The second annual Olamau Unlimited Canoe Race came to an end Friday as Tahitian team Shell Vaa cruised across the finish line at Kailua Pier after three days of racing that covered more than 100 miles of Big Island coastline.
“This race is not for the faint of heart,” race director Mike Nakachi said. “It’s extreme and a rush for anyone involved. It’s just a killer race.”
Nineteen crews, 14 men’s and five women’s, battled through rain, intense winds, big surf and even water spouts with the motivation of a $50,000 prize purse at the finish line.
The teams paddled 38 miles from Laupahoehoe Point to Keokea Beach on Day 1, 27 miles from Keokeo to Kawaihae on Day 2 and a final 36-mile relay on Day 3 from Kawaihae to Kukio and then from Kukio to Kailua Pier.
“The Big Island is the perfect place to have this race,” Nakachi said. “What really makes it great is the dramatic coastline. To start from North Hilo and end in Kona is just crazy.”
The race also featured iron crews. Each team was allowed a maximum of 12 paddlers on the roster, but only six could compete in each stage of the race. The final day allowed one change at Kukio for the final leg.
Shell Vaa finished each leg of the long-distance race in first place, recording a cumulative time of 10 hours, 45 minutes, 38 seconds. Fellow Tahitian team EDT Vaa placed second (10:53:43).
Shell Vaa collected $22,500 of the total prize money — $15,000 for being the first overall men’s team and $7,500 for leading each day.
“The Tahitian programs are all unbelievable,” Nakachi said. “They really lead the world in this sport.”
Team Primo, the defending Olamau champions, did not participate.
Mellow Johnny’s, the top Big Island crew, finished third overall with a time of 11:07:16.
Pacific Wahine, which included mostly Oahu Paddlers, won the women’s race, finishing in 14:39:05. Na Hoa, an all-star team featuring paddlers from the Big Island, Oahu and Maui, placed second (14:46:34), and California’s 404 Simple Mobile Women took third (14:51:21).
“All the teams battled for the majority of the race,” Nakachi said. “If one team would pull ahead, all the others would respond. It was like two fighters trading body blows.”
On Day 2, Shell Vaa finished a mere 6 seconds ahead of EDT Vaa after 27 miles and many hours of racing.
“We were competing the whole day with the other teams,” EDT Vaa member Lono Mahiki Teururai said. “The winds were tough, but you just have to tell yourself to keep going even when your body is tired.”
Besides the length, what makes the race unique is that it features strictly unlimited canoes. This means that there are no restrictions to weight, length or design of the canoes entered.
Races sanctioned by 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. Unlimited canoes can be built to be as light as 180 pounds.
“It’s human nature to see how fast we can go and how long we can go,” Nakachi said. “Why restrict that? We love tradition, but if our ancestors were here, I’m sure they would be embracing change and innovation.”
Odie Sumi, founder of Pure Canoes, designed and hand made nearly 80 percent of the canoes in the Olamau field. He believes the future is bright for unlimited canoes.
“You can see participation in events like this growing not just locally in Hawaii but globally,” Sumi said. “We are trying to blend the traditional outrigger canoe with new technology in manufacturing and materials. There is still a lot of traditional woodworking going on.”
The Olamau saw entry more than double this year, and organizers hope to see participation grow in the years to come.
“The reality is that paddling needs to grow,” Nakachi said. “Last year, we had just 11 teams. This year, we had 24 teams in all and next year we hope to double that. The event will just keep improving and keep getting better. We are looking forward to it.”