The Olamau Race sees the fastest outrigger canoe teams face off around the rugged coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. Skill, grit, and knowledge of the ocean aren’t always enough to win, but they can keep you afloat.
The yellow-and-white outrigger jets across the water, its six-man crew paddling in uncanny rhythm. Team Shell Va’a seems to catch every wave, shooting forward with a grace that belies the sweat on their faces and the lats bulging under their Patagonia tees. Day One of one of the toughest races on the planet seems to be going according to schedule: the best outrigger canoe team has taken the lead in the biggest outrigger canoe challenge there is. Shell Va’a is from Tahiti (va’a is Polynesian for canoe), and in Tahiti, paddling is baseball, football, and basketball rolled into one. Everyone - mums, kids, granddads with pensions - paddles, and big corporations like Shell Oil sponsor teams. Every man in the Shell boat is a Tahitian Tom Brady or LeBron James.
The ocean is all around us and we live in the water.
Raimana Van Bastolaer on a Tahitian's love of the sea
There’s an exception to the rule, though: Butting into the Tahitian victory party is a wildcard, team Mellow Johnny’s from Hawaii, led by Raimana Van Bastolaer, a Tahitian himself and the undisputed master of the world’s thickest wave at Teahupo’o. Built like a mid-sized refrigerator, Van Bastolaer has the mahogany tan that comes from a life spent in the water.
“In Tahiti you know how to swim, fish, surf, and paddle. The ocean is all around us and we live in the water,” he says. “Parents actually enroll their kids in paddling schools, and they spend their days racing with friends. To the kids it’s play, but if they’re very talented, the parents know their child is going to have a job, social security, everything.”
What’s happening between Shell and the Johnny’s goes beyond play; the opponent here has to hit back or be left behind. And this isn’t a 15-minute fight - it’s a three-to-five-hour slugfest of brute strength and endurance. Shell and the Mellow Johnny’s are throwing haymakers that would leave lesser teams on the deck. The crews move in unison to the call of the strokers, paddles throwing spray as they dip and rise. The typical canoe alignment is fastest paddlers in front to set the pace, strongest paddlers in the middle, and the steersman at the end to navigate, coach, and watch the water. Teamwork and rhythm mean everything in paddling; Johnny’s is like a playground all-star team pushing the Miami Heat to the limit.
Two hours into the race, outriggers with both male and female crews are spread across the 38 miles between Laupahoehoe and Keokea, the first leg of the 101 miles they’ll eventually conquer along the Big Island’s north coast in these three days. Support teams follow in escort boats. Most teams consist of 12 paddlers, but the first two days must be completed by an “iron man” crew of six, with no changes allowed. Teams can switch in as many as six new paddlers only on the final day. This wrinkle makes a tough sport even more gruelling: one of the women from 404 Wahine had to quit, flopping out into the water on the first day and leaving her canoe to finish with five paddlers. “I hope she gets better quick,” says captain Jill Schooler. “Because she’s going out again on Friday.”
Check out the rest of this feature in the September 2013 issue of The Red Bulletin, the global monthly magazine. For access to the international issue, download the free app for iOS or Android now.