Monday, June 22, 2009

Wa'a Kiakahi

Here's more on the sailing canoe race I attended on Maui at the end of last month. I was invited by the Ka'anapali Beach Resort to ride on an escort boat along the 30-mile route from Kahului Harbor west and then south to Ka'anapali in West Maui.

There were nine sailing canoes, known in Hawaiian as wa'a kiakahi, which means single-mast canoe.

Another type of Hawaiian sailing canoe is called a wa'a kaulua, which means double-hulled canoe. That's the same kind as the Hokule'a, the famous Polynesian voyaging canoe that has been retracing ancient routes that the early Hawaiians followed. In February 2011 it will embark on a two-year, round-the-world voyage.

The smaller wa'a kiakahi has spaces for six paddlers. Most of the teams had chosen lighter people, assuming that the wind would fill the sail and they'd just ride the waves in relative ease. But there was hardly any wind on May 29. The team from Kaua'i that won the race gambled and won by choosing heavier, more powerful paddlers for the nearly four-hour race. In fact, six out of the nine boats had to be towed by the escort boats in order to finish the race before dark.

The next day was devoted to educating the public about the canoes. Except for the fact that the hulls and arms are fiberglass , everything else about them is traditional. The parts are all lashed together with cotton cord, with knots that have been used for millennia by Polynesian sailors. In the old days, however, the sailors made their own cord.

Anyone who wanted could give paddling a try. Thanks to ace photographer Susan Seubert, I am immortalized in her photo, above. I had a blast -- for the first 10 minutes or so. How those paddlers can keep up that grueling pace for hours on end, I don't know. One guy told me that the longest his team had paddled in a race was almost 12 hours straight. And his team was the winner, so that was the fastest time!

The next morning, the nine teams were off again, on the next leg of the race, this time from Ka'anapali, Maui, to the island of Moloka'i, a trip slightly longer than the voyage from Kahului to Ka'anapali. Before they departed, all the paddlers gathered in a circle and held hands as the beautiful Makalapua Kanuha, pictured at right, performed a blessing and oli (chant) to speed them on their way.

And then they were off again. The teams expected to reach Moloka'i by lunchtime, earlier if the wind ever picked up. After resting, partying or whatever, the paddlers would return to their own homes and then return to Moloka'i in time for the next leg of the race, July 11, from Moloka'i to Kailua, O'ahu. The entire race, which began May 9 with a race from the Big Island to Maui, will not be complete until August 15. That's when the teams will race from Haleiwa, O'ahu, to Poipu, Kaua'i. And then finally, they'll hang up their paddles -- until the next race.

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