Surfing and canoe racing languished until encouraged by King David Kalakaua (the Merrie Monarch), who in 1875 started an annual November regatta of sailing and paddling races. In 1908 the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded on Waikiki Beach, and three years later the Hui Nalu Club was formed to race against Outrigger. Something of a renaissance was on, driven almost from the first by rivalries between primarily haole (white) crews and those of ethnic Hawaiians.
The Molokai-to-Oahu race was first proposed in 1939 by the Outrigger Club's A.E. (Toots) Minvielle, who was promptly informed by every waterman who had ventured into the Kaiwi Channel that he was insane. Minvielle pursued the idea for 13 years. Finally, in 1952, he talked three crews, including one from Molokai, into attempting the inaugural crossing. Minvielle found a friend to put up a $500 prize for the victors. Immediately the good people of Molokai collected $600 for their team not to race. But it did, in a converted fishing canoe, and won, in five minutes less than nine hours. The event was established. In 1954, Minvielle built the first fiberglass canoe, and it proved equal to canoes made of koa, which was growing scarce. Today, most races have special divisions for koa canoes.
The 1966 race showed what the channel could do. One canoe was destroyed and several damaged in 20-foot seas and 35-knot winds. The Waikiki Surf Club survived and conquered with a crew that included two of the era's great Hawaiian champions, Nappy Napoleon and Blue Makua Jr. They contributed to 10 of Waikiki Surf Club's 12 victories between 1955 and 73.
In 1979 the women's race was begun, with 15 canoes. Outrigger won in 6:35:14, a time competitive with those of many men's teams. However, logistics and the scarcity of canoes always dictated that the men's and women's events be held separately. The women cross the channel in late September, the men two weeks later.
The race did not remain a Hawaiian preserve. The first four finishers in 1976 were Tahitian canoes. "They had teardrop paddles and short strokes," recalls Rona Kaaekuahiwi, the father of modern paddling on Oahu's leeward coast. "We had broad paddles and kept the blades in the water longer. That was the biggest change we had to make. But the changes have continued, in training, techniques, equipment, even food."
In 1978 a men's crew from California, the Blazing Paddles, became the first mainland team to prevail, and Offshore of Newport Beach won the 1981 and '82 men's races. Then, in 1991, the Outrigger Canoe Club of Australia won, broadening the competitive horizon by a few thousand miles. "The Aussies are year-round professionals," says Kaaekuahiwi. "To me, that's taken away from what local people have been used to. For us, paddling is a lifetime thing, not something so painful that after a couple of years you don't want to do it anymore. We have family programs. But the way the best crews train is so advanced now that if we want to win again, we'll have to start looking for thinner boys and thinner girls. And there goes our tradition. You don't see too many thin Hawaiians."
Native Hawaiians have the briefest life span of any ethnic group in the islands, and the highest rates of homelessness, imprisonment, unemployment and suicide. A great many of the remaining Hawaiians live on the sere Waianae coast of Oahu, where you can sit under a hala (pandanus) tree on Makaha Beach and chat with Kaaekuahiwi and big-wave surfer and waterman Brian Keaulana about the levels of meaning of the Molokai crossing.
"The cultural, spiritual aspect is connecting two islands," says Keaulana, who is 31 and supervises the district's lifeguards. "And in the middle is the competition. On the water I am your competitor. But on land, I'm your best friend. And in the end, coming out of the canoe, the essence of the race is knowing we did it, and now six guys can become 200."
Thus he expresses the legendary Hawaiian closeness, a love of cooperative effort that lets great clumps of this stressed community become extended family, as when the Keaulanas had a wedding luau for 3,000. "The ocean is life," says Keaulana. "It forms us and feeds us and consoles us. Our biggest treasure is knowledge, and our best people are kupunas, elders passing on the knowledge."
Asked for the name of such an elder, Keaulana recommends Napoleon and offers a nice distinction: "The classic Hawaiian paddling club is Anuenue, the Napoleon family's crew. The Outrigger Club is fierce, strong and intense. Anuenue is fierce, strong and playful."