As thousands of paddlers from around the world converge on the 50th State to participate in some of the sport’s most prestigious competitions, don’t be surprised if the “D” word is bandied about with regularity.
“D,” as in dynasty, that is, as Tahitian powerhouse Shell Va‘a (10 wins in 11 years) and Hawai‘i super-squad Team Bradley (nine wins in 11 years) look to supplement their dominant runs in the men’s and women’s versions of the long-standing Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu outrigger canoe competitions.
Canoe racing has expanded to reach a worldwide audience of both participants and spectators, and that convergence of cultures and innovative approaches to canoe racing will be on display at the 39th Annual Hawaiian Airlines Na Wahine O Ke Kai on Sunday, Sept. 27. The 41-mile race, which is often regarded as the “Super Bowl” of outrigger canoe paddling, spans from Hale O Lono Harbor on Moloka‘i to the beach fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki and gets underway at 8 a.m. with the first canoes scheduled to finish around 1:30 p.m. The grueling women’s race runs through the Ka‘iwi Channel, which in Hawaiian means “Channel of Bones” in reference to the ominous ocean and weather conditions that make crossing the expansive body of water extremely dangerous.
Two weeks later, on Sunday, Oct. 9, the men will take their turn across the channel via the 65th edition of the Hawaiian Airlines Moloka‘i Hoe. The Moloka‘i-to-Oahu races are expected to draw more than 100 crews and over 1,000 paddlers apiece from the sport’s hotbeds including Tahiti and Hawai‘i as well as across the United States — from California to New York — as well as Europe, Asia and Australia.
Lanikai Legacy Lives On
Growing up in Kailua just steps away from world-renowned Lanikai Beach, it’s fitting that brothers John and Jim Foti would go on to excel as competitors on the ocean.
The brothers recall being able to whistle and summon some of “the best paddlers on the planet” who lived within blocks of the Foti house.
“Growing up in Lanikai, we were so blessed and so lucky to be living across the street from the beach,” said John Foti. “My parents and our brother and sister were paddling too, and we had access to all sorts of water toys – it was just a natural fit. You don’t know any better, and the next thing you know, you’re part of it.”
The siblings also found a common ground as teammates in the canoe. John and Jim grew up within and helped elevate the Lanikai Canoe Club, one of Hawaii’s most prestigious paddling organizations, to the elite ranks. Not only did the Fotis come to enjoy paddling, but they excelled at it. The brothers went on to win five Moloka‘i Hoe championships in the iconic green-and-white Lanikai canoe, and amassed five Ka‘iwi Channel Relay championships as a duo including four straight crowns from 1995-98.
“There’s no conquering the Channel, but Jim and I have become great teammates – we have each other’s backs,” John said. “Almost every major race I’ve won, and nearly every major race Jim has won, we’ve been teammates. I couldn’t have done it without him, and I don’t think he could have done it without me.”
In August, the brothers were inducted into the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame. The Fotis were honored for their sustained and outstanding contributions to canoe paddling as well as their international, national and local accolades.
“It started out as little kids playing out on the water, and that gives way to the competitive part and the will to win,” Jim said. “The camaraderie with your teammates and the rivalries with your enemies so to speak, and the next thing you know, those enemies are your lifelong friends. Now, you’re in it for the love and perpetuation of the sport and that’s all it is.”
When Lanikai takes to the water for the Moloka‘i Hoe, the crew’s young nucleus will be slated as one of the top local contenders along with Red Bull Wa‘a, Team Primo and Hui Nalu. Leading up to the Ka‘iwi Channel crossing, Lanikai tuned up with wins at both the Duke Kahanamoku Race and Henry Ayau Memorial Race, including a record-setting performance in the latter competition.
“We have a lot of great, dedicated paddlers on this team, it’s unbelievable,” said Lanikai paddler Andreas Gaeta, who typically mans the canoe’s first seat as “stroker” and sets the pace for the crew. “I have a lot of big guys behind me, so I need to set them up and not go too fast, otherwise we can’t utilize that power. The ultimate goal is the Molokai Hoe – that’s what we’re fighting for.
Waves of History
As Hawai‘i’s state sport, outrigger canoe paddling incorporates strength, endurance, teamwork and an innate knowledge of the water that has seen the pastime evolve from a simple mode of transportation to a competitive outlet that continues to gain popularity and respect across the globe.
Thousands of years ago, Polynesians and those from other wayfinding cultures used canoes as a means of exploration, and relied on the stars, wind and ocean currents to carry them throughout the many islands scattered within the South Pacific. As these new cultures grew, canoes became ideal vessels for transporting goods between various islands and far-away settlements and also allowed fishermen to venture out into the open ocean and secure food for their villages. Canoes even played a vital role in the conquest of budding empires, including the one built by King Kamehameha I as he convened hundreds of canoe builders to create a fleet of boats that would eventually be used to unite the Hawaiian Islands under his reign.
Fast forward to present day, and it is clear to see that the outrigger canoe has undergone a renaissance as the vessel is now used primarily for racing and recreation. The six-person canoes, which were once crafted from enormous hard-wood trees like koa, are now built from fiberglass and other space-age materials that, in some cases, make the boats lighter, faster and stronger than their wooden counterparts.