A Legacy Of
by Veronica S.
Slender canoes cleave the Hawaiian waters. In the golden
light of dawn and dusk, paddlers work in perfect unison,
their strokes disciplined, strong, and smooth. Canoeing,
called "paddling" by the locals, has rightfully
been named the official state team sport in Hawaii.
All paddlers know that the waves, perhaps so calm and
blue today, hold their life. A calm surface can change
abruptly into a raging turbulence of foam. The laws
of nature are unpredictable. All paddlers must learn
about the capricious ocean swell, about the wind, and
the vastness of the sea. Their guides are the ancient
Hawaiians for whom the canoe, small on the infinite
ocean, brought life, in the form of fish protein. But
that same canoe as easily brought death.
Over the last 20 years Hawaii has witnessed a renaissance
of its rich ancestry. Skills and crafts that had almost
disappeared are taught and honored again. Hawaiians
hold unequaled knowledge of the sea. No other culture
in history has its roots, its existence and its survival,
so intricately linked to the ocean's demands. It's no
wonder then, that the ancient mastery of navigation
and canoe construction has been revived.
More than a millennium before Captain Cook arrived,
a group of intrepid people braved the Pacific, looking
for land. The voice of the salty water ran through their
veins. Without instruments, they traveled at night,
when stars guided their way. Their canoes, plank-lashed
vessels, yielded to the ocean. They had brought with
them livestock, edible plants, and the desire to build
a new life.
How fortunate they must have felt when they found Hawaii,
and, growing on it, the giant koa tree. Now they could
craft a canoe hull out of one single piece!
Over the years, these first Polynesians established
themselves as the Hawaiian people. They developed new
skills. And the building of the canoe became a religious
task, because they discovered all too soon that on the
rough waters surrounding the islands fishing was not
all that easy. Every decision and action that involved
the canoe could result in death. To survive, the Hawaiian
had no choice but to keep building. And to pray, all
A new canoe started long before the actual hewing of
a tree. A specially trained kahuna (Hawaiian priest),
alert to any auspicious or disastrous signs, searched
for the perfect site and tree. His guide was the elepaio.
This Hawaiian bird was attracted to rotting koa wood,
and the kahuna knew not to use it. A healthy tree, which
had to be at least a hundred years old to be large enough,
could demand a fifteen mile trek inland.
Once it was chosen, a group of men hiked over with
enough provisions for the work and days ahead. The kahuna
stayed throughout because prayers, blessings and invocations
had to shower over every detail of the task. Hauling
the rough hull to the shore was dangerous. The log,
at times weighing as much as 20,000 pounds and measuring
up to 70 feet, could drag all the men over a cliff before
crashing itself on the rocks below. The ropes with which
the haulers guided the descent never slacked. The kahuna
chanted and prayed.
Safely on shore, the hull was finished in a special
halau (canoe shed). A black paint, made out of plants
and charcoal, added a waterproof finished layer to the
wood. And for the ali'i, the addition of hens' eggs
to the paint resulted in a glossy exterior.
The final consecration, before the canoes maiden voyage,
included the sacrifice of a pig and a dog. Samuel Kamakau,
historian and newspaper columnist in the years 1869
and 1870, and often the only remaining source of information
on old Hawaiian techniques, wrote: "The pig symbolized
the 'rooting' of the canoe into the open sea, and the
dog 'the tearing apart' the billows of the ocean".
As important as the canoe itself were its many accessories,
including the well-known, balancing outrigger booms
for the single canoe. Specialized artisans worked on
these parts with carefully selected woods. Finely plated
lauhala matting created powerful sails, although the
Hawaiians relied mostly on their paddling. Those paddles
were customized to each owner and each owner cherished
his paddle as if it were a lover. It lived inside the
But what makes the Hawaiian canoe, outrigger (single)
canoe or double hulled one, so unique and different
from all the other ancient sea vessels? For sure, the
Tahitians, and other oceanic people knew equally well
how to navigate their seas. Despite today's worldwide
interest in Hawaiian canoe racing, and competitors flying
in from widely varied cultures, a clear definition has
still not been reached.
The most distinctive feature of the Hawaiian canoe
is the absence of any ornamentation or decoration. No
fancy carvings, no extra wood. The furious Hawaiian
waters and the pounding surf demanded a clean, streamlined
shape, and just as the functions created the god in
Hawaii, function also created the form.
As for that crashing, legendary surf, it shaped canoe
and owner both. Hawaii has by far the roughest waters
in the world. The lack of surrounding reefs, combined
with a sloping ocean floor and unpredictable winds,
causes enormous breakers. There was only one way for
the Hawaiians to get their canoe in the water, if at
all the water was accessible. They surfed their boat,
necessitating smooth and unique lines. The Hawaiian
people themselves were forced to become master surfers.
Canoe surfing was a learned skill and grew into a sophisticated
sport. Any good king or chief should know how to surf
a canoe. It's no surprise that surfing has become Hawaii's
greatest pastime. Surfing, in fact, is Hawaii's gift
to the world.
When Captain Cook arrived in Kealakekua Bay in the
year 1779, he reported seeing at least 1500 canoes!
At the time, Hawaii must have numbered between 6,000
and 12,000 canoes for a population of 175,000 to 225,000.
Here was a culture, who, dependent on the ocean, lived
their life around the ocean's vehicle, the ancient canoe.
The voice of the ocean was the voice of life. Understanding
its language was understanding how to live.
This was hard for the white man to grasp. The Hawaiians,
always easily impressed with newer inventions, soon
lost their taste for their own canoes. They greedily
adopted European ways. And while at first they continued
surfing the waves and challenging each other in races,
the missionaries deeply frowned on this heathen behavior.
Naked bodies in water asked for sin, and as far as the
gambling that accompanied any sport in Hawaii, that
was a route to hell.
Gradually, both the Hawaiian canoe and the water sports
surrounding it, disappeared. An underground movement,
loyal to its past, lived on.
King David Kalakaua (1874-1891), known as the Merrie
Monarch and determined to bring the Hawaiian culture
back to life, named his own birthday, November 16, as
the official annual regatta day. After his death, in
1891, interest declined once more, other western sports
seeming far more interesting than the old Hawaiian ways
of the water.
In 1908, the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded. A few
water-enthusiasts had remembered the importance of keeping
the old knowledge alive. Those early years of the Canoe
Club included sailing competitions as well as board
surfing and swimming, but it seemed that more and more
attention drew toward the slender paddling canoe.
Since then, paddling, canoe racing, and recently also
sail racing, have grown once again into one of the most
popular activities in the Hawaiian islands. Children
go out on their boogie boards as soon as parents allow
and Hawaii has more than 60 canoe clubs and more than
5000 people are actively involved in the sport.
Long-distance races are growing in popularity. What
started out as a single event, the Molokai-Oahu race,
a grueling channel-crossing, is now one of the most
noted annual events. On the Big Island the Queen Lili'uokalani
Race between Kailua and Honaunau in Kona has become
an 'ocean mark', attracting canoes and their owners
from all over the islands.
The Hokule'a, named after the zenith star of the Hawaiian
sky at night, was built in 1974, according to remaining
descriptions of old, double-hulled canoes. Over 60 feet
long, the Hokule'a and the Polynesian voyages it has
made are more than nostalgic adventures. The canoe has
become a spiritual symbol of inspiration and remembrance.
It connects Hawaii with a past that was almost forgotten,
but must survive. Since the Hokule'a several other models
have been built.
Paddlers listen again to the voice of the ocean, building
their canoes, while never ceasing to sharpen strength
and stamina. Hulls are made of fiberglass, but not much
else has changed.
What makes the canoe Hawaiian? Definitions and rules
of competition adapt. But the law of the Hawaiian waters,
the pulse of the surf rushing through blood, the knowledge
that timing is everything and that life depends on the
mercy of the ocean, that will never change. To live
in Hawaii, is to learn the ways of the ocean.
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