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4.Hawaiian Historical Perspective

Hawaiian Historical Perspective | 33

Hawaiian Historical Perspective | Outrigger Canoeing 'A Paddler's Guide'


The va`a has been the principal mode of transportation in Oceania for thousands of years. While its direct role in everyday life throughout the Pacific region has diminished, giving way to the outboard motor and boats of contemporary design, va`a racing has created a renewal of the passion and an assurance that the legend of the va`a will live on forever and thereby nuturing the cultures from which they manifested.

Hawaiian Wa`a Racing Origins and Wa`a Types Wa`a racing evolved as a natural extension of the ancient Hawaiian's everyday relationship with the single-outrigger wa`a, which was used primarily for coastal fishing. While the ocean supplied most of their food, it also provided for their sport and recreation. Prestige was gained by the village whose canoe team was victorious. Popular amongst neighbouring villages and island communities, betting was one of the primary driving forces behind wa`a racing. And it was not always for trivial things, sometimes there were major possessions at stake such as land and wives. In some respect, wa`a racing took the place of warfare, as the competitive nature of the sport i.e. the gruelling physical and mental demands, made it a reasonable substitute for battle. Chiefs chose the strongest and most respected paddlers to represent them in races with the promise of special status within the community should they be victorious. Races often began far out from shore with the first wa`a to arrive on the beach declared the winner. Wa`a used in races were of varying length, weight, width, and even differed in the number of crew. Because of this, teams were clearly either doomed before the start or at a distinct advantage, an issue not resolved until the 1960s with the design and manufacture of the Malia class fibreglass wa`a. When Captain Cook first landed at Kealakekua Bay in 1779, 3000 wa`a carrying some 15,000 Islanders paddled out to greet the strange bulging vessel. Over those initial years of contact and co-habitation with the Hawaiian peoples, European visitors were continually astounded by the Hawaiian's athletic abilities and skills on the water but particularly by their paddling skills. Missionary, Hiram Bingham was obviously fascinated by the mechanics of wa`a paddling and noted, ‘...nine or ten athletic men in each of the coupled canoes, making

regular and effective strokes, each raising his head erect and lifting one hand high to throw the paddle blade forward beside the canoe, the rowers, dipping their paddles and bowing simultaneously and earnestly, swept their paddles back with naked muscular arms, making the brine boil, and giving great speed to their novel and serviceable seacraft.’ Hawaiian Wa`a Racing | Origins & Types | 35

Hawaiian Historical Perspective | Outrigger Canoeing 'A Paddler's Guide'

Intervention Despite this admiration, Christian missionaries, in their enthusiasm to save the souls of this heathen race, were quick to discourage wa`a racing and other traditional water sports, such as surfing, among their new converts. It was believed that too much frivolity and gambling, an intrinsic part of the wa'a race, were not the way to salvation. By the turn of the twentieth century these aquatic activities were all but wiped out, as paddlers replaced their paddles with bibles and hymnbooks. Modesty and an adherence to puritanical ethics became the standard of behaviour for the Polynesians; freedom lost in the playgrounds of their gardens and oceans. Wa`a paddling and surfing were not the only casualties of this bleak period of Hawaiian history as many other ancient arts, crafts and beliefs were eroded.

Reinstatement of Contemporary Racing During the mid 1800s, after some fifty years of adherence to the missionary’s wishes, a defiant resurgence of interest in aquatic sports began. A ‘boat race’ was held May 20, 1859 in honour of the first birthday of Prince Kalakaua of Hawai`i, son of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. Following this and before Kalakaua’s ascension to the throne in 1875, aquatic events were held at regular intervals. A great lover of water sports, King Kalakaua (1874-1891) encouraged the revival of both sailing and paddle races with the commencement of an annual November regatta. A Hawaiian revivalist, he encouraged the return of Hawaiian traditions such as the hula dance which the missionaries called the ‘heathen dance’. He also composed the national Hawaiian anthem the Hawai`i Ponoi (now the state song) sung before the Moloka`i to O`ahu marathon race. It must be noted that many of the early regattas featured barges (row boats) of western-design with few wa`a entries. Without question the Hawaiian people felt a need to reconnect with their past as the influence of the missionaries began to decline. The Hawaiians needed little encouragement to be enticed back to their ancestral and traditional water sports. By the early 1900s, regattas began to evolve with a similar format to those performed a hundred years prior to the arrival of the missionaries. In 1908, the most significant step towards the formal rebirth of outrigger wa`a racing and surfing occurred with the founding of the Outrigger Canoe Club by a small group of haole (European) businessmen. It was a shame they choose not to call it the, ‘The Wa`a Club’. The aim was to establish a foundation from which wa`a racing and surfing could be rekindled throughout the Islands after such a long stagnation. Also founded in 1908 was Hui Nalu Surfing Club. It was formally chartered by a group of Hawaiian surfers to promote surfing and swimming and by 1910 began pitting its own wa`a crews against the Outrigger Canoe Club. This club rivalry was to become the catalyst for the establishment of other clubs. 36 | Intervention | Reinstatement

With its resurrection, wa`a racing became not only a healthy pastime, but the salvation of a Hawaiian cultural activity that had been an intrinsic part of their way of life and a link with their heritage. The first regatta devoted entirely to the wa`a was held in 1922 and divisions existed in W2, W4 and W6. It was not until the 1940s that it was agreed that racing needed to have formalised rules and regulations to avoid some of the disagreements which were arising as wa`a racing became much more than just a social event.

Rides for the Tourists The Legend of the Waikiki Beach Boys by Greg Heller Led by pioneers such as George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, turn-of-thecentury (Waikiki) Beach Boys helped revitalize an ancient surfing culture that had languished under oppressive European constraints. Surfing and wa'a paddling hadn't completely vanished, but were frowned upon as frivolous and immoral when European civilization took root in Hawai`i during the 1800s. Fortunately, a small band of watermen persevered and went on to see the ailing pastime into the 20th century.

Around 1901, when the first tourist resorts were being completed at Waikiki, these men found their calling. They earned their livelihood from surfing instruction and wa`a rides for tourists. As more resorts were completed and Honolulu tourism started to boom, surfing with the Beach Boys became a major attraction. Under these conditions, surfing and subsequently wa`a rides would be introduced to the world through the writings of Jack London. In Waikiki with his wife in 1907, London met journalist / organizer Alexander Hume Ford. Ford took London surfing and introduced him to 23-year-old Freeth, the most accomplished surfer of the time. London was so entranced by surfing, and Freeth in particular, that he wrote a piece for Woman's Home Companion depicting the ‘Royal Sport for the Natural Kings of Earth’.

This vintage postcard, which I found in a Honolulu antique shop, reads: 'Surfboarding and exciting outrigger canoe rides are popular Hawaiian water sports at sunny Waikiki Beach. Diamond Head crater, in the background, is seen from the air while approaching Honolulu on United Mainliner Stratocruisers'. Waikiki Beach Boys | 37

Hawaiian Historical Perspective | Outrigger Canoeing 'A Paddler's Guide'

The Beach Boys of Waikiki - entertaining visiting tourist to the island of O`ahu since the early 1990s providing canoe rides. 'Canoe-Surfing' is the quintessential Hawaiian thing to do for the visitor. Top 1950s, below 1990s and still going strong.

Wa`a (canoe) surfing has been a part of the Waikiki beach scene for many years. Prior to the 1960's, the Outrigger Canoe Club located on the beachfront, was very active in providing rides for travellers from all walks of life (becoming the thing to do when in Waikiki) using converted fishing wa`a and some purpose-built surfing wa`a. This was to change in the early 1960s when the Outrigger Canoe Club was relocated. Wa`a rides became formalised with hotel beach services cashing-in on and perpetuating them. Along the beachfront, fibreglass surf wa`a await the tourist and vendors shout out to attract a crew to venture out into the Waikiki surf. If nothing else, it is at least a truly Hawaiian experience for the tourist and serves to keep one of the Hawaiian's traditional pastimes alive and well, even though some of the Aloha Spirit has long since waned. 38 | Waikiki Beach Boys

The Ala Wai Canal O`ahu Built in 1922, the Ala Wai Canal was constructed to divert the streams that flowed into Waikiki to the detriment of the Hawaiian farmers who had their water drained away from them. Located immediately behind the hotels and shops of Waikiki, the Ala Wai Canal has become a popular venue for outrigger canoe clubs and as a training ground for all manner of paddle-craft. Long and straight, flanked on one Ala Wai Canal Waikiki. side by parks and a golf course, the canal is home to various canoe clubs, providing a perfect location from which to operate with easy access to the ocean via the Ala Wai Yacht Harbour and on to open water. Most famous of these, the Waikiki Surf Club relocated here from the Waikiki beachfront when the lease expired on their longstanding site, which was subsequently sold and developed. The Outrigger Canoe Club, founded in 1908, was also located for many years on Waikiki beach. In 1963, the lease on their site was due to expire and was acquired by Roy Kelley who went on to build the first of the Outrigger Hotels, Outrigger Waikiki, in 1967. ‘Duke's Barefoot Bar & Restaurant’ named after, Hawai`i's most famous waterman Olympian and indigenous Hawaiian, Duke Kahanamoku and the colourful surfing and canoeing legacy of Waikiki, commemorates those early days, located on the beachfront beneath the hotel.

Waikiki Surf Clubʼs unmistakable red and yellow wa`a on the Ala Wai. Ala Wai | 39

Hawaiian Historical Perspective | Outrigger Canoeing 'A Paddler's Guide'

The Outrigger Hotels Group is now the largest in Hawai`i. The Outrigger Canoe Club relocated to Outrigger Beach at the foot of Diamond Head on a two-acre site and was officially opened on 4 January 1964. The club has extensive facilities that include dining and bar services, fitness centre, volleyball courts and much more. Its dedication plaque at the clubhouse entrance reads:

‘Let this be a place where man may commune with sun and sand and sea, where good fellowship and aloha prevail, and where the sports of old Hawai`i shall always have a home.’

Aloha An involvement with the sport of va`a will ultimately take you beyond the physical to a spiritual view of the world as embraced by the Polynesians. The notion of ʻAlohaʼ is one of these worlds. Visit Hawai`i and youʼre likely to hear it a couple of hundred times a day. It is said that it is more than a word; itʼs a way of life.

Fundamentally, it is an extraordinarily complex notion of what love, life, compassion and understanding alludes to being. Many wa`a clubs incorporate this notion as a part of their constitution. I once heard it described as not being about politeness, repression of instinct, or sensibility, but about bone deep emotion. It grows out of a feeling, not limited by written language, but out of the senses and of primal instinct. The ancient Hawaiians discovered Hawai`i out of such instinct, which Europeans loosely termed as good-fortune and chance. Aloha is an emotional prism, spawned from an affinity with the ocean, to an extent that European culture has never quite grasped. While Europeans built stiff-ships to withstand the pounding of the ocean, Polynesians built wa`a from organic materials designed to morph and flex with the ocean. They shaped wa`a hulls and sails to go with the wind, not against. They designed for speed, not necessarily comfort. Essential ingredients included physical prowess, a sense of play and adventure with nature, elevated instincts and a zest for a life lived on the edge; based on a fundamental philosophical and spiritual notion that it is better to work with nature than against it. Aloha per se is a sense of spirit which alludes to faith in self, life, the universe and fundamentally an acceptance that nature is bigger than the sum of the whole of humanities collective thoughts and concerns. Just how it relates to wa`a racing is ultimately what you make of it.

In the context of present day Hawai`i, aloha is endemic, yet fundamentally elusive; a worn out clichéd anachronism for the most part, with little real meaning being that the tourist industry and many locals, have embraced, branded, commercialised and buggerised it to the point of non-sense. Competitive sport and the notion of aloha, is a concept diametrically opposed and while some paddlers certainly live and race with the aloha spirit, I have witnessed many who do not. 40 | Aloha

History of Outrigger Canoe Racing  

The origins of outrigger canoe racing from Samoa to Tahiti to Hawaii and beyond.