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Women of the Sea

[Editor's Note:  This story is reprinted from 2002.]

“I grew up in Nebraska. When I tell my family I paddled from Molokai to Oahu in a canoe, they just don’t get it.”

“It” is the Bankoh Hawaii Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the world championships of women’s long-distance outrigger canoe racing. The 41-mile, inter-island race is held every September come rain or shine, wind or waves. It was canceled only once, in 1980, due to 30-foot seas. This past September, on a cloudy day with six-to-eight-foot swells and up to 25-mile-per-hour winds, a record-tying 65 crews crossed the Kaiwi Channel. One was a mixed-plate crew of women from Kauai, Big Island and Molokai. A week after the race, our Nebraskan transplant Kari and teammates Ruby and Debbie from Kaiola Canoe Club on Kauai got together to wala’au (talk-story).

Ruby: Oh my God, the start was so insane. I kept watching this boat next to us. The steersman was having a hard time controlling her boat. We were like sardines. All these canoes lined up waiting for the start. There was so much rocking and so much push from the wind. And then it was like, ‘Go,’ and we just started digging with our paddles. Then, we saw a canoe next to us huli [flip], and we’re like, ‘Oh, no.’ Our ama [outrigger] is caught on their nose and they’re trying to flip their boat back over. But if they do, we’re going over, too. Our ama started going up, and all I can remember is Kari going, ‘Noooo.’ And we’re digging and trying to paddle, but we were jammed on that canoe. Finally, somehow, we got out of there.

The 23rd annual race started at Hale O Lono on the southwest shores of Molokai and followed the coast to Laau Point. From there, it was open ocean to Port Lock, the easternmost point of Oahu. The race finished at Duke Kahanamoku Beach on Waikiki.

Kari: I was so amped at the start. We were four miles into the race before I started to calm down. It took a long time to get into the groove. Then, next thing I knew, we’re in these big waves. It started getting big right away. I was like, 'Oh my God, it’s going to be like this for 41 miles?'

Six women started the race in each canoe; four others in their escort boat. The 10 women per crew rotated through the six canoe seats creating a sprint relay across the channel. Every 20 to 30 minutes, relief paddlers jumped off their escort boat into the ocean. As their canoe passed, they climbed aboard the port side and those they replaced jumped out the starboard side.

Debbie: I was getting ready to jump off the escort boat into the water when Ruby says, ‘I think I see a fin. I think it’s a shark.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, great, I have to get in.’ So, I jump in with Emily, [a teammate from Hilo], and the canoe is coming. I grab it and get in the canoe, and then I hear, ‘I got bit.’ I thought Emily said she got bit. But she really said ‘I got hurt.’

Emily actually dislocated her shoulder. It wasn’t the first time, and the chronic injury popped right back into place, but it meant she was finished paddling for the day, with five-and-a-half hours left to go.

Ruby: I was like, wow, we’re going back in the canoe pretty quick. There’s not a lot of time to rest. But it didn’t really click until the end that it was because we were short one paddler.

Of the 10 women starting the race for Kaiola Canoe Club, only four had paddled together as a crew before the race.

Kari: You know, you put a lot of faith your steersman. I questioned Dee at times, because I didn’t know her. I was so concerned about huliing, because if we hulied, it would be so gnarly. Once you huli, you’re just like so freaked out the rest of the time.

Debbie: I heard someone say that once you huli, in that kind of water, guarantee you’re going to do it again. Because you can’t get all the water out. Mentally, it does you in.

It took Kari, Ruby, Debbie and the rest of their crew seven hours and 55 minutes to finish. It was a long, tiring day, but they never did huli.

Debbie: The race was so long. You can see Oahu, it’s right there, but it’s far, still far, then, close but not that close. I just wanted it to be over. I thought I can give up, or I can continue and just finish. It takes a certain woman to go through this channel. You need to be physically strong, and you need to be mentally strong. I felt the mental challenge because of the conditions of the water. That’s when you really test yourself to see if you’re strong enough to do it. I kept thinking of my kids and my dad. And my ancestors. It was great to share that connection with them; they crossed this channel in canoes. That’s what kept me going. When we reached Port Lock, I felt I came through the wall and then nothing could have made me tired. Nothing.

Another crew of women broke through their own wall that day to capture first-place honors. Hailed as the team to beat in flat water conditions, like their home waters off Kona, Big Island’s Kai Opua successfully defended their title in 6:24:52, this time in big water. They trained together hard for the past year.

Whether strangers or friends, women who compete in the Na Wahine O Ke Kai say the experience creates a sisterhood among women.

Ruby: I felt a bond with Sammie, a kapuna [grandmother] from the Big Island who I met the day before the race,” said Ruby. “I don’t know if it was because she was the oldest [57] and I was the youngest [26] in our crew, but there was this connection. I think you take a piece of her with you. She was just so sweet and such a warm woman. Even in the short amount of time we had. Her spirit was so sincere. She always had a twinkle in her eye.

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