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E lau hoe, mai na wa’a; i ke ka, i ka hoe, i ka hoe, i ke ka; pas aku i ka’aina.

Everybody paddle the canoes together; bail and paddle, paddle and bail, and the shore is reached.
(Pitch in with a will, everybody, and the work is quickly done.)
-Hawaiian proverb


Paddle Six-Man, They said. It will be fun, they said. And they were right.

The term “paddling” on the mainland is usually used in an all-encompassing manner. It could mean standup, canoeing, kayaking, surfski or outrigger canoe. It’s a generic term.

But in Hawaii, it has a singular connotation.

Paddling anywhere in Hawaii means one thing: six-man outrigger. If you tell someone you are a paddler, most people will assume you are on an OC-6 team and they will immediately ask which hale or club you belong to.

While we might think of surfing as the quintessential water sport borne of these islands, that honor really belongs to the big canoe.  It is the culture, history, passion and deep ohana (family) roots of Pacific Islanders all packed into one water activity, replete with metaphors for just about every facet of life. It is the embodiment of connection to the water and to community and to a sense of belonging and service.  This concept was perfectly illustrated in one of the storylines of the first season of  HBO's "White Lotus" mini-series, wherein a troubled teenager finds meaning in his life by paddling with the resort's six-man crew.

Quinn Mossbacher (Fred Hechinger) in Mike White’s HBO limited comedy satire series, ‘The White Lotus’.

I have been an OC1 and OC2 paddler for years but was always a bit intimated to take a seat in the six-man - afraid of the uber competitiveness that can sometimes come with some clubs, or the "paddle-tics" that sometimes overshadow things when "big haole energy" gets involved. But earlier this year, I was asked to join a team participating in the Paddle For Life fundraiser that supports Maui's Pacific Cancer Foundation.  I could not say no and I soon found myself in Seat Two of the same canoe young Fred Hechinger (played by Quinn Mossbacher in "White Lotus") paddled in the mini-series.  The result was the same - I fell in love with it.

I joined Maui's Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society - a canoe hale -created by storied Maui waterman Kimokeo Kapahulehua, a storied Hawaiian waterman - to "promote sustainability, environmental health and respect for Mother Earth and humankind through the preservation, education and perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture through protocol, voyaging and the way of life on the canoe."

The HOCVS Canoe Hale

First Day Jitters

On the first day of our practice, I arrived nervous. It would be only my second time in a six-man.  Kimokeo squinted at me with his wise Hawaiian eyes for a long time, then finally, he addressed me.

"So, Lisa. Where did you come from?"

My heart was suddenly in my throat.  Like being asked a question by the teacher in your new class after moving to a new school.

"From North Carolina, but I was born on O'ahu and my family lived in Haiku for years."

"How long have you been away?"

"Too long!"

"Why did you come back?" he queried.

This was the most important answer. I felt like he was looking deep down into my soul.

"Because this is where my heart is."

Kimokeo's expression suddenly morphed into a big smile.

"Welcome home.  I want you to join our club.  I want you to learn how to steer."

I guess answered correctly.  And I got chills.

HOCVS is the perfect kind of club for someone who wants to learn the art and history of canoe culture, as it is not focused on competitions.  It is focused on long distance paddling and learning about Hawaiian waters and how to navigate them.  It is the perfect vehicle for transitioning from solo paddling to "team" or group paddling, since you learn the basics, from proper technique to how to work together as a unit. You check your ego at the door.  We began practicing every Sunday and soon, it became the highlight of my week.  Something I looked forward to - for the workout, for the camaraderie and for the talk story afterward.

What ever you can do, it is all good!

What I learned in The OC-6

Aside from the cultural aspect of paddling OC-6 in Hawaii, I also learned several lessons that will help me in both my solo OC paddling and SUP paddling.

  • First, learning to feel the canoe.  Each of the six seats offers the paddler a unique experience. Each seat has its own specific role to play on the team. Switching seats regularly allows you to focus in on the specific skills necessary to do your job in that particular seat.
  • Second, the way you connect with the canoe, and consequently the water, is more pronounced. Because you are sitting in what amounts to a "bench" seat, in a more upright position with feet flatter on the deck of the canoe, you must learn to push down to engage leg drive, not forward as you would in an OC1 or a surfski.  Once you get the feel for this, and learn to engage your big leg and core muscles to get a fuller shoulder rotation, you can really feel the boat lift under you when everyone is working together. I found that this position really helped me get more power from my legs on the standup board - whether I was surfing or downwinding. It also helped me feel that my OC1 was moving better because of my improved technique and connection with the canoe and water.
  • Third, the Hawaiian paddle chants help you dial in your breathing. Focusing on the call and response chants as led by the steersman makes you focus on using your breath properly. I always struggle with that when I am paddling alone. I felt more efficient doing the chants and that cadence was something I could use on the OC1.
  • Fourth, OC6 practice also means practicing water changes, or getting back in the canoe while it is moving, and recovering from a huli or capsize. This is invaluable practice for anyone who wants to spend time in the ocean, as it helps you before more comfortable and capable in blue water.  You also are practicing with a skilled group of watermen and women who will help you at every step of the way.

  • Fifth, being around watermen and women with years of experience in these waters, in these crafts, is priceless.  Being able to tap into their knowledge, whether it is on technique, water reading, weather, protocol or gear is worth its weight in gold.

Every practice had me coming away with more confidence, more strength and it was insanely fun.  The last practice before the event, we paddled out in to the channel between Maui and Molokini and getting into the current and swell offshore was absolutely thrilling!  We even caught a few bumps and the glides were even sweeter when they came at the hands of six strong paddlers working together to catch them.

If you plan to visit Maui or any other Hawaiian island, most of the canoe clubs have visitor sessions where you can sign up and take a seat in the canoe.  Definitely make time for this experience, you won't regret it!

Sadly, three days before our channel crossing event, my 13-month old knee replacement failed, dislocating my knee and sidelining me for this year's Paddle for Life.  But after rehabbing from surgery next month, you can bet I will be back at the canoe hale, ready to take Kimokeo up on his offer to learn how to steer!


More on how OC paddling can help your SUP paddling


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