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World’s Largest Long Distance Outrigger Canoe Races Celebrates 40th Anniversary of the Women’s Long Distance Race

Summer of 1974: President Nixon resigns, Hawaii elects George Ariyoshi as the nation’s first Japanese-American governor, John Lennon reports seeing a UFO in New York City, Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” is the number one hit song and for the first time ever – wahine (women) compete in a long distance outrigger canoe race in Kona, Hawaii.

Up until 1974, wahine crews only paddled in short-course regattas. “We knew we could do it. Our six-mile long distance race from Keauhou to Kailua kick-started what the race has grown to become today,” said Blondie Kamaka, one of the members of the pioneering Kai ‘Ōpua Canoe Club crew. “We paddled because we love it, now it’s a legacy. We knew we could go farther and we did the following year.”

2013 Queen Lili'uokalani wahine long distance outrigger canoe race

2013 Queen Lili’uokalani wahine long distance outrigger canoe race

Four crews from Hawaii Island along with crews from O’ahu, Kauai and Maui raced from Keauhou Bay to Kailua Bay and into the history books. The course was shorter back then, six miles instead of the 18-mile grueling race of today. Ask any of these crew members and they will agree that the thought of competing long distance was one that excited and challenged these now-veteran paddlers.

Race officials, including Mary Jane Kahanamoku who worked alongside her husband Louis Kahanamoku (the fifth of six brothers from the legendary water sports family whose most famous member was three-time Olympian Duke Kahanamoku) pushed to have the wahine included. The sport was rapidly evolving when,just two years earlier, this new Queen Lili’uokalani long distance race course had emerged as a way for men to prepare for the Molokai Channel Race.

Molokai 3

Accustomed to the short-distance regatta races that required no crew changes, the learning curve for open ocean racing would prove to be challenging for even the most seasoned wahine paddlers. The new six-mile long-distance course would require crew changes, so theyspent the summer learning how to climb in and out of the canoe while moving through open ocean. Not the easiest maneuver, but the coaches were committed, and through the bruises and bangs, by the end of the summer of ’74, the wahinewere ready to line up at the race start.

How did the men respond when race co-founder Mary Jane Kahanamoku of Kai ‘Ōpua Canoe Club pushed to include wahine? The men accommodated the change and helped train these wahine crews. Outrigger canoe veterans like Pops Kekua, Toots Crozier and Virginia Isbell helped oversee the course and made certain the rules were followed. Just five years later the dream was realized when, “Na Wahine o Ke Kai” – the Molokai to Oahu canoe race -followed suit.

This year, 2013, marks the 40th anniversary of the Queen Lili’uokalani wahine long distance outrigger canoe race. The Queen’s Race salutes these pioneer wahine and the support crews who believed in their ability to paddle an open ocean race and steered the way for others to follow. Forty years later, the wahine outrigger canoe racing has grown tremendously and this August the Queen’s Race will welcome over 120 teams to the women’s 18-mile race. Auntie Blondie’s granddaughter just started paddling and you can be sure Auntie Blondie will be on the start line to watch her race start.

Kai Opua4

To celebrate the anniversary, Kai ‘Ōpua will host a “talk story” with the original 1974 wahine paddlers, coaches and officials at which the public is invited to attend on Friday, August 30th at 5pm on the lawn at Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel and listen to the ocean stories these amazing women will relate.

Then on Saturday, August 30th, the world’s largest long distance race starts at Kailua Bay where the wahine paddle the Kona coast and head for their finish line 18miles away at Honaunau. Iron wahinecrews– those who paddle the entire 18 mileswithout any crew changes– start the race at 7:30 am, followed by the crews paddling in the Unlimited division (whose boats have no weight limit) and lastly, the wahine crews thatwill change paddlers throughout the race will get their start at 7:40 am. All of the long-distance races have five-minute split-staggered starts.

Photos by Brooke Wilson

Photos by Brooke Wilson

TheWa’a Kaukahi kane crews follow the same staggered start racing from Hōnaunau back to Kailua starting at 11:45 am. The first men’s crew is expected to cross the finish line in Kailua Bay about 1:00 pm.

Best place to view the races? Book a seat aboard “Blue Sea Cruises” Spirit of Kona catamaran or “Body Glove Cruises” Kanoa II 65 foot catamaran for a front row view of Saturday’s signature races. Both catamarans are available for transporting race participants and spectators andwill follow the races as they unfold to the wahine finish lineat Hōnaunau andthe kane finish line at Kailua.

Board Blue Sea Cruises catamaran “Spirit of Kona” at the Kailua Pier at 6:00 am for a 6:30 am departure. Cost for the tour is $40 for adult spectators and $33 for children 5 to 11 years old. Snacks and beverages will be available for purchase. For reservations call 808-331-8875 or book online blueseacruisesinc.com

BoardBody Glove Cruises 65′ catamaran “Kanoa II” for another opportunity for a front seat at the races. Board Kanoa II at Kailua Pier at 6:00 am with a 6:30 am departure. Cost for the Kanoa II tour catamaran is $50 for adult spectators, no children under 5 years old. Continental breakfast and BBQ lunch are included. For reservations call 808-326-7122 or book online bodyglovehawaii.com/canoe-race.

Kai Opua

Then as the sun sets, paddlers from around the world will gather in Kona to celebrate the day’s long-distances races and the numerous races to follow during the weekend with the traditional Queen Lili’uokalani Torch Light Parade that begins at Hale Halawai, travels through Historic Kailua Village and ends on Kailua Pier. The public is invited to cheer on the paddlers as they walk with torches along the Ali’i Drive parade route.

AdditionalQueen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race events throughout the three-day weekend:

Sunday, September 1

  • Wa’a Kaulua (Races for double-hull canoes)
  • OC1 (one person) & OC2 (two person canoes)
  • Stand-up Paddleboard Short and Long-course
  • Teen (Single hull canoes)

Monday, September 2

  •  Ali’i Challenge (A blend of Survivor and Amazing Race) Using single hull canoes with 12-person crews.

The 2013 Queen Lili’uokalani Long Distance Outrigger Canoe Races are sponsored in part by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, Queen K Tesoro, Steinlager, OluKai, Ocean Paddler Television, Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, Hulakai and numerous corporate and community donors.

For more race information, including a detailed slate of events, race information, photos, history and contacts, visit www.kaiopua.org.

One Response

  1. In 1973 or 1974, while I was a US Navy Corpsman, stationed aboard the USS Kawishiwi, several of my shipmates competed in the King Kamehameha around the island outrigger canoe race.

    Our support boat was capsized by the surf and, some severely injured, we all wound up in the hospital emergency room.

    I am trying to locate any newspaper or other articles documenting this incident. Would you happen to have any info regarding this incident?

    I was stationed aboard the ship from January 1972 through 1975, but was in Vietnam during the ’72 an ’75 races, I think!

    Let me know if you have questions or need more details!



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