Queen Liliuokalani Race
August 31 1996


By Karen Davis

(Kailua-Kona HI, August 31 1996)--The Queen Lili’uokalani - the World’s Largest Outrigger Canoe Race celebrated its 25th anniversary this past weekend with over 10 different countries and 2500 participants. Unseasonably cool, even rainy weather prevailed throughout the two-day event kept participants and spectators comfortable, at least on the sidelines.

Out on the race course, it was a different story.

As over 140 women’s crews lined up just beyond Kamakahonu Bay, there was nothing but "chicken skin" as the 8:00 start approached.

>From the beginning, O`ahu’s Outrigger and Kailua Canoe Clubs , and Kona’s own Kai Opua jumped into the lead. Kailua started closest to the shore, while Outrigger and Kai Opua were in the center of it all, only 50 feet apart and trading places for the lead.

Close behind in the koa division and battling for their own first place was another crew from Kai Opua and O`ahu’s Lanikai. In the iron division battling amongst themselves and the top 10, it was California’s Lanakila, Oahu’s Kailua and Maui’s Hawaiian Canoe Club. Every stroke made a difference.

The masters (35 and over) and senior masters (45 and over) had their own battles on the flat waters off the Kona coast, as did the malia boat crews, whose traditional canoe styles have only the toughest of crews paddling them along the 18 mile course.

Over 100 escort boats tossed and turned the ocean as they dropped the relief paddlers for the nine-person crews, while iron crews took turns drinking within their own boats as they moved along. Several canoes hulied (flipped) when unexpected waves or wakes hit their amas, but no one was hurt and all finished the event.

After nearly two hours of battling for the lead, Outrigger Canoe Club pulled ahead of Kai Opua to claim the overall and first koa victory, with a time of 2:08:29. One minute later the hometown Kai Opua girls crossed the line to take first place in the non-koa division and second overall. Finishing out the top five were Kailua, Lokahi and Lanakila (who won first place in the iron division).

How did it feel to have the hometown women do so well in a field of Olympic and elite athletes? "It was a great race and we are so excited for all of the women of Kai Opua," says Billy Bates, Kai Opua’s women’s coach. "We really stressed that not just one crew came in second, but the team. It took all 33 women to get to this point and all 33 women were a part of the crew’s gold medal effort today and should be proud."

It took nearly two more hours for the final canoe, paddled by the 15-18 year old girls of Ka Keiki O Ka Moi to cross the finish line and prepare for the start of the men’s race.

Clouds and following seas awaited the 170 men’s crews who sat on the men’s starting line. Due to the length of the starting line - over one mile of canoes lined up side by side - a "running start" for the men was stopped several minutes later and begun again once the canoes were evenly aligned.

Out to the front went defending champions Lanikai for Oahu. Close behind and battling for the top five spots were Kai Opua, Outrigger, Waikiki Surf and California’s Lanakila iron crew and Imua iron masters.

Not to be considered out of contention with the usually heavy koa canoes, pushing for victory overall and remaining in the top ten were the men of Kai Opua and Oahu’s Lanikai, exchanging places throughout their race, as did those in the malia boats, masters, senior masters and kupuna (55 and over) divisions.

In the end, it was Lanikai claiming their third overall victory in as many years, with a time of 1:48:54. Less than a minute behind, Outrigger came across the line for second place, followed by Waikiki Surf, all in non-koa canoes.

The closest and most exciting finish came only a minute later and the battle between Kai Opua and Lanakila literally came to a photo finish for fourth overall. Kai Opua edged ahead by a mere two-one-thousandth of a second difference between themselves and Lanakila’s iron crew, rounding out the top five spots overall.

Saturday afternoon began with a heavy rain that cleared up just in time for the traditional torch parade, this year ending at the pier for the post-race dance and celebration. Thousands of paddlers and friends danced the night away, celebrating the events of the day.

As the sun rose above Mt. Hualalai on Sunday morning, the second day of racing began. First was the one-person outrigger race for the women, beginning in Kamakahonu Bay and ending 5.5 miles later in Keauhou. Over 30 women from around the world participated. Coming across the line first was Sonja Lambert from Oahu; second to Carrie Sue Judd of Kona; third to Cheryl Villegas, also of Kona.

The double-hull race followed, where crews of twelve women paddled their way to Keauhou. Coming across the line to capture first place was Lanikai, with second to Lokahi and third to Hanalei.

Time to turn it all around and go back to Kailua, with the men paddling the one-person canoes. Defending his two-year reign was Kona’s Thibert Luisiaa, but it was newcomer to Kona, New Zealand’s Maui Kjeldsen who blasted to first place, followed by Oahu’s Bo Esterbrook for second. Luisiaa placed third.

Double-hull canoes lined up for the men and it was Waikiki Surf Club who paddled to victory, followed by Maui’s Hawaiian, with third going to Lanikai.

The festivities ended at the Old Airport Pavilion, where over 2,000 plates of food were prepared by the Kanuha ohana and served by Kai Opua members. Music filled the air and new friends exchanged hugs and farewells in over 10 languages. As the awards were handed out, race coordinator Mary Spinney-Green acknowledged the founding members of Kai Opua, and the current race committee members who made it all happen. And with a fond aloha, the ceremonies ended.

As a veteran paddler of nearly 15 years, the memories of this well-organized, amazing event will live forever. Not just to those of us lucky enough to take home a medal or plaque, but to everyone who was fortunate enough to be a part of this event and cultural experience.

Working behind the scenes, everyone came together to help, all becoming a part of the outrigger canoe ohana. Whether it was people lifting canoes for each other or picking up trash at the Place of Refuge, hearts were bonded with the true meaning of aloha and theme of this year’s race, Ho’omau I ka Uhane - Perpetuate the Spirit. The spirit that we felt as paddlers was the love of the ocean, the power of our bodies as we push the canoes and ourselves forward and the "family" that we meet through it all.

It is through this understanding of the "spirit" of outrigger paddling that we all become Hawaiian in our hearts. May we remember to share that with everyone we meet until the next season begins.

*Hele On Back

Last Modified: Monday 9/23/96
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