Last time Kate and I did a travel assignment in Hawaii, we joined the Molokai Canoe Club and paddled every week during our 6 months there. We were scheduled to practice 2 days per week, but the paddling really hinged on whether enough people showed up. To paddle an outrigger canoe, you need at least 4 people to have any fun at all – there are 6 seats, and it’s best if you have them all filled. Also, we couldn’t go at all without one of the steersmen, someone trained in steering the canoe – a steerswoman in this case. I haven’t shared enough about this experience. I try to avoid too much talk about Molokai on this site, because it’s a quiet and special place, and I’d like it to stay that way. But I was recently reflecting on my evenings in the canoes and at the canoe shack. They were special times. The kind of times only had when you step a bit outside your comfort zone.
The first thing you need to know is that the entire club is centered at “the canoe shack”. The shack is kind of a big deal. There’s several canoe clubs on the island, but the Molokai Canoe Club is the only one with a roofed structure. About 10 yards down the beach is another club, Club Va’a – they are the more competitive canoe club, but they don’t have a shack, just a couple storage containers. Molokai Canoe Club has been run by generation-after-generation of paddlers. When one generation of the Rawlins family ages out of the daily operations of running a canoe club, the next generation takes over. As with any respectable canoe club in Hawaii, they have a koa wood canoe. Here, with the time I have to write, and with your limited attention span, I cannot properly explain the great significance of the koa canoe. It is brought out for parades, big events, and only paddled during the most important races – the koa canoe is special, it’s spiritual. The major paddling events all have Koa divisions reserved only for clubs racing koa wood canoes.
Molokai is a mecca for Outrigger Canoeing. The biggest interisland races in Hawaii either start or finish on Molokai including the Kaiwi Channel Crossing – 40 miles of open ocean considered the world championship of Outrigger Canoe Races. Being first time paddlers, we were relegated to the recreational group, very recreational. Whether we had 6 people to fill all the seats in the canoe was always up to chance. Luckily, the recreational group got together on the same nights as the Uncles. “Uncle” and “Auntie” are respectful terms in Hawaii – best compared to using Ma’am or Sir. The Uncles at the canoe shack were legends back in their day. The local bar, Paddlers, has pictures on its walls of all the old teams that had won races and competed in the Kaiwi Channel Crossing – younger versions of the Uncles were littered through the pictures on the bar walls. Many of the Uncles are serious about their Hawaiian heritage and still take their paddling seriously, but they are more of a drinking club with a canoe problem. The canoeing is secondary to the comradery and social gathering that takes place every Tuesday and Thursday night after a solid paddle. Being with the recreational paddlers on the same nights, Kate and I got to know the Uncles well. We’d often hang out with them at the canoe shack after our paddle where someone showing up with dried octopus (taco in Hawaiian) or some fresh caught raw fish was commonplace. Frequently, we would combine numbers with The Uncles to make a full boat of 6 people – or to complete 2 boats of 6. Those evenings hanging at the shack with The Uncles were the most Hawaiian times I ever had. Even having worked in Hawaii 4 times previously, there were a couple of the Uncles that I couldn’t understand with their thick Pigeon English. Over the months, we built up hours and relationships with The Uncles, at some point I began to understand them all easily.
On two occasions, the number of paddlers and water conditions were just right so that the Uncles wanted to go surf a canoe. On the first time Kate and I did this with them, conditions were perfect. We paddled out to some flat water beyond the wave break and enjoyed some beers from a cooler in the back of the canoe before surfing. We paddled into some waves a few feet tall breaking on the reef and let them lift the boat, carrying us in quite a ways. We paddled back out and repeated. Surfing the canoe was a much bigger rush and joy than I ever had surfing on a board.
The second time I went surfing with the Uncles, only myself and one other woman from the recreational group had shown up, but luckily there were four Uncles there who wanted to go surf some waves. In the boat that day were a couple of the local Molokai-grown Uncles, Uncle Clayton and Uncle Russell steering the boat; Sully, a transplant from the North Shore of Boston via Colorado who was a very serious paddler who had come to Molokai specifically to paddle with this group of guys; And Marty, a long-time Molokai transplant from the West Coast who must have been completely nuts as a younger guy, because all the local-Uncles respected him. These guys have all paddled together for years, making channel crossings between island and continuing to sail canoes great distances in races throughout the Hawaiian chain. I was in good hands that evening.
We paddled out in a channel on the left of the waves past the sets of big waves coming in and breaking on the reef – much bigger this time around, perhaps 6 or 7 foot waves. We made the big righthand U-turn to align the incoming waves behind us and paddled like crazy, there was a lull in the surf and we failed to catch any wave. We repeated our moves – made another righthand turn, paddled back out past the big waves and once again made our approach. Again, nothing. We repeated this one more time, again failing to catch a wave. We rested and decided on one last attempt. As we paddled out the fourth time, huge waves rolled past us – 10 or 12ft? We made our turn into the set between two of these huge waves. Being tired from the previous attempts, we didn’t get enough speed and ended up surfing IN the wave instead of ON the wave. The boat filled with water and the 6 of us were left sitting ducks with the walls of the canoe submerged underwater. We remained in our seats, water level at our waists and paddled like crazy with every ounce of energy to avoid the next oncoming waves. Somehow, we got out of the path of the breaking waves, back to the deeper water and had to get out of the boat to dump the water out. This dumping maneuver, rolling the canoe onto its side, got about half the water out of the boat and got the top of the canoe up out of the ocean – the rest of the water would have to come out through frantic bailing using hands, paddles, and two 1/2 milk jugs that had come with us for this exact purpose. As we all exhausted from swimming and bailing, someone noticed we had drifted back into the break. Another 10ft set was approaching off the right side of the canoe and it was time to GO! Everyone scrambled to get out of the water, into our seats, and paddle like our lives depended on it to get out of there. Maybe our lives did depend on it. We paddled like crazy and as the big set rolled in, our boat was gently lifted and dropped off the edge of the first wave as we scooted out from its path. I continued to bail the remaining water as the others paddled our soggy canoe and crew back to shore. I later learned that if that set of waves had caught us, we would hardly have been the first canoe to sink on that reef.
We skipped drinks and snacks (pupus) after that particular paddle. But out there, a half mile off shore, swimming around a sinking boat in a bad situation, I had a memorable experience with the Uncles. It wasn’t the kind of situation you could (or would ever want to) manufacture, but for me it was so unique. This was hardly the Uncles first time in that situation, but it was an experience I will remember forever.
The canoe shack was special, and I will remember it fondly. From sending racers off to open ocean races, to the big bash at the end of the canoe season, to near-catastrophe on the reef, to the simple evenings with the Uncles sharing pupus and Natty Light – the canoe shack left me with some of my favorite memories that leave me yearning for a return to Hawaii. Someday we’ll get back, some day. If you ever make it to Hawaii, join a local canoe club.
A quick video I shot one night out on the water paddling: