The Bankoh Na Wahine O Ke Kai
Outrigger Canoe Race

By Lisa G. Nolan Special to HoloHolo Hawai`i Ocean Sports News

On my way to Moloka`i on a small turbo prop plane, I gaze out the window and see the stretch of water between O`ahu and Moloka`i, known as the Kaiwi channel. I am reminded of how vast it really is. Tomorrow I will travel this channel from Moloka`i to O`ahu by boat. I'm on my way to witness the Bankoh Na Wahine O Ke Kai: the 41-mile women's outrigger canoe race from Hale O Lono Harbor, Moloka`i to Waikiki Beach, O`ahu.

I am a photographer and will be documenting the race on one of the press boats. Traveling with me is my sister, Kim Evans, who will be participating with one of the crews from Kai 'Opua Canoe Club from the Island of Hawai`i. The plane we are traveling on is so small and crammed full of bodies I wonder how, in an emergency, I would reach the exit. Over the seats would be the best route because the aisle is too narrow for even just one of my legs. I'm sure we'd be trapped. I try to think of other things as this is much too fightening. I look across the channel to Moloka`i. We are about half way and I'm greatly anticipating our arrival.

Eventually, the captain announces that we are nearing Hale O Lono Harbor. He must have known that the plane was filled with people associated with the race because he gave us a great view. On the left side of the aircraft was the beautiful little beach lined with about 50 canoes. What a sight. Suddenly I am filled with excitement. We all watched the harbor go by.

We touch down on to Moloka`i soil. How good it feels to be here. As we make our way down the confined cabin to get off the plane, I feel the warm Moloka`i air seeping in. "This has got to be the greatest airport in the world," someone says to me, and I have to agree. Anywhere you can still step off the plane onto the tarmac and walk to the terminal is definitely a breath of fresh air, literaily.

Kim and I make our way to the curb outside the airport and the thought of getting a ride to the hotel has just crossed my mind. Usually I would have made plans for this sort of thing but being that we are on Moloka`i, "The Friendly Isle," I am sure that someone will be heading my way and will offer a ride. That's the way things are on Moloka`i. Everyone is so friendly and generous; it's their way of life. Kim's paddle didn't arrive on the flight and she decides to stay and wait for the next flight from O`ahu in hopes that it will contain her precious cargo. I decide to go on without her.

Sitting on the curb waiting, I look around and see Molokai's trademark red dirt seemingly coating everything. "Anyone need a ride to the hotel?" I hear a woman ask. About six of us take her up on her offer and load up into the back of her pick-up truck. What a nice lady. Only on Moloka`i!

On the ride to the hotel I begin talking with a fellow photographer named Joss. Together we'll attempt to find a ride to Hale O Lono Harbor to get some shots on this day before the race. It seems that everyone has finished rigging their canoes and nobody is going our way. After waiting for about 15 minutes we noticed a Molokai Ranch truck approaching. As it gets near and slows, the gentleman inside asks if we need a ride. "Yes please!" we exclaim and jump into the cab with him. His name is Kawika and works for Molokai Ranch. He has got to be one of the nicest strangers I have ever met.

The drive to the harbor takes about 30 minutes, most of which is on a dirt road owned by Molokai Ranch, so we have time to chat with Kawika, our new friend. We strike up conversations about the weather. the mainland (the continental United States), the race, you name it. It's as if we have talked before. As we continue on our drive, not a car passes that Kawika doesn't wave at and receive a wave in return.

Hale O Lono is deserted. Everyone, for the most part, is finished preparing their canoes and won't return to the harbor until the morning of the race. lt is a beautiful sight, all the canoes just sitting on the beach as if they are getting an early sleep before their big day. I take my time selecting my shots. The water is unusually calm and all is quiet as the sun hangs low on the horizon.

Back at the hotel, it is a much livelier scene. Everyone is getting ready for the spaghetti dinner and talent show. As more and more people arrive and fill their plates the place starts to look like a real party. Live music lingers in the background and the hum of voices surrounds. This is a time for the different clubs to come together and to unwind before the race. There are many smiles and hugs as people meet new and old friends. As people mingle and eat, the talent contest begins and all are ready to be entertained.

A handfull of crews do their best to ham it up singing, dancing and laughing. There is so much energy.

From Hula to the Macarena it is amazing to see so many women together having such a great time.

People are dancing, a few on the tables, hooting at each other and just having fun. As the last crew performs, things begin to wind down. It is time to end the merriment and focus on the race. Crews retum to their rooms for meetings and thoughts to sleep on.

I accompany my sister to her room and meet up with her crew. Everyone gathers around in a big circle and the coach gives a heartwarming and inspiring talk to all the girls. It is a time when all coaches, in their own way, prepare their paddlers for the next day's event. I sit and observe the overwhelming sense of sisterhood. These women have spent hours, months, some even years training together. There is such a feeling of closeness that I can't help but want to be a part of it. This race is about so much more than physical strength. It is also about coming together as one, mentally. After the meeting, the girls disperse and prepare to sleep. Because tomorrow is such a big day, most will sleep light. There is so much to think about.

The morning of the race is exhilerating. Hale O Lono Harbor is filled with canoes, escort boats and people. You can just feel the energy abound. All last minute preparations are handled by each crew and it is time for the prayer and Hawaiian chant. Everyone is quiet now, listening, anticipating, holding hands. This is a very special race and many emotions are shared.

After joining in sinș raii Aloha", it is time to get the boats into the water. Cheers are heard from various crews and in a matter of about 15 minutes, the sandy beach of Hale O Lono is free of canoes once again. All that remain are spectators, the remaining four team members from each crew and escort boats, which will be gone soon as well.

Each crew consists of 10 women, six of which will start the race. The remaining four paddlers from each crew will follow close by in an escort boat and, at the coach's discretion, will be alternated into the canoe throughout the race.

As all the canoes line up outside Hale O Lono Harbor, steersmen struggle to keep their canoes as close to the starting line as possible without crossing it. The yellow flag is lifted, then red then green. They're off! At approximately 7:30am, the Bankoh Na Wahine O Ke Kai is underway.

Kailua Canoe Club from O`ahu looks to have gotten a great start. In the middle of the pack, however, I notice a canoe that has flipped over. It is the first 'huli' of the race. Hopefully it will be the last. They manage to flip their canoe back over and continue with determination. Then, gradually, OffShore Canoe Club from Newport Beach California emerges, taking the lead with Outrigger Canoe Club from O`ahu following close behind. Australia, Lanakila Outrigger from California and Hui Nalu from O`ahu are next in line as all struggle to get away from the pack. Toward La'au point Outrigger begins to pull ahead of OffShore and it looks like this may be the start of a close race. Outrigger can't seem to keep the lead and once again OffShore takes over as the leader. It's almost time for the first change of the race. This is allowed to take place either half an hour after the start or by the time the canoes reach La'au point on the western side of Moloka`i, whichever comes first. Changes usually consist of one to three women being dropped off in the water ahead of the canoe. As the canoe approaches them, paddlers will jump out of the canoe, leaving the paddle for the next paddler, while the women in the water hustle to get into the boat as fast as they can. The object is to minimize drag by getting into the canoe and starting to paddle as soon as possible. Changes are a very important part of the race, because if done poorly other canoes will gain on you.

It is very exciting being out here on the open ocean surrounded by athletes. I am traveling in the press boat with other fellow photographers and videographers. We all are glad to be here and just as glad that we have taken our Dramamine. Although the water is relatively calm, it is still bumpy enough for us to feel a little queasy. It also takes a very steady hand to get pictures of canoes taken. (It's easy to take a picture of the ocean, the sky or the boat driver's leg.) Because the conditions of the water are more calm than normal, everyone is aware that this will be a long, grueling race for all. There will be little wind, current or waves to assist the women. When they arrive on O`ahu it will be the much deserved result of very strenuous work.

Not too far off from La`au point toward O`ahu, it is clear that OffShore, Outrigger and Australia are going to be the leaders for the remainder of the race, provided no major mistakes are made. Hui Nalu, Lokahi and Kailua canoe clubs, all from O`ahu, and Lanakila Outrigger from California, comprise the second pack. Kai 'Opua from the Island of Hawai`i struggles with the Umbi Gumbi crew, a mixture of women from California, Hawai`i and Australia. (This race brings women from all over the world together.)

The driver of the press boat has been very patient. It isn't easy to take orders from four different photographers all wanting their idea of the perfect shot. He does a great job accommodating all of us. We zip around from boat to boat. A great variety of shots are taken from various vantage points. We are able to see most of the crews. Occasionally one of us will know one of the paddlers and will yell out encouragement, unsure if the words are heard. Those women work so hard. I hear one of the men in the press boat say, "just look at number three's arms, she's got more muscle than me," and I look at him and agree with a chuckle. Actually most of the women out here have more muscles than him but I kept that thought to myself. I continue to photograph and think about how much preparation this race must have taken. There are so many officials out on this water, as well as press people and sponsors, planners, coaches, spouses, friends, relatives and more, all of which make this race run smoothly and that's not even counting all the paddlers.

As the canoes begin to reach O`ahu, OffShore remains in the lead slightly on the inside while Australia chooses an outside line to the finish. Searching for Outrigger, I follow the helicopter that has been buzzing around. Way on the inside I spot their canoe and am surprised at the course they have taken. They are barely visible from the location of the Australians. It will be interesting to see which strategy pays off: close to shore or more outside. The race is definitely not over yet. These three crews are still struggling for first place.

By the time OffShore reaches Diamond Head, it is obvious who the champions will be. OffShore will take home the victory for the 10th time in the last eleven years. They are unstoppable today. Australia finishes second and Outrigger finishes just 22 seconds later in third place. It has been a long race for all. Due to the light winds and calm water conditions, this is the slowest winning time (6 hours, 46 minutes, 33 seconds) in 11 years. Just last year, OffShore set a record for the fastest winning time at 5 hours, 54 minutes, 32 seconds.

I watch from the pier in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village as the first five crews finish. In preserving the Hawaiian traditions, it is customary for these crews to show their respect for the King and Queen of old Hawai`i. There is a mock royal court on the beach and each crew takes their turn in bowing to the monarchy. This is a respectful tribute to the Hawaiian heritage and it is beautiful to watch.

As the remaining finishers trickle in, many are sitting on the grass in the shade relaxing after the drawn out race. The final canoe, Koa Kai, finishes with a time of 8 hours, 47 minutes and 55 seconds. The time is not important as these women have just paddled 41 miles, from one island to the other. They should be proud of their accomplishment. They have been out on the water working extremely hard for longer than a normal work day. That is something that most people will never do.

Out of the 52 finishing crews, 47 used fiberglass canoes while only 5 used canoes made of Koa wood (Koa is a rare Hawaiian wood.) Each paddler will take home a medal and a shirt from the race. Medals are given to the top three overall finishers, (1) OffShore from California, (2) Australia, (3) Outrigger from O`ahu, as well as the top three finishers in the Koa Canoe Division. The results of the Koa Division are (1) Lanikai from O`ahu, (2) Healani from O`ahu, (3) Kai 'Opua from the Big Island of Hawai`i. Checks were also given out to these three finishers, $1,000.00, $500.00, $250.00, respectively. The Junior Masters (age 35 and over) Division was won by Lokahi and the Senior Masters (age 45 and over) Division was won by Keauhou.

The ending of the race is bittersweet for many. This race is the final long distance race of the season and has been anticipated for months. Many of these women have been competing with their teammates for a seat in a canoe in this very special race. Now that it is over, the pressure is off and a sense of accomplishment is felt.

There is also a feeling of sadness. These women will miss the sense of camaraderie that they have felt with each other all season. Many hours are spent in the canoe and now that the season has come to an end, the practices will too. Friends will do their best to keep in touch with their fellow paddlers in the off-season. For some, it will be a year before they see each other or race against each other again. Everyone will go their separate ways until the season starts up once again.

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Last Modified: Sunday - 11/3/96
Copyright © 1996, Lisa Nolan / HoloHolo Internet Publishing, all rights reserved