It was 1975. I had paddled in a number of Molokai races starting in 1966. The official name of the race back then was the Molokai to Oahu Canoe Race. The race was as it is now, the world championships of outrigger canoe racing.
Up to 1975 Hawaii’s outrigger teams had done well and we certainly qualified as one of the favorites. Three complete teams from Tahiti were rumored to be entered in the race for the first time. Hawaiian clubs were very interested in the Tahitians. It seems that they were paddling with smaller tear drop-shaped blades with a much higher stroke count of about 60 strokes per minute (SPM). We thought that was a sprint and that they would never last. Our team, Outrigger Canoe Club (OCC), as I’m sure is true with other Hawaii teams, was eager and looking forward to the challenge.
The Hawaiian teams raced with a traditional blade and stroke as had been done throughout the history of ‘modern’ canoe racing in Hawaii. The stroke was the same that my father had used in the 1930s. Hawaiian paddles were big oval-shaped blades. We paddled at about 42 SPM and took it up to 44-46 SPM for sprints. It was quite arduous pulling large paddles. Out stroke was very long. We would bend deep with chest to almost the gunnels reaching out in front and pull the cumbersome blade past our hips. It was a pretty and rhythmic stroke (‘pretty and rhythmic’ was soon to become obsolete). I wanted to make a ‘statement’ and had my ‘pal’ Kimo Austin make me a traditional koa paddle. Racing paddles at the time were made of lighter woods. I would steer with the koa blade for the 40 mile race.
There may have been about 35 teams entered in the 1975 race. As usual, most crews camped out at Hale O Lono Harbor, on the South West Leeward side of Molokai. Each team had a large change boat and many had smaller ‘chase’ boats for drops and recovery. Outrigger racing canoes have six seats and nine paddlers on a team. There would be periodic changes in which relieving paddlers are dropped in front of the racing canoe and as the team paddles by several paddlers jump out and relief paddlers would haul themselves in. The object is to change without slowing the canoe down. It is a difficult maneuver to have several paddlers jump out of a fast moving canoe in turbulent seas and have replacements get in. Changes are a big part of the race. The race starting line was right outside Hale O Lono. The race ended in front of the Moana Hotel at Waikiki Beach. The Kaiwi Channel is famous for several reasons including usually being very rough with ground-swells and brisk trades.
Being successful in a Molokai race required a lot of finesse as well as paddling ability. Besides paddling the boat, course choice, efficient changes, use of swells, and other factors played a part in what seems like an uncomplicated sport. I can remember lining up on the starting line curious about our Tahitian competitors. Our traditional rivals were Waikiki Surf Club, Healani and Hui Nalu.
It is no secret that getting to La’au Point as a leader was important. The reason is that all the chase boats are required to stay behind the racing crews until then when the first change could be made. All the contending teams would go all out to La’au to get in the lead in order to avoid the wake and chaos of escort boats. Part of my job as steersman was to make sure our crew blew off the line first. A huge dynamite explosion on shore started the race. To our astonishment, within the first mile, the Tahitians already had a hundred yard lead. Our team was fighting with Surf Club for 4th. So when we reached La’au and entered the channel, the Tahitians had what seemed to be a quarter-mile lead. I remember thinking that it was going to be a long day. Our redemption was the channel. The swell was big and the trade winds were brisk. ‘Hooray!’ Looking ahead I could see the Tahitian boats snaking and not holding a solid course in the stubborn channel. Nevertheless, they were ahead, way ahead. Due to tides that day it was smart to aim right for Diamond Head rather that Koko Head and try to ride tidal currents into Waikiki. The Tahitians were on a zig zag straight course to Diamond Head. I figured that by staying behind them and just paddling, they would be difficult to pass. Surely their steersman would be smart enough to ‘cover’ us as we got close and tried to pass them. We took a northerly course. I figured if we could get high on them by a mile-or-two and stay near them we could turn down and surf past them. The Tahitians were paddling fast indeed but they were all over the place. About 10-miles off of Oahu we appeared to be abreast of the lead Tahitian’s but way north. Surf Club was behind us. It was then that we made our move and took a new line ‘downhill’. We aimed for the front of the lead Tahitian boat. Our crew was strong, steady and relentless. We finally reached the Tahitian pack and surfed into first. We never looked back and after 5-hours, 39-minutes and 7-seconds of paddling, we crossed the finish line in record time. I had a difficult time getting out of our racing canoe, the Kakina. The OCC crew consisted of Brant Ackerman, Mark Buck, Tom Connor, Tim Guard, Paul MacLaughlin, Don Mailer, Mike Rodrigues and myself.
The results of the 1975 race was that it was the last time that Hawaii paddlers used the traditional Hawaiian blade for racing. Now 40 years later, my koa blade hangs on my wall. It is the last Hawaiian paddle.
Senator Fred Hemmings