Story by Lehia Apana
This is my office . . . my church . . . my happy place,” says Iokepa Naeole, his easy gaze tracing the cobalt waters.
The dawn surf laps against the beach, patiently luring all eyes to the ocean’s liquid beauty. Just ahead is neighboring Lāna‘i, its mountaintop crowned with cotton-ball clouds. To our right, Pu‘u Keka‘a’s volcanic promontory rises eighty feet above the water.
As cultural resource specialist for Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, Iokepa is here to share his heritage the best way he knows—through the wa‘a, or canoe. I’ve gathered with several Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi colleagues at the hotel’s beachfront Hale Huaka‘i activity center to explore the ocean, Hawaiian style. We form a half-circle around the blue and yellow outrigger canoe, then trade glances in silence. Today this is also Iokepa’s classroom—and are we his eager students.
The ocean has been his constant companion. The lifelong outrigger canoe paddler and quintessential waterman felt an instant connection to the sport when he picked up his first paddle at age twelve. “As Hawaiians, we all have our own way of expressing our culture. For me, it’s always been about the wa‘a,” he says.
He follows in the paddle strokes of Polynesians who crisscrossed the Pacific in double-hulled canoes more than a thousand years ago. As settlers, these wayfarers used compact wa‘a for short trips, battles, and sport. The boat we’ll be launching today is larger than those early wooden versions, seats six, and is made from fiberglass.
Iokepa says those early voyagers “had to learn how to deal with the ocean. They had to look at it not as the obstacle between Maui and Lāna‘i, but the pathway,” he explains. “So this is a cultural reconnection. It’s practicing the skills that our kūpuna [ancestors] required to survive.”