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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 movement of canoe and athletes also has induced in an observer what author and surfer William Finnegan calls the "disabling enchantment" of oceanic forces. As Outrigger's paddlers near the last buoy, they seem to delve through the quicksilver membrane between mankind and nature. Or do they, in delving, reveal that divide to be an illusion?

Outrigger wins, in 5:49:02 to Offshore's 5:53:38. Holding hands, bedecked with leis, the victors walk up the beach to a solemn welcome by members of the Aloha Week Festival's Royal Court, who wear the feather capes of the ancients. Then the paddlers are embraced by children and family, who draw them across a shady lawn to the team's picnic. Crabb reveals that last night was her first away from her seven-month-old baby. "Last year I paddled him across in my stomach," she says. "So when he was born, we named him Kekaha O Ke Kai, which means 'to glide over the ocean.' "

In the air there is nothing but candor. "Everyone seems to think this is easy," says Cathy Ho, "but it's hard as——. And it's even harder getting out of it. It's so addicting, it's a part of you. You either hate it or love it."

Her words ring of summation. This sport, as these women do it in this place, demands that athletes blend with their team, their boat, their water, their history. Without a grasp of all those elements, an observer stays at a certain wondering distance. So as Outrigger's victory has convinced you of these women's endurance and unity, it has also impressed upon you your own ignorance.

But the men's Molokai-to-Oahu race is not for two weeks. You have time to make inquiries.

The double-hull voyaging canoes that brought the Polynesians 3,000 miles to Hawaii around 500 A.D. weren't tough enough to deal with the conditions they found there. Hawaii's navigable channels are classed among the roughest in the world. To survive, the new Hawaiians had to design and build better canoes than had ever existed. Fortunately, Hawaii provided the raw material: the tree Acacia koa, whose wood is beautiful and extraordinarily strong. High in the forest, miles from the sea, the Hawaiians cut koa logs at least five feet in diameter and more than 80 feet long.

From these logs they carved craft that, in the words of Tommy Holmes, author of The Hawaiian Canoe, "embodied the elastic tension of the tree itself. The canoe yielded to the sea in a way that the high, stubby, bulky, European ships did not. No other culture had its survival linked to the surfing ability of its indigenous craft, or surfed for recreation. Europeans tended to view the ocean as adversary, while to the Polynesians it was home."

The ancient Hawaiians were rigidly class-divided and energetically warlike, fishing with hooks made from the bones of their enemies. They inhabited a land of such richness and such danger (volcanic and oceanic) that it's perfectly understandable that they felt it to be filled with gods. "They embraced a theology of the earth," wrote Holmes, "and a marine conservation ethic so strong that death was a routine sanction for breaking certain protective taboos."

When Captain James Cook came upon Hawaii in 1778, he saw entire villages of men, women and children surfing upon boards and in canoes. Of course, after the boxy ships brought iron, cattle, whalers, planters and missionaries, everything went rapidly to hell. The Hawaiians had no immunity to Western diseases and died in waves from measles, cholera, typhoid fever and smallpox. Between 1778 and 1893, the native Hawaiian population shrank from 300,000 to 40,000.

Missionaries began arriving from New England in 1820, often complaining of the indignity of being splashed while being carried in canoes through the surf. They suppressed water sports because the Hawaiians loved to bet on them and because nearly naked men and women playing together in warm, effervescent water excited the exquisite Calvinist nose for sin.

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