Racing with the Wind

Climb aboard a Hawaiian sailing canoe and travel back in time.


Story by Daniel Ikaika Ito | Photography by Peter Liu

Maui canoe racing“Before 747s and the Super Ferry, before propeller planes and steamships like the Lurline and Malolo, the canoe was the mode of transport throughout Polynesia. For thousands of years, islanders launched canoes to find food, do battle, visit family, and explore new lands. Polynesians settled the Hawaiian Islands sometime around 1190 to 1290 A.D., sailing on double-hulled voyaging canoes and navigating by the stars.

This indigenous art of celestial navigation was nearly lost in Hawai‘i, until Hokule‘a, a modern-day replica of the traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe, rekindled interest in that ancient knowledge.Hokule‘a — a canoe — helped launch the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1970s, and with it, a resurgence of Hawaiian language, hula, arts, and protecting the ‘avian (land).

Today, the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association (HSCA) is perpetuating this cultural practice through its annual season of seven races combined with community events. HSCA’s largest community outreach is Wa‘a Kiakahi, a free celebration held at Ka‘anapali Beach in conjunction with the second race of the season. (Wa‘a is “canoe” in Hawaiian; kiakahi means “with one accord or purpose.”) This is the ninth year Ka‘anapali Beach Resort Association has sponsored Wa‘a Kiakahi, scheduled for May 31 through June 2.

The sailing canoes that HSCA races are hybrids of traditional voyaging canoes and outrigger paddling canoes. The double-hulled Hokule‘a is sixty-two feet long, eighteen feet wide; modern sailing canoes are single-hulled, forty-five feet long and sixteen feet wide.

HSCA Vice President Nakoa Prejean says the association’s vessels are six-man paddling canoes rigged with a mast, sail, and tramps (meshing) between the hull and outriggers. The modern sailing canoe features an extra ama (outrigger), unlike the more prominent paddling canoe, which has only one. And while a paddling canoe relies solely on its crew’s muscle power for locomotion, a sailing canoe can shift from paddling to being propelled by the wind in its sail. In the right conditions, such a vessel can reach speeds up to twenty knots, says Marvin Otsuji, captain of Team OluKai’s sailing canoe.

“We go slower at times, paddling, because we’re lugging all this gear around, but we become a lot more efficient through the channels because we can ride the wind and swells,” says Otsuji.

Maui canoe raceTeam OluKai has won the HSCA race series for the past fifteen years with its canoe Kamakani ‘Eleu(Energetic Wind). Otsuji got hooked on sailing canoes because of his love of speed.

“You see open-ocean bumps and then you’ll shoot through the next wave and do five or six waves — close to a mile run, because you’re going so fast. You’re shooting through these waves like a jet ski; to get that feeling with a [paddling] canoe is very rare.”

Wa‘a Kiakahi is the public’s opportunity to sample the kind of rush that Otsuji feels aboard the sailing canoe. On the first day, HSCA members will race from Kahului Harbor to Black Rock, on the north end of Ka‘anapali Beach, and congregate for the opening ceremony. The second day of Wa‘a Kiakahi is when HSCA offers the general public the chance to ride the sailing canoes — weather permitting.

“Wa‘a Kiakahi is a great opportunity to participate in an ancient Hawaiian cultural practice and sport,” explains Prejean. “It’s rare that all of the canoe [teams] get together to educate the public about and share the canoes.”

There are only six seats on the sailing canoe, but during Wa‘a Kiakahi, a captain and crewmember can accommodate eight to ten passengers. The rides last ten to fifteen minutes and go up to a mile out to sea. To ride, you must be able to swim, and the captain’s discretion is always respected. Last year, approximately 500 people participated in Wa‘a Kiakahi, says Prejean.

Maui sailing canoes“I think the biggest thing I [hear] from the people we take out is that it’s something truly authentic,” he says. “A lot of the feedback we get is what a rush it is, and that it’s something you can’t otherwise do in Hawai‘i or the world.”

Native Hawaiians believe that the best way to learn is by doing, and Wa‘a Kiakahi aligns with this belief. Prejean says passengers can sit on the tramps, but are encouraged to paddle so they can feel what it’s like to be part of the crew. A canoe moves through the water at its highest efficiency when the crew is paddling in unison, an example of the Hawaiian value of laulima (cooperation — many hands working together make the task easier). Knowingly or not, guests on the sailing canoe experiencelaulima firsthand.

“I think being in a canoe is a fantasy for people who come to Hawai‘i,” says Shelley Kekuna, executive director of Ka‘anapali Beach Resort Association. Wa‘a Kiakahi “adds another factor of excitement, because this canoe sails. It’s a modern adaptation to an ancient form of transportation, and to learn and experience that can be life-changing.”

Although the HSCA hosts other community events during its racing season, Wa‘a Kiakahi is the grandest and has the widest reach. Through KBRA’s support, it is open to the public and free.

“The purpose of the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association is to learn, revive, educate, practice and teach the ancient Hawaiian skills and values as they relate to the Hawaiian sailing canoe and its culture,” says Terry Galpin, who is a longtime HSCA member and a segment producer for Ocean Paddler TV. She adds that opening Wa‘a Kiakahi to the public provides an opportunity not just to learn about the culture, but to participate in it.

In addition to the sailing-canoe rides, the second day of Wa‘a Kiakahi presents a variety of educational and cultural opportunities on land: a “talk story” session with Hokule‘a crewmembers, storyboards and pictures for viewing, and discussions about canoes — including the fact that Hokule‘a will soon embark on a yearlong voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

Wa‘a Kiakahi culminates on Sunday at 8 a.m. with a traditional Hawaiian blessing and the start of the HSCA’s next race from Ka‘anapali Beach to the island of Moloka‘i. This the only chance for those on Maui to observe the race in person, because the majority of the course is on the open ocean, but the races are broadcast and webcast through Ocean Paddler TV. Watching the sailing canoes race toward another island and disappear into the horizon is a sight that Polynesians have seen for millennia — a fitting finale to a culturally rich Hawaiian event.

Wa‘a Kiakahi Schedule

FRIDAY, MAY 31, 3 – 3:30 P.M.
Opening Ceremony

Activities: Canoes land at Ka‘anapali Beach after racing from Kahului Harbor to Black Rock; a Hawaiian ceremony welcomes the crews. Bring: Camera and a curious mind.

SATURDAY, JUNE 1, 10 A.M. – 3 P.M.

Sailing Canoe Rides

Activities: The day starts with canoe rides, followed by a Talk Story session at 11 a.m. and discussions about Hawaiian voyaging with Hokule‘a crew members. Guests will have an opportunity to engage HSCA crews while riding canoes or on land. Bring: Sunscreen, hat, clothes okay to get wet in, waterproof camera, drinking water and sense of adventure.


Start of HSCA race from Maui to Moloka‘i

Activities: Traditional send-off for sailing canoes with a Hawaiian blessing for a safe journey. Photo opportunities to capture the canoes with their colors flying. Bring: Camera, long lens, and reverence for Hawaiian culture.

For more information about Wa‘a Kiakahi, visit or call (808) 661-3271.


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