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Outrigger Canoe Paddling


We talk about outrigger canoes quite a bit on our tour (aside from the snorkeling, whale watching, turtle gazing, dolphin loving, etc). Outrigger canoe paddling is a huge sport here in Hawaii. It is one of the pieces of Hawaiian culture that has survived and thrived throughout the years (another is the Hula).


I was born and raised here in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. I learned to surf at a very young age, and have been immersed in the island ocean lifestyle since birth basically. My first experience with canoe paddling was when I joined the Outrigger Canoe Club and paddled in the 12 and under boys division for summer Regatta season. For some reason the coach singled me out and said, “Sage, you steer.” Um, Ok…I had no idea how to steer, I had barely held a canoe paddle in my life. Little did we know I would be wielding a steersman’s paddle for the next 40 years, not just as a sport, but also as a career.


In Hawaiian canoe paddling we have what’s called “Regatta Season” and “Long Distance Season.” Regatta is during the summer months, and is an entry level way into outrigger canoe paddling AND a highly competitive sport in the upper division men and women. The Regatta races are from ¼ mile (young kids), to 2 miles (upper division or expert men). There are several different mens’ and womens divisions, everyone from 10 years old to 80 and up. Race day is on a different Hawaiian beach every weekend. On Oahu the races are Sundays, and on Maui the races are on Saturdays. There are normally 3 sets of flags, set at a quarter mile apart. Most of the races have a turn or two, something all steersmen need to learn and practice.


At the end of the summer in August all the islands will get together, send their best crews in each division, and we have State Championships. State’s is on a different island every year (my favorite was always Hanalei, Kauai).


After States there is a small break and those paddlers who take it a bit more seriously and want to take it to the next level start what we call Long Distance Season (distance for short). The last distance season I did was in 2000 and there were 5 races. The shortest was 18 miles (The Queen Liliuokalani race in Kona, Hawaii), and the longest is what is widely considered the World Championships of outrigger canoe paddling, the crown jewel race of the outrigger world, the Molokai Hoe. The Molokai Hoe is an open ocean race from Molokai to Oahu. It starts in Haleolono Harbor on the southwest tip of Molokai and ends right in the middle of Waikiki, a distance of 41 miles. The upcoming race in October 2022 will be the 63rd annual race.


The race has over 100 entrants and each crew has 9 paddlers. But it’s a 6 man canoe, how does that work? We have the 3 extra paddlers following in an escort boat and we change out paddlers every 10, 15, 20 minutes across the channel. This is usually planned out, but as the race wears on it is on an as needed basis. The “open ocean change” is definitely a skill which is practiced over and over again. If a crew is not good at it, they could lose 10 seconds or more on every change to the crew next to them. Over a 4-5 hour race that can add up to precious minutes towards the end.


When I was in the thick of my paddling career in the mid to late 90’s, the Molokai Hoe was dominated by local Hawaiian crews, mostly Lanikai Canoe Club and Outrigger Canoe Club. Since then the race has been absolutely dominated by crews from Tahiti, who have broken their own course record several times. The record is held by Shell Va’a from Tahiti at 4:30:54 in 2011. This is pretty crazy as it would require them to average over 9 knots across the channel (powered only by paddle).


I always recommend to guests thinking of moving here to Maui that they should go out for Regatta season paddling. It’s a great way to keep in shape, connect with the culture, and meet new people. I feel incredibly blessed to have a paddle in my hand and be on the ocean day in and day out…what a Maui Life!