Conversation stops in the outrigger canoe as legendary Hawaiian waterman Ross Kaaa turns to gauge an approaching wave. Building in height as it nears, the breaker is 20 feet away and coming fast when the veteran steersman issues a single command: “Paddle!”
There is time for a dozen quick strokes as Kaaa positions the 22-foot-long canoe in front of the wave, and turns it straight down the face of a 9-foot wall of aquamarine. Board surfers hoot and laugh as we streak by.
“Stow your paddle and grab that ama,” Kaaa barks. Leaning left with all of my weight, I reach for the ama, or outrigger float. At his call, “Back to the right,” I sit up straight and enjoy the smooth trajectory of the boat as it switches directions and picks up speed. We carve back and forth until the ocean breaker dissipates in a deep channel.
There is nothing quite like sitting in a canoe with a large wave chasing after you. As gravity and momentum take over, the narrow craft slices down the face of the wave like a flat stone skipping across a pond suddenly turned vertical.
“When we surf big waves, it’s almost better than sex for me,” says Kaaa. “It’s a wonderful feeling just sitting in a canoe coming down a mountain of a wave.”
Part of the thrill has to be the difficulty and danger. While surfboards are designed for riding waves, the canoes that Kaaa and his buddies use are based on traditional Hawaiian near-shore fishing canoes. It takes plenty of experience, a deft touch and nerves of steel to carve the face of a 20-foot wave in a fishing boat.
Control of the canoe is up to a single steersman who sits in the back seat and uses an oversized paddle as a rudder to influence direction and point of attack. The steersman calls out instructions to crewmembers so they know which direction to shift their weight to prevent a huli, or flipping over the boat. When everyone works in sync, riders get the most out of each wave. For big waves that may mean just reaching the end of the ride upright. Smaller surf opens the doors for tricks and all-out hotdogging.
It only takes a small mistake, however, to cause a wipeout.
“It’s almost a competition to see if you can make it to the other side of that wave,” Kaaa says. “I’ve been a crewmember on that thing and it is a rush. You have an opportunity to look at the size of the wave and to see how fast the canoe is running—enjoy the wave and know that this thing can swallow us up with just one misjudgment.”
While surfboards are relatively light and easy to dive away from, wiping out in a canoe can be a dicey process. One moment you are sitting, virtually locked in the narrow hull, and next you are flying through the air and hoping the 300-pound boat does not land on top of you. “As a steersman, it’s a challenge to see if I can get this boat to the end,” Kaaa says. “Then you ask yourself, what can I do to get bigger speed? How many turns can I make? It is always a challenge to see if you can do better than your last ride.”
Kaaa and fellow north-shore Maui resident Puka Ho often take their four-man canoes out to test the waters inside and outside of Kahului Harbor. Sometimes they take a crew along and other times it’s just them, their canoes and the waves. They have ridden solo on waves at spots called Pier One and King’s Reef at Kanaha that were nearly as tall as their canoes are long.
Maui County Ocean Safety Officer Archie Kalepa is also one of the innovators of canoe surfing on Maui. He says the joy of sharing a wave with his crew bears a responsibility.
“Any time you can ride a wave on a canoe you get the satisfaction and the joy of sharing that feeling together with your crew,” Kalepa says. “You all share the same feelings of exhilaration.
“Canoe surfing is such a critical sport, because you can either have the ride of your life or you can injure people. It’s a fine line. You wipe out and ama and ‘iako [struts between the canoe and ama] can be flying all over the place. People can get hurt.”
Kalepa says the largest wave he has ridden in a canoe had a face about 45 feet tall. He and Nainoa Thompson rode the wave at Makaha on O‘ahu.
“The canoe is 22 feet long, and with the crew, there is a combined weight of 700 pounds or more,” Kalepa says. “That’s a lot of momentum. I feel it sharpens my skills as a waterman that I can pull that off. I call it the Hawaiian bobsled ride.”
Canoe surfing has been a part of Puka Ho’s life since he was a 10-year-old kid paddling with the famed Waikiki Beach Boys on O‘ahu. Ho says it was his job before each practice to stroke to a distant end of Waikiki Beach and fill a small canoe with all of the paddles to be used at that day’s session. After he and a friend delivered the paddles back to the canoes, they were free to take the small canoe out in the surf to catch waves.
“At that time I didn’t know how to steer, so we would paddle in circles,” Ho recalls with a laugh. “It was just a short three-man and was really squirrelly.”
When Ho grew up and moved to Maui his opportunity to surf waves in a canoe dwindled. There weren’t that many short canoes on the island and many of those were hand-built out of koa wood—family treasures passed down from one generation to the next. Risking snapping an heirloom in half or running it up on the rocks was not a good idea.
About six years ago, Ho ordered his own fiberglass, four-man canoe from O‘ahu and Kaaa quickly followed suit. They joined a select group of Maui surfing-canoe owners that included Nathan Kamisato, Kalepa and Dave Kalama. That number has steadily grown and there are now about 20 owners on Maui.
Always ready for friendly competition and a chance to spread the aloha spirit, Kaaa decided three years ago to host a low-key canoe surfing contest on Maui’s southwest shore. Competitors were urged to bring their best moves to see who was the top dog of Maui canoe surfing. Kaaa, who makes his own paddles, crafted handmade wooden trophies to present to the winners.
The event has evolved into an entertaining cross between canoe-surfing contest and amateur talent show. Teams practice Hawaiian-style one-upmanship with elaborate routines and outlandish costumes. Each year they push the envelope with new choreography. Crews test the ability of their steersman to keep the canoe upright as they balance on outriggers and perform dance kicks worthy of Radio City Music Hall.