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Pae mai la ka wa'a i ka 'aina. The canoe has come ashore. Hunger is satisfied; or, one has arrived hither.

Hawaiian Proverb

Do any one thing long enough, and things are bound to change and evolve. It might be your technique. It might be the equipment you use or the places where you do that thing. Or the people you do it with. Or, perhaps most importantly, the stuff you get from doing that activity and your perspective on it.

One of the beautiful things about this activity we call "paddling" is its diversity. Canoe, kayak, SUP, foil, prone, and all the sub-disciplines of each category—no matter what you do or how you paddle, we are all connected by water. Races and paddle events can bring us all together. 

I have been a paddler since 1998 when I bought my first kayak, and during those 25 years, I have paddled expedition sea kayaks, surf skis, racing and surfing sups, prone paddle boards, and outrigger canoes. I've raced sups and one- and two-man outriggers on flatwater and the ocean. I started competing in the early days of standup paddle racing when the events seemed more of an excuse to get together and share our love of the water. Having a race goal was a great motivator to keep me actively paddling for health and fitness. 

But somewhere along the way, the competitiveness of paddle racing and the focus on going faster and beating others or even just myself started losing its luster with me. Certain events that once felt like a homecoming or family reunion seemed to lose the aloha that made them so attractive. Soon, I realized I was getting more from the sup or oc-1 surf sessions or a downwinder with a few friends than I was out of a big paddle race. And then, the paddle races themselves seemed to start disappearing. Then, covid hit. During that time, I paddled alone most of the time, and more races either went on hiatus or dissolved altogether. I decided it was time to return to Maui because I did not want to be stuck on the mainland during another pandemic. The plan was to focus on sup surfing and OC-1 paddling.

The ocean-land connection is part of Hawaii's culture. Revering and respecting that connection is a part of everyday life here. The six-man outrigger canoe is a significant symbol and conduit of that ethic. It links to the past when it was a means of sustenance and trade. If you tell someone you are a paddler here, the assumption is you paddle OC-6. Each island has many canoe clubs, and while many of the multi-craft races that once drew participants from all over the world - The Olukai, Maui to Molokai, Molokai to Oahu - are long gone or are still recovering from the pandemic - OC-6 racing is as strong as ever; from the short distance regatta season to the long-distance events like the Queen Lili'uokalani Race.

Not long after returning to Maui, I was invited to participate in the Pacific Cancer Foundation's Paddle for Life fundraiser to help support cancer patients and survivors. That invitation introduced me to the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society. That introduction would change my life.

I was immediately drawn to HOCVS because of its emphasis on tradition, culture, and education—not on racing. Unlike most of the other canoe clubs on Maui, HOCVS does not participate in the short-course regatta racing season. Instead, HOCVS focuses on long-distance paddling. Its members will participate in long-distance races, but they are secondary to training to voyage- period. A voyage can be a circumnavigation of the island, a channel crossing, or paddling 25 miles to Ka'anapali and back to participate in a special event. Training includes workouts and skills development, but also opportunities to learn how to read the ocean and the sky, learn Hawaiian star navigation, and learn the traditional protocols associated with the canoe.

After weeks of paddling with HOCVS almost daily, I made my first long-distance voyage on November 4, 2023. We paddled our canoes from our hale (house) at Sugar Beach in North Kihei to Ka'anapali - 23 miles. The voyage was in preparation for the Lei of Aloha presentation for Lahaina in the wake of the August fire that destroyed our former state capital. 

My first water change- jumping off the support boat off Ukumeheme, Maui

For the first time, I did a water change. A water change is when all or part of a canoe crew switches out with new, fresh paddlers waiting for their turns to paddle on an accompanying support boat. The incoming crew jumps off the support boat, and the canoe steers toward them. The new crew grabs hold of the canoe gunnel, and the crew, being spelled, exits the canoe on the other side. The support boat picks up the crew treading water in the ocean. It's intimidating for the first time. The water was choppy when I exited the canoe for the first time. And it's deep. And then there's the whole bit about getting back in! There is comfort in numbers, though; having five other experienced paddlers with me helped. After the first change, that became my favorite part of the voyage. But by the time we did our last change, I didn't ever want to get out of the water!

Getting back into the canoe

That one 23-mile trip gave me so much more confidence in the ocean, particularly in these waters. It would lead to a second voyage to participate with other canoe clubs and all the large sailing canoes in the Lahaina Unity event, also in the wake of the Lahaina and Kula fires. I was also part of the HOCVS crew that paddled two canoes to the island of Lana'i for the Lana'i high school paddling team to use.

Lahaina Unity Rally with Hokule'a

I was also part of the HOCVS crew that paddled two canoes to the island of Lana'i for the Lana'i high school paddling team to use. The school boasted its largest team roster ever but only had one canoe to practice with.  The kids met us when we landed, gave us all big hugs, sang, and offered us a big lunch.  That experience was more meaningful than any race I have ever participated in.

Delivering canoes to Lana'i High School's paddling team

I have participated in Voyaging Camp, gone on numerous star navigation paddles, watched the solar eclipse from the water, and started learning protocols,ukulele and even ti leaf weaving. Every time we go out, I learn something new about water reading, paddling techniques, and the surrounding water environment. I have had encounters with whales, manta and spotted eagle rays, dolphins, turtles, and even sharks that are amazing and awe-inspiring. 

Whale watching on the way back from Lahaina

Most importantly, I have a greater knowledge and appreciation of Hawaii, its culture, and its people. And I have found my ohana.

With Uncle Kimokeo, HOCVS founder, on the voyage to Makena

I won't say I am finished with racing. I plan on participating in a couple soon, but it's no longer a priority. Going as fast as possible or beating my last time isn't the goal. It's about the experience, learning, observing, and listening. It's about connecting to the ocean. It is about tradition, culture, and people. I have come home in more ways than one.

I am a voyager.

A few things I notice when I'm not focused on racing:

  1. The colors of the water and how they change with the light.
  2. The clouds and what they might be trying to tell you.
  3. The feel of the water and how it informs you of what is coming.
  4. The birds flying around you.
  5. Fish that are running all around you.
  6. The bigger fish making those fish run.
  7. The stars and the way they can guide you.
  8. The curvature and geography of the coastline and the new perspective you gain seeing it from a waterside vantage point.
  9. The way sound carries when it’s calm and still on the water.
  10. The suction cup noise your paddle makes when it grabs the water.
  11. The feeling that you are a part of and are connected to the natural environment around you.

1 Comment

  • Sarah Burke Burke
    Posted April 21, 2024 at 4:17 am

    Loved reading about your journey from racing and into Voyager paddling.

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