Hoe Wa‘a / Canoe


Hoe Wa‘a / Canoe Paddling

Albert Kamila Choy Ching, Jr.

The cop driving along in central O‘ahu couldn’t believe his luck when the ’47 Ford suddenly emerged from a canefield. Police had been trying to catch the canary yellow hotrod for months, but its four-barrel Mercury V-8 had been too fast . . . until now. Quickly, the officer blocked the Ford’s escape and arrested the driver. The teenage speedster should have gone to jail, but the chief of police knew his parents and decided to give him a choice: Join the Marines and clear a string of drag-racing citations or spend some serious time in prison.
“The Marines? Why not?”
For Albert Kamila Choy Ching, Jr., the decision would mean leaving Hawai‘i and starting a journey already taken by many other Hawaiians. It was 1959 and Al Ching was eighteen years old. His military basic training was in San Diego, and soon the Marines shipped Al to the Far East for three years as a radio operator. When he discovered that going to school could earn him an early discharge, he enrolled at Pasadena Junior College--and he never moved back to the islands.
Of the 211,000 people with Hawaiian ancestry counted in the most recent U.S. Census, more than 72,000 live on the continental United States. And half of those expatriates make their homes in California. In places like Hayward, across the bay from San Francisco, and Gardena, near Los Angeles, Hawaiians and other former island residents have their own nightclubs, restaurants, grocery stores, radio shows, hula schools, and canoe clubs.
Many Hawaiians who have lived on the mainland for decades have not changed the patterns of their island upbringing. They still speak in the pidgin cadences of their youth. They wear rubber slippers. They stockpile rice in fifty-pound bags. In southern California, a group of Hawaiians holds an annual ho‘olaulea, a celebration, attended by thousands of people. And some determined athletes meet regularly to paddle outrigger canoes, maintaining an aquatic link to their Hawaiian past. No matter that the traditional koa logs have been updated in fiberglass, resin, and nylon; paddling keeps them in touch with their island home.
Paddling outrigger canoes helped Al forge a deep connection with his Hawaiian heritage, but it came about by accident. On a Friday night in 1964 at the Little Hawaii bar in Los Angeles, Al and his roommates were sucking up Coors when a friend introduced them to Sandy Kahanamoku, nephew of surfing, swimming, and paddling legend Duke Kahanamoku. He invited the group to join him in Santa Monica the following day to watch an outrigger canoe race. At the beach the next morning, they were having a good time watching the regatta when a coach singled them out and told them his team was shorthanded--would they pitch in and paddle in a race? Al Ching had never raced outriggers before, but his time in the Marines had kept his body strong and slender, and as a teenager he had crewed sculls for Kaimukĩ High and had paddled fishing canoes to diving grounds off Waikĩkĩ.
Al and his friends took off their shirts and shoes, rolled up their pants, and climbed into a canoe. One minute they had been spectators, and the next, their paddles were pulling the canoe through the Pacific. They finished in second place. “It was fun,” Al remembered. “[Afterward] we were held in high esteem by the Hawaiian community around here because not too many of us paddled then. It was a big thing, though we were just beginners.”

Today, Al is in his fifties, but if not for his sun-crinkled eyes and the gray around his temples, anyone would guess he is thirty-five. His brown body is trim and fit, partly because he has paddled for three decades, but mostly because there is another side to Al’s happy-go-lucky demeanor. He is intense and competitive, with the discipline to wake up at 3 a.m. Monday through Friday, clean office buildings before the workers arrive, go home, get his two sons ready for school as their mother leaves for her job, drop the boys off, then go to work on his canoes or house before picking up his sons after school and taking them to afternoon sports.
Beneath an umbrella at a Redondo Beach restaurant, Al relaxed, ate a breakfast omelet, and answered questions with stories about how his involvement with outrigger canoes had unfolded. “At first, I had no idea anything was going to happen beyond the next weekend. When you’re single, you wait for the weekends and that’s it.”
After his impromptu first race, Al eased into the sport gradually. In the early days, most teams practiced just once a week. “We’d paddle out for about a mile, then paddle back in and drink the rest of the day,” Al said with a laugh. “And that was our practice for the whole week.” The competitions may have been intense, but the weekend regattas were basically an opportunity to socialize.
In 1970, after six years of enjoying the races and camaraderie, he and his older brother Ralph decided to start their own canoe club with three Redondo Beach paddlers who were tired of commuting fourteen miles to practice at Marina Del Rey. Al and Ralph asked their mother, Helen, a fluent speaker of Hawaiian, to come up with a name for their new canoe club. She chose the Hawaiian word for victory--Lanakila.
Ralph got the city to recognize the club and give them a place at King Harbor for their canoes. But financing was more difficult to come by. “We used our own money. We built our own canoes. We just scraped money from here and there. . . . I liked everything about paddling. I liked the social life, the competition, the organizing, and of course I loved the water. I grew up near Kāhala Beach, and going to the beach was pretty regular with our family.”
Al was a natural for paddling. He had keen eye-hand coordination and excelled as a steersman. He also loved to teach, and his high school coach John Kapua had taught him enough about paddling technique during his sculling year at Kaimukī for Al to want to improve himself and others. “I kept coming back [to paddling] because there was a desire to get better. There never was a desire to get to the very top--it just came. I wanted to get a little better, and then I figured maybe I can beat that guy and then the next guy. . . . Before you know it, there’s a lot of guys behind you and you never intended to be that way. And people start looking up at you, and it’s almost a shock, like ‘Wow, how did I get here?’”
Al kept his days free for the canoes by working nights, loading and unloading trucks for United Parcel Service until an on-the-job accident forced him to leave. When he recovered, he began cleaning a woman’s house and hair salon to earn money. That job led to connections with more and more companies until he and his crew of six were hauling mops, buckets, scrubbers, vacuums, burnishers, and polishers all over Los Angeles, scouring thirty-six company offices in the early morning.
Al spent his days training paddling crews, fixing older canoes, and building new canoes. The dry air and temperature extremes in California made the wooden-hull canoes crack, so Al concentrated on using fiberglass and eventually built twelve canoes, each with a Hawaiian name--Kūkini (the runner), ‘Onipa‘a (steadfast), He‘e Nalu (wave rider). Ralph returned to Honolulu to live in 1975, and Al took over as head coach for Lanakila. He was determined that their club would win the California state championships that year--and it did. After the championship races, his paddlers were the first California crew ever to fly to Kona on the Big Island of Hawai‘i for the annual Lili‘uokalani distance race. In a field of international competitors, Lanakila placed first in the fiberglass division, and in the years that followed they consistently took second and third place.
A Newport Beach paddling club called Blazing Paddles became the first non-Hawai‘i team to win the annual Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu men’s outrigger canoe race, in 1978. The forty-one-mile sprint across treacherous Kaiwi Channel, where wind-blown swells on race day may reach fifteen feet, is considered the world’s premier paddling event. In the years after Blazing Paddles’ victory, more California teams won the prestigious event.
The Moloka‘i victories by California teams raised the profile of the sport among southern California’s legion of athletes, who are always on the lookout for a new ocean trend to keep them in shape. The sport quickly became more competitive. Most of Al’s original crews had been Hawaiians, but Caucasians began moving into their slots. “I just don’t see any Hawaiians living around the beach anymore,” Al said. “I used to see a lot. Most live inland now. They are involved in a lot of other things, like hula and crafts.”
Despite the change, Al did not worry about his sport becoming stranded in a haole world. “It never bothered me. I never thought twice about it. I just feel that nationality doesn’t make any difference anymore. If you want to paddle, you’re out there all the time.”
Whenever a club had a new canoe to be blessed, though, they always called Al, the Hawaiian. “Now it’s the standard, everybody wants me to do it. I can’t believe it. I ask myself, ‘Oh man, how did I get this job?’”
Like almost everything else in Al’s life, canoe blessing began unexpectedly. One day Noah Kalama, the Hawaiian responsible for founding the Kalifornia Outrigger Association, telephoned Al to say he would not be able to drive up from Long Beach to bless one of Al’s new canoes. Kalama urged Al to do it himself.
“‘Me?’ ‘Yeah, you can do it.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know how.’ Then he told me, ‘Just say things from your heart, say what you want to say, make things simple.’ I’ve watched him bless the canoes, and he always read the Twenty-third Psalm from the Bible. Then he’d say the prayer in Hawaiian, the Lord’s Prayer, then the whole group standing around does the same thing, but in English. Then there’s a koa bowl filled with ocean water and he sprinkles it around, then names the name of the boat and blesses it. . . .
“Basically I do the same thing. I always mention to the people, ‘There is no magic. . . . You are the people who make this boat blessed. . . . This boat will still be here if you take good care of it, after your years of paddling are done. And hopefully your children will get to use the boat. . . . And maybe their children will be using the same boat. So you kind of make a time machine. It just carries us from one generation to the next.’”
Every year, Al coached the entire club--sometimes as many as seventy people in eleven novice teams of men, women, teenagers, and masters men and women. His life revolved around canoeing. He maintained that commitment until 1976 when he met Erin Shea, one of Lanakila’s crop of new paddlers. He and Erin courted each other at races and at the parties that followed, and in 1978, Noah Kalama performed their marriage ceremony. It took place at sea off Los Angeles, aboard the Buccaneer Queen, an enormous square-rigged ship, with one hundred people in attendance. In the next few years Erin gave birth to two sons, and Al decided to train some new coaches in order to reduce his work load and have more time for his family. “When I was single I used to spend all of my time down at the harbor. I put all my energy into it,” Al said. “Now I like to come home. . . . My family is number one.”
Home base for the Lanakila Outrigger Canoe Club is about a mile from Al’s house in Redondo, just north of Palos Verdes Point. There, at King Harbor, sixteen hundred pleasure craft are berthed in a maze of docks fronting an enormous power plant, its six emission stacks higher than the nearby hills. On a barren patch of dirt by the harbor, Lanakila’s red outrigger canoes lie side by side in cradles resting on carpet remnants. The shiny hulls and spindly outriggers juxtapose centuries of Polynesian science and art with the severely urban landscape.
Each sleek canoe weighs no less than four hundred pounds and measures no more than forty-five feet long--standards set by the racing association. The outrigger, called an ama, is rigged off the hull’s left side and is connected to it by two parallel booms, called ‘iako. The whole assembly is secured to the boat by a series of complex lashings. The outrigger, Oceania’s chief contribution to the world’s marine architecture, keeps the slim vessel upright even in rough swells.
Three afternoons every week during paddling season, Lanakila paddlers lug their canoes to the harbor’s concrete launch ramp and float them into the cold water. Hefting their paddles, the men and women climb into their seats and whisk quietly out to sea, past tugboats waiting to service the petroleum tankers anchored outside the harbor. As the canoes move beyond the breakwater, the condo-smothered shoreline falls away into the darkening desert sky.
For a recent state championship, twenty-seven California canoe clubs descended on Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara, the fourteenth time for Lanakila since winning its first title. Oil derricks floated on the dim horizon, and kelp beds marked the water near shore, where the twelve-lane course was flagged parallel to the beach. The mostly haole crews pulled on Lycra shorts and tanktops over their swimsuits and did some stretches in preparation for the races. Loudspeakers pumped Hawaiian music into the morning air.
Al Ching moved quickly through the crowd of paddlers, preoccupied with a few team registration problems. His crews watched the half-mile sprints while waiting their turn. As the green flag dropped, the starting racers dug their blades into the water and pulled short, fast strokes, as many as seventy-five a minute. The practiced synchronization among the crews included a paddle switchover about every fifteen seconds, when the stroke--the paddler in the front seat who sets the pace and counts strokes--called out the signal for switching paddles over to the other side of the canoe: “Hut! Ho!”
The best crews moved as one, their muscles pulling precisely and fast to move the hull and its tracking wing as efficiently as possible around the markers and toward the finish line. At the finish, crew members collapsed, their lungs and muscles burning. Even the best teams were penalized now and then by slip-ups--a late start, a bad turn, poor timing. Al’s senior women beat the favored club to the finish line, only to lose first place because of a time penalty for touching a flag.
Al was scheduled to steer a canoe in a master’s division race. His demeanor changed as his race time drew near. In the boat, he was all command and alertness. He yelled out the canoe’s position and pressed the crew to paddle deeper and faster. At the turns, he maneuvered the canoe smoothly around the flag with a quick series of powerful side and back strokes from his long-bladed paddle. Al’s canoe won the race by three feet. “I was like a maniac out there.”
Although the paddlers in the championship races were mostly haole, Hawaiians ran the meet. Kauhi Ho‘okano from the Newport club captained the committee boat. His brother Lucky, who left Kaua‘i in 1970 to attend college on the mainland, announced the awards. The Marina Del Rey club, coached by Sandy Kahanamoku, won most of the trophies.
“I enjoy watching our people learn, how they came up from nothing,” Al said. “And if any of them win a race in the state championship, that makes me happy, real happy. Just watching them. Because I remember when I won. . . . All the things that I learn through canoeing come from my Hawaiian side. How to look at the clouds. How to look at the ripples on the water and to see how the water is running. Even navigating backwards. . . . The canoes did a real lot for me, kept my health, kept my tradition, kept me in touch with Hawai‘i.”

Outrigger canoe racing is a legacy from an ancient voyaging tradition. The first Polynesians sailed to Hawai‘i from the Marquesas Islands around 350 a.d. They crisscrossed the vast Pacific guided only by their knowledge of natural phenomena--the stars, clouds, birds, and ocean swells.
Early Hawaiians used canoes for fishing and interisland travel--and races, wagering their lives, belongings, and even wives on the outcome. Canoe racing declined after the death of King Kamehameha I, in 1819, as Western-style boats came into greater use. When King Kalākaua revived water sports in the late 1800s, the royals favored sculling barges for Regatta Day. Still, outrigger canoes could be seen dotting the rocky shores and beaches, and beachboys thrilled tourists with canoe rides on waves at Waikïkï Beach.
Canoe racing continued to be a haphazard activity until 1950, when leaders representing three hundred paddlers on O‘ahu formed what later became the Hawai‘i Canoe Racing Association. They set a minimum weight of four hundred pounds for koa-wood canoes and established rules against paddlers swamping or whacking each other. The sport attracted fifteen hundred people in the 1970s, during an historic resurgence of interest in all things Hawaiian known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. Because so many people wanted to paddle, a second, statewide association, called Hui Wa‘a, was formed. By the 1990s, as many as seven thousand people were paddling in fifty-three different clubs. Because the islands’ koa forests have been denuded by ranching, logging, wild pigs, and grazing animals, wooden canoes are prohibitively expensive, and most clubs use fiberglass canoes for the racing seasons in Hawai‘i and California.
The Moloka‘i race and the Lili‘uokalani distance race off the Big Island in September have become the annual goals for a handful of coaches in California and their mostly haole paddlers. The local paddlers in Hawai‘i no longer have an advantage in competition. Crews from Tahiti, California, and Illinois have finished first or second in almost every Moloka‘i race since 1975.
Each spring, as the start of the California season approaches, Al Ching posts flyers in neighborhood stores and colleges and recruits novice paddlers from weight rooms and gyms. He typically begins a new season in April with three hundred eager people, but the number is quickly whittled down to about seventy or less. The sport demands a commitment few athletes can sustain.
Al and his crews began to compete in Hawai‘i in 1975, usually in the Lili‘uokalani distance race. They consistently placed first, second, or third. Moloka‘i is another race altogether, and the few times his men paddled across Kaiwi Channel, eighteenth was the highest Lanakila placed. In 1989, Al’s women decided to give it a try.
They set their sights on Moloka‘i in March, allowing time for their bodies and pocketbooks to be ready by September 24, race day. For all paddlers, Hawai‘i is the ultimate place to race. If Lanakila’s women survived the Moloka‘i race, the channel would transform them from mainland haole into nā wāhine o ke kai, women of the sea, carrying on a long-standing Hawaiian tradition.
The crew bought their tickets to O‘ahu with money from a fund-raiser lū‘au, their savings accounts, and the sale of eighteen hundred candy bars. To economize, they would forego hotels and sleep at Al’s mother’s house and with the parents of their steersman, Sheryl Au.
Two days before the crew was to leave for Hawai‘i, Al got a call from Honolulu. Race officials had not received the papers to prove Lanakila’s canoe hull conformed to race specifications. The canoe was unreachable--halfway to Moloka‘i on a barge. With the race five days away, Al had to come up with another canoe. Maybe he was born under a lucky star; the canoe he arranged to borrow was a treasure, a deep reddish-brown koa canoe loaned by canoe-builder Paul Gay and paddling enthusiasts Mike Muller and Gaylord Wilcox.
Twelve years earlier, a precious, four-ton koa log had been shipped to O‘ahu from the Big Island. A few men had tried to build a canoe from it, but they hadn’t gotten beyond the rough outline stage. Paul Gay had been patching and restored canoes for thirty years, dreaming of the day he might build one. Muller and Wilcox asked him to carve a canoe from this magnificent log, and Gay’s dream came true. Paul moved the log to Wai‘anae, and for five-and-a-half months he and his friend Phillip Naone spent every weekend working to reshape the koa, using both handmade and power tools. The finished canoe was named Ka‘ala, the name of the highest point on O‘ahu--the mountain that rises behind Naone’s house.
At Hale o Lono Harbor on Moloka‘i the day before the race, the women of Lanakila rigged the outrigger to the hull, carried Ka‘ala into the water, and tried it out. There was time to enjoy the moment, paddling easily along the arid, leeward coast, and they marveled at the sensation of the great hollowed log pushing through the water. Fiberglass hulls do the same thing, but Ka‘ala allowed them to sit inside a piece of Hawai‘i; their muscles and paddles gave new life to the koa tree as it moved over the sea.
In the evening, Lanakila joined the other 250 paddlers at the Kaluako‘i Resort, race headquarters, to load up with carbohydrates and perform songs and skits touting each club’s abilities. Race officials, supporters, and reporters joined them under the lü‘au tent. The view across Kaiwi showed the lights of O‘ahu sparkling on the northwestern horizon. The women were full of energy and excitement; the channel was calm and windless. A quiet sea might favor the mainland teams, some of whom were stronger on technique than the local Hawai‘i teams but not as familiar with island waters. A notoriously short, steep chop often builds up unexpectedly in Kaiwi Channel.
Before the sun rose on Saturday, the race teams and escort personnel piled into buses and vans for the hour-long drive westward across the island’s bumpy desert roads. They turned down a stony trail to Hale o Lono, where the canoes rested on a gravel beach. Paddlers and coaches checked and rechecked the canoes, tied spare paddles to outrigger supports, and positioned water bottles. They wished each other luck, then circled together to say a prayer of thanks and sing “Hawai‘i Aloha” before the women stroked out to the line-up.
Everyone waited for the flag to drop--twenty-two canoes loaded with six paddlers each; twenty-two escort boats, each carrying a race official, coaches, and substitute paddlers; and a dozen committee and auxiliary boats with more officials, supporters, reporters, and cameras. At 7:14 a.m., the race was under way. California’s Off Shore Canoe Club immediately took the lead. Within thirty minutes the canoes were scattered along the southern coast of Moloka‘i. They moved westward toward Lā‘au Point and cleared the protective Moloka‘i shoreline. Kaiwi Channel opened up wide in front of them, stretching away to the stony southeast face of O‘ahu.
Most canoes make their first crew changes at Lā‘au Point. Typically, each escort boat motors about a hundred yards in front of its canoe, and when it’s time for two or three relief paddlers to spell their teammates, drops the women into the ocean. The paddlers wave their hands at the oncoming canoe to help the steersman navigate alongside them, and as the boat moves past, they grab the gunwales and pull themselves into the boat and the paddlers being relieved jump out. Like most tricky athletic maneuvers, when it is executed precisely it looks easy and is beautiful to watch. When the changeover goes badly, the canoe stalls and loses valuable time.
The Lanakila women’s team was strong; this was the year they had placed third in the thirty-two-mile Newport to Catalina Island race. But Kaiwi was unfamiliar territory, and even though paddlers who had crossed it before said the ocean was flat this year, it felt rougher than any water the Lanakila paddlers had ever known. The club’s escort boat bobbed and churned on the sea, and three of the relief paddlers threw up breakfast. When two others jumped into the ocean and waved their hands for the steersman, the swells blocked their view of the canoe until it almost plowed into them.
After Lā‘au, the flotilla spread out across the channel, and Lanakila lost track of the other boats. Al’s directions for his two steersmen were simple: Aim for the back of Koko Head until Diamond Head comes into view, then steer for the back of it; Waikïkï and the finish line would be thirty minutes beyond.
The Off Shore Club from California had paddled this race ten previous times, winning three of them and placing second or third in the others. Some people said Off Shore succeeded because it used only “professional” paddlers; others sniffed at its high-powered phalanx of coaches, managers, and corporate donors. Al Ching admires the club. “They set the standard in California.”
Al also recognizes the benefits of training with the best, and before heading to Hawai‘i he had asked Off Shore coach Billy Whitford if the Lanakila women could practice with Off Shore. Whitford agreed. They towed a couple of canoes to Catalina Island, and Off Shore and Lanakila raced the thirty miles back to the mainland. “They smoked us,” Al said. “We came home exhausted. But it got us ready. We were in tip-top shape for Moloka‘i.”
In the official race boat, the Maggie Joe, reporters listened as race officials talked to the escort boats over the citizen band radio. Number sixteen’s outrigger was loosening; could the crew repair it? Yes. And could it be true?--an oil tanker was heading straight for the canoes? Maggie Joe’s skipper radioed the tanker’s captain, who understood a little English but not enough to comprehend that on his present course he would probably swamp a fleet of outrigger canoes. The Coast Guard intervened, and the tanker altered course.
The Maggie Joe drew near O‘ahu, and the Ko‘olau valleys--Kuli‘ou‘ou, Niu, Wailupe, Wai‘alae Nui--yawned in green-to-brown succession along the suburban coast, mileposts for measuring the racers’ progress as they pulled for the famous Diamond Head cliffs.
As the canoes rounded Diamond Head, they entered a three-ring circus of well-wishers. Hundreds of spectators had gathered in boats to greet the paddlers and escort them to the finish line. Helicopters hovered overhead, windsurfers raced in and out, their neon sails flashing and snapping in the breeze, and kayakers skimmed over the water. Whitford realized that his Off Shore crew had a chance not only to break the women’s Moloka‘i record but also to finish in under six hours--a phenomenal accomplishment. By now his voice was hoarse and the women were tired, but still he shouted encouragement to them, directing them to pick up their pace as they skirted the Waikïkï reef, pulled past the thicket of hotels, and entered the shallow green waters near the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel and the finish line.
Five hours, fifty-nine minutes, and thirty-six seconds--a new record by twelve minutes. The Off Shore women whooped and hollered in triumph, and hugged one another and the crowd of husbands, boyfriends, family, and friends who waded out from the packed beach to congratulate them.
When Lanakila’s canoe crossed the finish line, forty-one minutes later, they placed sixth overall, second in the koa division and ahead of sixteen other canoes. The women threw their paddles into the air and cheered with as much joy as if they had won the race. They crowded their relief paddlers into the canoe and maneuvered it across the finish line a second time, all twelve Lanakila women finishing together--the whole team in the elegant, gleaming canoe, Ka‘ala.
In the years since the Lanakila women celebrated their personal victory in Hawai‘i, Al’s team has returned for the Moloka‘i race and continues to place first or second in the koa division. After each race, Al contemplates moving Erin and the children back to the islands. The temptation is strong. A koa racing canoe that he and two friends purchased is in storage on the Big Island. His sons, Danny and Kawika, would be eligible to attend Kamehameha Schools, the private academy for Hawaiian students. “I don’t want them to grow up not knowing anything about Hawai‘i . . . but time keeps slipping away. Before you know it, three years gone by, then five years.”
Al is not the first Hawaiian to move to California and find himself teaching his children about their Polynesian lineage. He explains to the boys who they are named for, that they should be proud of those names and the ancestors they represent. “I read ’em a lot of stories . . . about Kamapua‘a the big Hawaiian pig god. Mele and the Mongoose. Of course I’m always telling stories about my childhood days and what I used to do. . . . I’m teaching them something about the ocean. . . . I want them to become steersmen; it’s the most difficult job of all, but a career as a steersman can last you a long time.”

Albert Kamila Choy Ching, Jr.: Hoe Wa`a / Canoeing