Canoe Culture

Local clubs make paddling experience a reality

By: Karla Aronson

KIHEI, Maui Canoeing may be the official sport in the state of Hawaii, but few commercial operators exist on Maui to provide visitors with an introduction to the pastime. Fortunately, thanks to locally based canoe clubs, a visitor to Maui can pick up a paddle and venture into the ocean, while at the same time learning about the significance of the canoe in Hawaiian culture.

The Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association makes it all possible through its 10 canoe clubs, several of which lead recreational outings for the public. The association currently enjoys the distinguished reputation of having swept the Hawaii state championships last year. So rest assured, they know what they’re doing.

“Worldwide, the sport is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Thomas Kern, Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association president. The Maui group now includes about 2,500 members, he said, adding that even with the increasing participation, “We try to maintain strong cultural ties to the sport.”

One of its regional clubs, the Kihei Canoe Club, provides individuals and groups the year-round opportunity to share in the thrill of sitting in a six-person canoe and paddling past the wave break.

Club President Maile Arensdorf says the Kihei club is the second largest on Maui, with 400 members, including both racers and recreational paddlers. As many as 12 canoes head out on the club’s weekly Tuesday and Thursday public outings. Visitors are assigned the three middle seats of each canoe and placed alongside three experienced club members who navigate.

No reservations are required. Interested participants can simply show up on Tuesdays or Thursdays at 7:30 a.m. for the 8 a.m. trip. The club is centrally located on Sugar Beach, next to Maalaea Harbor. After signing in (and signing a waiver of responsibility), participants are prepped for the outing that will take them about a mile. One course, if it is windy, follows closely along the shoreline, as safety is paramount to the club. A second course goes out to a popular turtle spot, giving paddlers the chance to see them. The trip lasts an hour to an hour and a half.

A suggested donation of $25 per person covers return visits for a month. The proceeds support the club’s canoe expense and their after-school recreational program for children, organized by the club’s volunteer members. The club emphasizes the historical and cultural values of canoeing in its instruction. Kimokeo Kapahulehua, a recreational member of the Club, said, “The whole focus is on the culture. Our aim is to perpetuate, protect and preserve the culture and its spiritual values.”

As part of every outing, Kapahulehua teaches several chants to the paddlers. For example, “E Ala E” talks about the rising of the sun from the East and its setting in the West. “I’a Wa’a Nui” tells about a big canoe journey, the people and plants in the boat and the challenges to be faced with the wind, waves and sun. It says the birds and the stars will guide them through the ocean, and asks for “kupuna” to please take care and be strong.

Following a swim break midway which sometimes includes snorkeling and more turtle sightings the pace of the paddling is accelerated. The final half hour is set aside for two 15-minute, one-eighth-mile races among the canoes. Then, everyone paddles back in together, “ohana style,” says Kapahulehua, like a family returning to the dinner table at the end of the day. Finally, he asks everyone to join in a circle and give thanks a mahalo to the sun, the ocean, to Haleakala and to each of the water sources on the island.

For those who don’t want to join in the paddling experience, a lively spectator’s view can be had during the club season, which consists of 20 events and eight regattas.

The association launched its regatta season May 31, with races taking place every weekend across the island, up to the Maui championship on July 19. The Maui clubs will then vie for the state championship titles again. This year’s event, sponsored by the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association, takes place on Oahu on August 2.,

Karla Aronson is Associate Editor of the Maui Weekly.