Hawaii: Same strokes for island folks

By Jim Eagles

A crucial part of Polynesian history and culture, canoes are in daily use throughout Hawaii for fishing, transport and sport.
A crucial part of Polynesian history and culture, canoes are in daily use throughout Hawaii for fishing, transport and sport.

Paddle, paddle, paddle. Paddle, paddle, paddle," yelled the canoe captain, so being in the bow seat I sped up my stroke, powering the blade through the water, and the paddlers behind must have followed suit because soon we were flying across Hawaii's famous Waikiki Bay.

Behind I could hear the noise of a breaking wave, which suddenly caught us and picked up the canoe. The nose dipped down, sending a shower of spray over me, and we accelerated even faster, roaring down the face of the wave.

"Paddles in the boat, paddles in the boat," shouted the captain, and we whooped with excitement as the big outrigger surfed into the beach, racing past the individual surfers on their tiny boards.

One elderly surfer who looked to be 100 years old, his body the colour of aged bronze and with a white beard to the middle of his chest, was right in our path, but he calmly pointed to the right, the captain steered us as directed, and we passed without mishap. The ancient surfer signalled his approval.

And then came the craziest part of the whole thing.

"Look to the right, look to the right," called the captain, who seemed to say everything twice, and when I looked there was a guy standing on a surfboard, slicing through the water and taking photos of us.

We smiled for the camera - well, I was already smiling from the fun of it all - and having taken a few pictures the aquatic photographer tossed his camera in the air, caught it, bowed in acknowledgement of our applause and surfed away.

Unfortunately, as it turned out he had a lot of water on the lens and most of the photos were a bit blurred, but you can't have everything.

Canoes have obviously played a crucial role in Polynesian culture in general and in the history of Hawaii in particular.

Until recently, the Hawaiian Maritime Centre, just down the beach from Waikiki, had a wonderful 19m working replica of a double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe, the Hokule'a, on display.

Unfortunately, the centre closed in May because of financial difficulties and the Hokule'a has been handed back to the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which originally built it and took it on a series of voyages from Hawaii through the Polynesian triangle, including Tahiti, Tonga, Cook Islands and New Zealand.

You can still see the canoe - or at least you could when I was there - but its future seems uncertain.

However you can see other, smaller, canoes in daily use throughout the islands for fishing, transport and sport.

On the island of Molokai, for instance, when we wandered down to the port early one morning, a group of men were taking a single-hulled wooden canoe out fishing, and the next day when we went back to the port to catch the ferry to Maui, groups of schoolchildren were practising racing in fibreglass canoes.

Likewise, as we enjoyed an evening stroll down the Laihana seafront on the island of Maui, half a dozen canoes came racing past, silhouetted romantically against the setting sun.

But Waikiki seems like canoe central. Lots of canoes of all kinds and sizes operate off the beach and dozens more are based on the banks of the Ala Wai Canal nearby.

When we looked out the window of our room at the beautiful Royal Waikiki Hotel to admire the setting sun, a big outrigger was sailing by. And when we looked out again to admire the view in the dawn light, there was a flotilla of canoes paddling past.

For me, though, the stars are the outrigger canoes in which you can paddle out to sea and then surf back in on the waves. Once upon a time canoe surfing was a sport reserved for the royal family, and it's easy to see why. It's fantastic.

"Want to try again?" asked the captain, after we'd surfed into the beach. This time he was only able to ask once because we instantly chorused: "Yes!" "Okay then. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Paddle, paddle, paddle."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Honolulu up to three times per week.

Where to stay: The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, known as the pink palace, sits right on the beach.

What to do: Waikiki Beach Services provide surfing lessons, outrigger canoe rides and surf board rentals.

Further information: For general information about visiting Hawaii see discoverhawaii.co/nz.

Jim Eagles visited Hawaii as a guest of Air New Zealand and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

- NZ Herald

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