai is entitled “Kauai: A Separate Kingdom”. Every dozen years a State legislator from Kauai threatens to take Kauai out of Hawai’i, since some Kauaians believe they are merely acting in the historical charade of a united Hawai’i.)

**Sitting in our canoes we chanted in Hawaiian for the whales: a mother whale and a baby whale rose up in the distance in front of us. We were very careful to keep our distance from the whales. After all, the ocean is the whales’ home, and we humans are merely guests.


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