Lake Washington's stony, gray shore is 2,700 miles from the warm, sandy beaches of Hawaii, but it serves as the headquarters for an outrigger canoe team; one of a dozen such clubs in the Northwest.
Lake Washington’s stony, gray shore is 2,700 miles from the warm, sandy beaches of Hawaii, but it feels a lot farther in winter, on a gloomy afternoon of unrelenting rain. No blue skies or palm trees, here. No gentle trade winds. No sunshine sparkling on ocean swells.
Instead, we take cover in an unlighted, unheated shipping container parked on pavement in a northerly nook of Magnuson Park. Surrounded by chain-link fence, the steel box amplifies the rain and lacks aloha appeal. So it’s surprising to learn it serves as dressing room, storage space and headquarters for an outrigger canoe team — one of a dozen such clubs in the Northwest.
“A lot of people, when they think of Hawaiian outriggers, think of Hawaii 5-0, and the huge waves, and those guys paddling in the opening credits,” explains Alan Goto, who, at 33, is the top outrigger racer in the Northwest and coach of Sail Sand Point’s outrigger canoe team. (Yes, that’s Goto paddling an outrigger on the commercial for painkiller Aleve.) Goto, who raced on his high school varsity outrigger team in Honolulu, has stuck with the sport because of its connection to the ocean and history. Sure, he could go faster in a surf-ski, or, for that matter, a motorboat. That’s not the point. “The first people to come to Hawaii sailed by canoe from Tahiti and had to paddle across the doldrums. It’s such a huge part of Hawaiian culture.”
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Washington state has long been home to a sizable community of migrants from Hawaii. The Census Bureau recorded 41,373 Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders here in 2006, the largest population in the nation behind Hawaii and California. Thousands of others who’ve gravitated to the Northwest from the islands claim Hawaii as part of their soul, even if it’s not in their bloodline.
They come for college; to continue a Catholic education rooted in the island’s missionary history; to job hop from Pearl Harbor to Bremerton’s shipyard and Boeing plants; to serve on military bases; to expand careers beyond island limits.
That translates into a Northwest canoe community diverse as the islands. Paddlers range from top-seed Goto, who trains so intensely he’s had blood drawn while working out (to monitor lactic acid levels), to families who participate in the summer sprint regattas mostly to share lawn-chair camaraderie and island-style potlucks.
Some, like Stan Dahlin, who leads the Hui Wa’a O Wakinikona Canoe Team on Lake Union, are of Polynesian ancestry; others have lived awhile on the islands; or have relatives there; or have no Hawaiian connection except that they somehow drifted into paddling, glommed onto outrigger culture, hoisted a canoe atop their roof rack and stuck a paddling sticker on their bumper.
In the Hawaiian family spirit of ohana, everyone is welcome.
Surprisingly, many paddlers born in Hawaii took up the sport only after they’d left the islands and moved to the Northwest. Not surprisingly, most recent arrivals choose to skip winter paddling. Too cold, brah!
That leaves a few dozen die-hards training for winter solo-racing season, a series of six-mile competitions in one- and two-person boats. Though island culture generally promotes a sunny attitude toward life, nobody mentions anything positive about training in this weather.
“For us, it’s terrible,” says Goto, who works as a Seattle firefighter. “The rest of the outrigger world, they get to practice all the time. We’re stuck on days like today, if we want to get hours in, we have to go out in the freezing cold.”
Which he does, fixing a trademark outrigger to the left side of his 20-foot, 22-pound, carbon-fiber canoe, securing neoprene gloves with his teeth, wading into chill waters and paddling in darkness, 60 strokes a minute, the amber lights of Kirkland blurred by a lashing rain.
HAWAIIAN OUTRIGGERS have been paddling in Northwest waters for only a dozen years, but their journey to get here stretches across centuries, swirls through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, reaches from Alaska to Tahiti to Peru. It involves ruined Hawaiian koa forests, a gift of giant Sitka spruce from the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshiam tribes, and a Micronesian master navigator teaching a young native Hawaiian the ancient method of sailing by stars.
In the 1970s, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded to prove that the ancient Polynesians who settled the islands didn’t arrive by random drift. Instead, they posited, the Stone Age seafarers purposefully explored the Polynesian Triangle in double-hulled voyaging canoes using non-instrument navigation. Tales of such journeys had been passed down in legend and song, even though 19th-century missionaries had banned outriggers, along with hula, the Hawaiian language and other cultural touchstones.
The society built a voyaging canoe based on traditional designs; then it searched for a wayfinder who could navigate from Hawaii to Tahiti using traditional methods. They recruited master Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug from the atoll of Satawal, one of the few places to still practice long-distance wayfinding using only clues from nature.
They named the boat Hokule’a, after bright Arcturus, a zenith star that passes directly over the Hawaiian islands. Mau, as he’s known, used rising stars and observations of sun, moon, ocean swells, cloud formations and seabirds to guide the Hokule’a across 2,250 nautical miles of open ocean, dodging opposing tradewinds and tides to land on Tahiti 34 days after leaving Maui. He had never traveled so far, and never before crossed the equator in an outrigger.
On shore, the journey triggered a cultural revival. But on board, discord among other crew members prompted Mau to return to Micronesia immediately upon landing in Tahiti. Years later, Mau agreed to train a native Hawaiian navigator, Nainoa Thompson. (The remarkable story is chronicled on the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Web site, http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu.)
“I will train you to find Tahiti because I don’t want you to die,” Thompson says Mau told him. (An earlier attempt to reach Tahiti — with an all Hawaiian crew — failed when the canoe swamped and legendary surfer Eddie ‘Aikau disappeared while going for help.)
With Mau’s teachings, Thompson successfully navigated to Tahiti and back in 1980, following the Southern Cross, the flight of white terns and his mentor’s instructions “to feel the land and sea around you, to become one with it, malama’aina.”
Next step: Build a double-hulled voyaging canoe using only natural materials. (The Hokule’a’s hull is fiberglass.) Trouble was, they needed two koa trees for the hulls, and Hawaii’s koa forests were depleted. Despite searching forests for nine months, they couldn’t find a single tree large or healthy enough.
Here’s where Pacific currents and Northwest trees swirl into play. For eons, huge logs from the Pacific Northwest had drifted on natural currents to Hawaiian shores; they were cherished as gifts from their gods and used to build canoes, Thompson writes.
“We asked the Alaskan native Indians, people we didn’t know, ‘Can we have two trees to build a canoe?’ . . . They responded immediately without hesitation and said yes.”
Thompson flew out with a team to remote U.S. Forest Service land on Shelikof Island in Soda Bay and Prince of Wales Island, west of Ketchikan. The Sitka spruce were more than 200 feet tall, 7 feet in diameter, 100,000 pounds, 400 years old. They were alive. It felt wrong to cut them down, Thompson writes. “We could not take the life-form of another tree unless we dealt with that abuse in our own homeland.” So they started tree-planting programs in Hawaiian schools, planting thousands of koa seedlings. Then they returned to Alaska, performed traditional Hawaiian and Tlingit tree-cutting ceremonies, felled the logs and shipped them to Hawaii.
It took dozens of people half a million hours to craft Hawaii’loa, a canoe with carved hulls, no metal parts, hibiscus-wood railings. They sailed and tweaked for two more years before loading Hawaii’loa and Hokule’a on a container ship, bound for Seattle in 1995.
The plan was to sail the Hawaii’loa 1,000 miles north to thank the Alaska natives for the gift of trees. The Hokule’a would journey south, along the Washington, Oregon and California coasts, to share the Polynesian renaissance with those who’d migrated to the mainland.
“There are more Hawaiians living away from Hawaii than are living here,” Thompson writes. “And they’ve made those choices because of many reasons. But you talk to these people. Their heart and their spirit is in a place that they always call home. . . . We couldn’t bring the 185,000 people back to Hawaii, but we could take our canoes there. . . . To build better relationships, to share ideas.”
The canoes sailed up and down the West Coast, and more than a decade later, people still talk about the celebration for the Hawaii’loa and Hokule’a at Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park: dancing, song, barbecue, hundreds of transplanted Hawaiians. The Quileute and other Northwest tribes brought their own canoes, but there were no Hawaiian outriggers.
“The Native Americans had war canoes,” Dahlin of the Lake Union canoe team recalls, “but we had no Hawaiian outriggers, and a lot of people in this area took shame.”
FAST AS the rising tide, that all changed.
Within a year, the first canoe club, Silverdale, had built its own outrigger with the help of Native Americans. “All of a sudden, you started having canoe clubs just like we had back in Hawaii,” Dahlin says. Federal Way, Everett, a half-dozen clubs in the Seattle area, each with a different flavor.
Kikaha O Ke Kai (Gliding on the Sea) in Federal Way now has 113 members who train on Steel Lake for summer sprints; about half are from Hawaii, lots of kids, summer regattas graced by hula, protection prayers and food! Poi, kalua pig, lumpia, chicken long rice, ahi poke, mochi, strawberry upside down cake, Filipino sweet rice. The Sail Sand Point team, which Goto coaches, is highly competitive, training year-’round on and off water; some members compete in the annual 41-mile race between Molokai and Oahu, a famous cross-channel competition where, relay style, paddlers take turns plunging out of a moving canoe while teammates waiting in the swells pull themselves aboard and take up paddles.
On Lake Union, the Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club and Hui Wa’a O Wakinikona Outrigger Canoe Club paddle together year-’round, competing in regional races almost every other weekend between February and November. On a sparkling cold Saturday morning, 18 paddlers turned out to crew the six-person, 400-pound boats and welcomed me aboard to try it.
Hands on! I mua! Forward! Hoe! Paddle!
I’ve rowed in an eight-person crew shell and paddled a solo sea kayak. The outrigger feels decidedly different. Unlike crew, you’re facing forward; your feet and paddle aren’t tied into the boat; you’re free to twist, switch your paddle from side to side; the blade connects your hands directly with the waves, better to feel the water. Unlike leisurely sea kayaking, the cadence is fast, unrelenting, the canoe literally surges with the power of six paddlers.
“The Hawaiian style of boat is so different than a European boat,” says Diane Yuen, who remembers the moment she fell in love with outriggers, at 14, when her canoe “surfed” an ocean wave as she paddled with her high-school team in Honolulu. “You get a better feel for the movement of the water, the currents, the way the waves are moving. . . . All your troubles go away, and everything is right with the world. You’re breathing! I used to go to practice and your head is clogged or stuffed up, and once you get on that water, it’s the feeling of freedom and peace, and everything melts away.”
That’s in practice.
Racing is another matter, especially when Yuen is in a two-person canoe with a new friend, Minnie Fontenelle, who races on a dragon-boat team but hasn’t paddled outrigger much. Actually, she’s practiced only once and raced only once, with Yuen, in Tacoma, two weekends earlier. It was a wet race. Yuen got flipped out of the boat once; both women landed in Commencement Bay another time when the canoe capsized right before the finish line.
The outrigger, or ama, is attached to the left side of the boat with arms. The ama lends stability in ocean swells, and expert paddlers often surf waves with the ama in the air for greater speed. But even with a stabilizing ama, there’s always risk of capsize, or huli, especially if someone leans the wrong way.
So now, 30 minutes before race time in Vancouver, B.C., Fontenelle and Yuen study the hand-drawn map of a scenic, six-mile course around False Creek and English Bay. They frown at a right turn near Stanley Park’s statuesque Siwash Rock. Because the ama is on the canoe’s left side, outriggers traditionally only turn left. Turning right unbalances the canoe, leaving it vulnerable to capsize.
“We’re going to be good, Minnie. We’re going to be really good,” Yuen reassures Fontenelle. “Just listen to my calls.” Paddling bow, Yuen sets the pace, calling Hut! every 15 or so strokes, when it’s time to switch paddles to the opposite side. In the stern, Fontenelle steers.
Traditionally, before races, outrigger teams offer a puli, or prayer. Yuen and Fontenelle twist their long hair into coils, change from flip-flop slippers into neoprene booties, and carry their borrowed lavender canoe down the boat ramp, periodically chanting: “No huli, no huli, stay in the boat, no huli.”
They’re off! From above, the dozens of slim outriggers look like origami snippets bobbing in serene waters past mussel-blanketed boulders.
But in the lavender canoe, the water feels choppy. Wake from little passenger ferries echoes across the channel, making it hard for Fontenelle to steer. After the first buoy, when they leave the channel, the water suddenly changes, gets firmer, harder. Slack tide. “It was like, schlump! You got stuck,” Yuen says later. “The water was liquid and smooth, and you get to that one spot and it’s like Jell-O.”
Outside the channel, English Bay behaves like open water. Big, undulating waves. And what about those three humongous tankers? Are they actually moored? Or drifting closer? “When you’re out there,” Yuen says, “you feel so tiny.”
The pair sits in the outrigger, feeling the swells, just like master navigator Mau, but instead of finding comfort and direction from the water’s movement, they have only one thought: No huli!
Here comes the right turn. Take it wide, Yuen instructs. Terrified of swamping, Fontenelle leans hard to the left, severely cramping her left leg and hip. Fontenelle’s muscles scream in pain, but she keeps paddling. Sixty strokes a minute. Neither woman remembers seeing landmark Siwash Rock.
“What rock?” Fontenelle says. “All I saw was Diane’s life vest. We were just so focused on not flipping.”
Behind her, Yuen hears her partner’s stressed breathing.
She slows the pace a bit, but keeps the outrigger moving; canoes swamp more easily as they lose speed.
They keep paddling. One hour, 7 minutes and 59 seconds, 4,080 strokes, thousands of years of outrigger history, a vast ocean, tenacious culture, ohana family, strong finish.
Ho’a mao. To preserve, or perpetuate. No huli.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.