Canoe race brings new technology to ancient sport


Note: The figure in the first sentence was corrected to $50,000. The figure in the earlier online version and print edition is incorrect. It is the policy of West Hawaii Today to correct promptly any incorrect or misleading information when it is brought to the attention of the newspaper.

A new approach to outrigger canoe paddling is catching up to tradition on a grueling proving ground: the 100-mile, three-day, $50,000 Olamau canoe race.

For decades, paddlers racing six-man canoes in Hawaii have been limited to competing in 400-pound boats for bragging rights and nothing more. The longest race in Hawaii, the annual 42-mile men’s Molokai Hoe and women’s Na Wahine O Ke Kai, is contested by nine-person crews changing out three paddlers at regular intervals.

A Hawaiian team hasn’t won the men’s race since 2005. Since then, every team has been fighting for second behind Tahiti’s Shell Vaa.

“In all of Tahiti — French Polynesia — you have a total of 180,000 people and the three best teams in the world,” said Mike Nakachi, Olamau 2013’s race director. “In West Hawaii, with 60-something thousand, why can’t we have 15 of the best paddlers?”

Even the best young paddlers in Hawaii have but one avenue to a career in paddling: making or selling canoes or paddles.

“Why can’t these guys be professional paddlers, like America’s Cup sailors, like Kelly Slater in surfing?” he asked.

Nakachi hopes the Olamau race, held from June 12 to 14, will help change that. Olamau, meaning “live strong” or “strong life,” is a nod to a main sponsor of the West Hawaii paddling crew that hosts the race, formerly called Team Livestrong. The team changed its name to Mellow Johnny’s, after sponsor Lance Armstrong’s Austin bicycle shop, following his fall from grace and subsequent split with the Livestrong Foundation.

Last year’s inaugural race, the first multiday “iron” (no water changes) race in Hawaii, went from Maliko to D.T. Fleming Beach Park on Maui, Fleming to Kaunakakai on Molokai and Kaluakoi, Molokai to Waikiki, Oahu.

This year’s course is all Big Island: Laupahoehoe to Keokea June 12, Keokea to Kawaihae June 13 and Kawaihae to Kamakahonu June 14. The teams of 12 paddlers will alternate legs, with each six-person crew paddling one 38-mile and one 18-mile leg.

Unlimited canoes

The Olamau race is unique in that it is geared entirely toward unlimited canoes; races sanctioned by the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association mandate a minimum hull weight of 400 pounds, based upon the lightest possible weight of a traditionally built six-man koa canoe.

HCRA regulated hull shape and weight in 1977 after Te Oropaa, a Tahitian crew, dominated the 1976 Molokai race paddling Tere Matai, a canoe the likes of which had not been seen in Hawaii. The hull featured reinforced balsa-core construction and a shape totally distinct from the fiberglass Hawaiian canoes of the time, the shape of which were derived directly from the koa canoes of old.

Unlimited canoes, also known as open canoes, can be made as light as 180 pounds, and several Hawaiian Islands builders are eagerly awaiting more races to showcase the lighter hulls.

“We’re just trying to push the sport with the unlimited class,” said Pure Paddles and Pure Canoes founder Odie Sumi, who so far has built about two dozen unlimited canoes.

“We can make the races longer, we can make them more challenging; we can make the canoes faster and lighter — so we can achieve 100-mile races. Molokai is 42 miles; it’s one day and you’re done.”

Luke Evslin, a co-founder of Oahu-based canoe builder Kamanu Composites, agrees: “We need more races of this format that make use of this style of canoe. The progress made in open canoes in the last four years is equivalent to the progress traditional canoes have made in the last 40.”

He said he hopes Olamau and other unlimited races will lead to a change in HCRA’s rules. The Paddling Athletics Association has staged the Eono iron race, featuring an unlimited division, from Kaluakoi, Molokai, to Waikiki since 2010; other Hawaii races have featured unlimited canoes, but the lightweight hulls are not sanctioned by HCRA or the Oahu Canoe Racing Association, host of the Molokai Hoe.

Evslin predicts that will soon change.

“What ultimately has to happen — what can and will happen — is OCRA will change the format for Molokai, probably first by adding a six-man iron division instead of doing water changes all day,” and adding an unlimited division, he said.

He said if unlimited racing takes hold, most races will end up under the umbrella of existing organizations.

Sumi said whatever the path, the ultimate goal for unlimited racing is progress.

“The essence of unlimited paddling is taking away restrictions, allowing backyard builders or full-time builders to build what they want and race it, test it.”

Ironically, Sumi has shipped many of the unlimited canoes he’s built to places where outrigger paddling is centuries newer than in Hawaii. “It’s already taken off around the world,” he said. “I ship them all over — Hong Kong, Japan, California.”

Nue Youderian, whose grandfather helped revive Kailua-Kona’s Kai Opua canoe club after World War II, said he wants to see Hawaii embrace unlimited canoes.

“Hopefully, our local canoe clubs can experience what we’re doing with these canoes,” he said.

To those afraid to let go of the tradition of 400-pound canoes, Nakachi has this to say:

“If Kamehameha was around today — he brought cannons into his fight, he brought rifles into his fight, muskets into his fight — he would want to push the technology of the canoe.”

Beating the Tahitians

While Team Primo, the last team to beat Shell Vaa in the Molokai Hoe, won last year’s Olamau in a field of all-Hawaiian crews, this year will be different: the Tahitians are coming. Nakachi said teams Raimana and EDT — Tahiti’s current champion — have already committed, and he’s in talks to add Shell Vaa. In Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia, many races feature a format and distance similar to Olamau’s.

“They’re doing the Havaiki Nui, the Tahiti Nui, a long list of marathon events all year,” Nakachi said. “When they come for the Molokai Hoe, they’re on fire.”

Mellow Johnny’s, which finished second last year as Team Livestrong, is hoping to give the Tahitians a run for their money.

Thibert Lussiaa, Mellow Johnny’s coach, said in the Polynesian tradition of sharing, he wants to show Tahitian coaches who have helped him that he can give their charges a fight. Despite decades of Hawaiians and Tahitians swapping information about technique and equipment, the last three Hawaiian crews to finish in the top three at Molokai were all 12 or more minutes behind Tahiti’s Shell Vaa.

“It took them 30 years to figure out how to win consistently in Hawaii, and they’ve been sharing a lot of information with us,” he said. “It’s our duty to honor them sharing with us to bring up Hawaii to that level — to honor the people who gave us this knowledge.”

But to get to that point, the paddlers of Mellow Johnny’s have to paddle and cross-train week in and week out. Lussiaa said the regimen consists of nine hours a week paddling the course’s legs, an hour running three days a week and an hour weightlifting twice a week, in addition to whatever time crew members paddle on their own and with their respective clubs.

Mellow Johnny’s paddler Jeff Silva said beating the Tahitians, if it happens, is a function of that commitment.

“If you want to beat the best, you have to train like the best,” he said.

A professional sport

While other races have featured unlimited canoes or an iron format with no water changes, none featured a prize purse.

Nakachi said the prize money is partly to draw elite crews from around the world, which may draw media attention outside Hawaii, and eventually bigger sponsors into canoe racing, allowing it to become a professional sport.

“It’s been very traditional, very cultured, which is good, but it costs so much money to be a paddler, and there’s no reward,” Mellow Johnny’s Silva said. “The purse is not the objective, it’s getting the attention of sponsors.

“I’d like to see Olamau become the first step of taking paddling to its own professional sport.”

Paperwork and fees for the race are due by May 1. For more information, visit olamaurace.com.