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Article: Reviving Outrigger Canoe Racing

Painting by Herb Kane

Outrigger Canoe Club fielded its first outrigger canoe racing crew in 1908 in a race in Honolulu Harbor. There were a few canoe races in the 1910s and 1920s, most often held in Waikiki, in conjunction with surfing contests. (OCC)

The improvement to a road project in West Hawai‘i was catalyst to revival of outrigger canoe racing in Hawai‘i.

The Territorial government sought to improve the 39-mile Waimea to Kona roadway in the 1930s.

EE Black, a contractor, built the road from Kailua-Kona to what is now the start of the Saddle Road. He used the first bulldozer in the history of the islands to do so. (Thurston)

“The formal opening of the new belt road on the island of Hawaii, July 22, 1933, was an important occasion, attended by the Governor and his party from Honolulu and many excursionists.” (The Friend, July 1933)

Having just finished the road, Black approached Outrigger Canoe Club President Lorrin Thurston and asked what he could do to show his appreciation to his employees and the people of Kona for their patience during the road work. (Thurston)

Black “made a good many dollars on that road and he wanted to do something in return for the people of Kona. So, knowing that I knew something about the district, he came to me …”

“… I suggested perhaps we should have the rebirth of the canoe races and he put up $3,000, I think, in the way of expenses and we carried the ball from there, which was very interesting.” (Thurston)

Thurston “talked with Dad Center and suggested that perhaps we might start canoe racing again. And he encouraged me.” (Thurston)

“They organized canoe crews from Kailua, Honaunau and Miloli‘i to compete against crews from O‘ahu: Hui Nalu, Outrigger and Queen’s Surf.”

Thurston “went to Kona and interested Julian Yates, Louis Macfarlane and Eugene Kaupiko in holding a canoe race.”

One of the problems involved in holding the race in Kona was how to get the many paddlers from O‘ahu to Kona.

“I didn’t have the money to pay for their steamship fares and there were no planes,” Thurston explained. “We finally worked out a proposition with the US Coast Guard who were able to bring the paddlers over in daylight hours – not spending any night on board …” (OCC)

“To make a long story short, (Thurston) raised enough money to buy medals for all the races. Princess Kawananakoa was one of the principal donors.”

“… and we were able to get facilities to house the boys at the home of the Reverend Shannon Walker and a pavilion of the YMCA at Keauhou. The local boys stayed in their own homes.” (OCC)

“The Inter Island Steamship Company ran a special excursion of the Waialeale for spectators to view the races. There were four or five official boats of the U.S. Navy, two from Australia, and probably 15 yachts. After the races, everyone gathered at the Kona Inn for dancing and a luau.” (OCC)

“There were five races and OCC won three. The crews raced in Napo‘opo‘o. This was the first race that featured canoe racing only.” Races were also held in 1934 and 1935. (OCC)

It was also the start of modern canoe racing for Outrigger women. Mariechen Wehselau Jackson, Hawaii’s first female Olympic Gold Medalist (1924 in swimming), sailed on the Waialeale as an “excursionist” to see the races along with Ruth Scudder Gillmar, Oma Haley, and Ann Barkey Cook. On other boats were Ginger Joyce and Dot Ruttmann Lambert. (OCC)

“Prior to going up,” Jackson relates, “Dad Center had said to me, ‘Now, Squeaky, why don’t you get a crew together because then you can race against the women up in Kona.’”

“We started out to the starting line and I steered the canoe just as straight as could be, very nicely. We flirted with the Coast Guard who were the officials, at the starting line.”

“We waited and waited and finally the other crew came along. And they were elderly women, all white long hair, and they were wearing muumuu and the top of the canoe was just about three or four inches from the water. They were large women.” (Jackson; OCC)

“We went out fast, and when I looked again, I had to shake my head. I couldn’t believe it. We were going around in a circle. Then we headed right for the judges’ boat and we had to yell to the judges to get out of our way.”

“I couldn’t handle that canoe. We mowed down a couple of flags. We went all over the place. And the other crew won, but by just a very, very little. If we had gone straight we would have won. The Hawaiian women won the gold medals from Princess Kawananakoa fair and square.” (Jackson; OCC)

In 1936 interisland paddling moved to Honolulu Harbor with the Honaunau crews sweeping the events. The interisland races ceased at the onset of World War II. However, Outrigger, Hui Nalu and Waikiki Surf Club and several other clubs raced occasionally in Waikiki. (OCC)

“EE Black was really the one that made the thing possible because he had finished a contract to rebuild the road from Huehue Ranch to Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a and on to what is now the start of the Saddle Road.” (Thurston)

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