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Digging to Diamond Head
Kenny Moore
February 22, 1993
High-tech training meets ancient tradition in the Molokai-to-Oahu outrigger canoe race
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February 22, 1993

Digging To Diamond Head

High-tech training meets ancient tradition in the Molokai-to-Oahu outrigger canoe race

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The race began an hour after sunrise, four miles from the southwestern tip of Molokai, where a hook of jetty protects a few anchorages and a beach of shifting shell and rock. There, the day before, Outrigger's Lesline Conner had found a certain stone. Conner, 38 and the mother of four, was reared in Tahiti, in a family steeped in the old ways of Polynesia. She took the stone to Scott. "This is a phallic rock," she said with quiet gravity, "a symbol of power and faith. It will guard the canoe tonight." Scott took this in with a little bow, bemused, the picture of cross-cultural forbearance.

Later, Scott said he hoped all omens meant quiet water. "People say you want the trade winds and an ocean that's alive," he said, "but I'm frightened of losing a paddler. It's terrifying to make changes in big seas. Fourteen hundred pounds of canoe surfing at you is like a runaway train."

Outrigger's seriousness showed in how most of the team passed the night before the race. "You don't really sleep," said Ho. "You just lie there all night looking at your watch."

Before the canoes were launched, a Hawaiian kahuna, or priestess, chanted a prayer. The teams joined hands and sang Hawaii Ponoi, swaying until everyone yelled, hugged and moved to the boats. "Through the tears," said one paddler, trembling, "you can see the ancestors."

Outrigger's starting six leaped out to a lead over Offshore. "I had never been in front in this race," Ho would say. "But we were relaxed. We could breathe, we could talk. All you heard was, 'We're in front.' I was in awe of what was happening."

Past Laau Point, Outrigger took an eight-length lead into the channel. This is where currents come up from Lanai, and where Molokai no longer holds back the long northerly swells and trade winds. The jumble of crossing forces can create tossing, lurching turbulence, but on this day the sea remained fairly organized. "At the Point, the current wants to carry you north," says Scott. "I've found it's best to keep heading west toward Diamond Head and let the current take you."

Outrigger did just that, eventually moving almost a half mile north of the rhumb line. Behind, Offshore held to the shortest-distance-between-two-points theory and slowly bent away to Outrigger's left, but then steersperson Mindy Clark brought the boat back dead astern, and Offshore began the charge that now has it trailing by only 300 yards.

It is good that the Outrigger paddlers bobbing in the water before the next crew change are not in touch with a press helicopter hovering several hundred yards back. Beneath it cruises a shark 30 feet long, with a mouth wide enough to engulf the end of a canoe. It is not, as the pilot first thinks, a tiger shark, the species that will attack several Oahu surfers in the following months, killing two. It is a rare and benign whale shark. However, if its dorsal fin were to cut the water near the Outrigger women, it would cause a crew change for the ages.

As it is, this change is memorable enough, because Outrigger has returned to its strongest paddlers. Offshore slips farther back. When Outrigger's women see Offshore angle away to starboard in a Hail Mary search for coastal waves, they know they will win. "I couldn't stop crying," said steersperson Paula Crabb later.

As the Outrigger paddlers cruise past Diamond Head, it hits you that this is how the first humans came to see this shore. Outrigger canoes carried Polynesians from the Marquesas to Hawaii as long as 1,500 years ago. The greatest of Hawaiian kings, Kamehameha I, unified the islands between 1780 and 1810 with armies carried in fleets of canoes. The outrigger is the central artifact of that vanished age and of the mystery of Hawaiian origins.

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