The Power Of Paddling

A canoe excursion gives visitors a fun way to learn about the local culture

By: By Marty Wentzel

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Agent Booking Info

Hawaiian-Style Outrigger Canoe Tour: This one-and-one-half-hour trip can accommodate up to six people and is appropriate for all athletic levels. Sky Blue provides snorkeling gear and instruction. Tours depart at 9 and 11 a.m. daily. Rates are $65 per adult and $45 for 7- to 12-year-olds.

Sunset Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Tour: Holding up to four people, this two-hour option is particularly good for couples. Departing at 4 p.m. daily, it costs $85 per adult and $65 for youngsters.

Both tours come with bottled water, snacks and two commemorative photos.

Sky Blue also offers single- and double-hull canoe hires for weddings, birthdays, corporate events and private parties.

The company pays travel agents 15 percent commission.


Forget soccer, football and basketball. In Hawaii, the most popular team sport is outrigger canoe paddling. The long sleek vessel balanced by a lateral support — called an ama — was the preferred method of transportation by the early Polynesians and, ever since then, islanders have held the tradition dear to their hearts. From races and team practices to community events and recreational outings, outrigger paddling seems to turn up everywhere, evoking a strong cultural identity and sense of togetherness.

 The author’s family paddles the waters of the Big Island during a Sky Blue Canoe trip. // ©  2009 Marty Wentzel
Clients can experience paddling’s allure firsthand by booking an excursion with Sky Blue Canoe, a family-run outrigger adventure company on Hawaii’s Big Island. Run by longtime island resident Tony Fitzpatrick and his wife, Colby, Sky Blue specializes in intimate outings that give visitors a better understanding of why outrigger paddling plays such an integral role in island lifestyle.

My family and I recently met the Fitzpatricks and their 14-year-old son Colton — who represents the next generation of island paddlers — for an excursion out of the Puako boat ramp on the Kohala Coast. Our 1½-hour tour began with a 10-minute paddling lesson as Colby snapped photos. After wading into the water and climbing into the blue banana-shaped fiberglass canoe, our group synchronized our strokes and fell into an easy rhythm.

As we plied the waters, Tony talked about the history of paddling since its development thousands of years ago. He painted a verbal picture of the ancient island way of life, when canoes were used for fishing, exploring and surfing, and he discussed the differences between Tahitian and Hawaiian styles of paddling. He described how the Christian missionaries of 1820’s Hawaii outlawed the sport for decades, and how King David Kalakaua restored the tradition in the 1870s, much to the delight of his constituents.

But what really enhanced the tour was Tony’s unbridled passion for paddling. An avid waterman for many years, Tony’s enthusiasm rang true from start to finish. Along with competitive paddling locally, he has participated in the famed Molokai-to-Oahu channel race, and he has joined a talented team in sailing a Hawaiian canoe from Molokai to Maui. Thanks to his longtime experience on the seas, Tony is able to keep a keen eye on the weather and ocean conditions to make sure each of Blue Sky’s trips is smooth and scenic.

Along the way, we marveled at the coastline scenery, both natural and manmade. We glided past the Sullivan Estate, a lavish spread where the movie “Black Widow” was filmed. We learned about the history of Puako, a small coastal village where ancient Hawaiians carved petroglyphs that can still be seen today. By staying in relatively shallow, clear waters, we were able to spot turtles and even the occasional manta ray. Winter trips bring frequent whale sightings, and it’s not unusual to see dolphins spinning offshore.

As we navigated the canoe into a cove, Tony and Colton helped us overboard for some snorkeling in a pristine marine preserve. Since the waters along Puako are a protected environment for endangered sea life, they rewarded us with easy views of tropical fish and colorful coral.

Back in the canoe, before heading to the boat ramp, Tony shared water and snacks of juicy pineapple chunks, sweet papaya and fresh-baked banana bread while giving us a break from the paddling. By the time we returned to our starting point, Colby was waiting onshore with two souvenir pictures of our trip.

The Hawaiians have paddled for centuries, with good reason. After spending some time in an outrigger canoe with Tony, Colton and like-minded souls, clients undoubtedly will come away from this time-honored tradition with newfound respect for the local culture, not to mention some great vacation memories.