To say that Hawaii has a deep connection with the outrigger canoe, or wa’a (pronounced vah-ah), is a massive understatement. In fact, the entire existence of the Hawaiian Islands has depended on the craft. Images of paddlers glaring towards some hazy horizon have more to do with emigration than organised sport.
Before it was recreational, the wa’a was exploratory. These vessels set off from Polynesia into oceanic outer space. The men and women on these crafts followed currents, mapped the stars, caught the wind, surfed the swells and chased whales, birds and sharks toward unknown island lands. It was on these vessels that they charted, discovered and inhabited Hawaii many, many centuries before the first European sailors.
But that was then. Today, paddling, as it’s plainly called, has become one of Hawaii’s – and many coastal nations well beyond Polynesia –most beloved sports. Evidence of its popularity can be seen everywhere in Hawaii.
On the island of Oahu alone, there are actually 18 different outrigger canoe clubs, with over a dozen more on the neighboring islands. The clubs compete with each other over the course of a six-month season (April-October), culminating in the renowned, massive event called the Moloka'i Hoe, an international open-water outrigger canoe race from Moloka'i to O'ahu across the treacherous Ka'iwi channel.
Introducing: Red Bull Wa’a
On the west side of Hawaii island (the Big Island), a super-crew of fierce Hawaiian paddlers has banded together to form Team Red Bull Wa’a. With more than half its team formerly paddling for Na Koa O Kona, Red Bull Wa’a has already become an indomitable force, placing first at the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge in New York earlier this summer. Their next target: The Catalina Crossing, an arduous, cold-water, 38-mile-long open ocean race between the California mainland and Catalina Island. Besides treacherous winds, choppy seas and the odd whale, what’s the only thing standing in their way of glory? Maybe a Tahitian or two.
The Hawaiian-Tahitian rivalry
While outrigger canoe paddling is just another watersport in Hawaii, in Tahiti it is the sport. In Tahiti, there are national beloved teams and paddlers who are as big as celebrities. Paddlers there are full-time professionals, endorsed by major brands and appearing on television constantly. People take it seriously in Hawaii, but they also have day jobs and families.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to a lot of the events, Tahitians have dominated. At the Moloka’i Hoe, (the World Cup of outrigger canoe races), the Tahitians have won it pretty much every time since they first entered 10 years ago. Hawaiian crews, however, (namely the boys from Red Bull Wa’a) are now catching up and even overtaking the Tahitians.
"Granted, Tahiti has won most of the races for the past 10 years, but as far as being unbeatable – watching the evolution of our boys, each year they’ve gotten closer and closer to the Tahitians," says Kaikea Nakachi, who is the team photographer and crew support for Red Bull Wa’a. "Just four years ago, the Tahitians won the Moloka’i Hoe by 10 full minutes, while just last year our boys were behind them by a minute and a half or two. So we’ve been slowly closing that gap.
In a way, it’s kind of an underdog story, because there are these professional Tahitians paddling as a job, who are really good at it, against family men and working men from Hawaii who are just as good, if not hungrier.– Kaikea Nakachi
"What was thought to be unattainable is now possible. Then as far as the Catalina race, you’ve actually got smaller Tahitian groups and California teams mixing with Tahitians, which adds to the rivalry, but not all the Tahitian teams are there. So Hawaiian teams have actually won Catalina before, and we would’ve won it last year, but they flipped the canoe and that set them back a few minutes. This year, they’re hungry to redeem themselves and get that title.
"In a way, it’s kind of an underdog story, because there are these professional Tahitians paddling as a job, who are really good at it, against family men and working men from Hawaii who are just as good, if not hungrier."