Johl's Dream
of a First-Class Rowing Event Coming True

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (12/27/97)
By Ray Pendleton

Nearly four years ago, an energetic Canadian woman named Robyn Johl began seeking support for a vision she had for the Ala Wai Canal. She pictured collegiate rowing shells - called "eights," because they are rowed by eight crew members - gliding down that waterway in a mid-Pacific version of England's 280-year-old Henley Regatta on the River Thames.

Johl had had experience with such regattas - she had previously organized the very successful International Victoria Boat Race in Canada - and she viewed the Ala Wai as potentially, "a perfect flat-water venue for rowing."

Four things were needed to make Johl's vision become reality: financial and logistical support, crews to compete, and water deep enough to row in.

Somehow she found all four, but not without some compromise.

Naming her event the Royal Hawaiian Rowing Challenge, she found initial - and on-going - support from the Outrigger Canoe Club's Duke Kahanamoku Foundation. For competitors, Johl lined up crews from several mainland universities and, perhaps most surprisingly, she found 1,000 meters of the Ala Wai sufficiently deep and wide enough for two 60-foot shells to race. Never mind that it was only half the length of an official Olympic course.

The starting gun went off for the first Rowing Challenge on December 18, 1994, and each year since, Johl has managed to recreate at least a portion of her vision of a "Henley-on-Ala Wai."

This year's regatta will be run from New Year's Day through January 4, and as always, there is no charge to spectators watching from the banks of the canal or checking out the shells up-close at the Ala Wai Community Center Boat House.

Top collegiate rowing crews from the U.S. and Japan will be competing, including Harvard, Stanford, Washington State, University of Southern California, and Kyoto University. Club teams in the "open" category will race for Princeton, Westminster (England), Oregon, Kyoto, and Honolulu.

The crews will be racing daily, from 8 a.m. and to 2 p.m., except for the Sunday's "Grand Finals," which should end at 4 p.m.

Johl expects this year's regatta to be the best yet, and is thankful for the strong support from the Department of Business and Economic Development and Tourism, the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, and Honolulu's Cultural and Arts Division..

One exciting development, says Johl, is that Stanford University has generously donated two rowing shells to the Royal Hawaiian Rowing Challenge. The school also donated a set of oars, a gift being matched by U.S. Rowing Association official Julian Wolf.

These gifts will become the start of a year-round physical presence of RHRC boats in Hawai`i, and might remind many kamaaina of a time in the 1960s when schools such as Punahou, Farrington, McKinley, Iolani and the University of Hawaii had strong rowing teams.

Johl, of course, would love to see a return of those days.

"Nowhere in the world does a more perfect, intimate, and spectator-friendly site exist in the heart of a famous holiday resort," she told me.

"And once the state and the city implement their maintenance and master plans for the Ala Wai, the race course could meet all international standards for rowing competitions."

Watching the rebirth of a competition that combines grace, speed, coordination and endurance, within an historic frame of reference, could be a great way to start the new year.

Houoli Makahiki Hou!

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