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—moms, 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.
There’s an exception to the rule, though: Butting into the Tahitian victory party is a wild card, 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 midsized 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 grueling: 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.”
The iron man component and the prize purse—$50,000 in prize money is handed out—aren’t the only things that separate Olamau from other outrigger races. The Olamau is also an unlimited event, meaning that teams can bring, with a few restrictions, any canoe they want—any weight, shape, size: Think of it as an outrigger America’s Cup. Although only in its second year, the Olamau has caught on so fast that all the major teams have put the race on their calendars.
“Paddling needs to grow,” race organizer Mike Nakachi says. “Last year, we had just 11 teams. This year, we had 24 teams in all and next year we hope to double that. The event will keep getting better.”
The Mellow Johnny’s not-so-secret weapon is the latest outrigger to emerge from designer Odie Sumi’s laboratory at Pure Canoes, and Sumi’s tweaks might mean they have the fastest six-man canoe ever to skim the waves. From sleek hull to sharp prow the outrigger crackles with power. Even the glossy mint-green paint seethes and gleams. To one side of the canoe the ama (outrigger) hangs from the curved ’iako (struts) like a booster rocket. The canoe looks more like a vicious species of wasp or a Star Wars T-65 X-wing starfighter, and on the waves it flies.
“They talk about tradition,” Sumi says, “but if you’re going to paddle something foam and fiberglass, why not paddle something fun?”
For centuries, Hawaiians built their outriggers from single koa logs carefully selected from the forests that rose along the volcanic slopes of the islands. After months of charring and scraping with a stone adze, the outriggers took shape. In our age of composite materials and AutoCAD engineering, though, the old ways have become oppressive. For years, unlimited canoes would crash the official races and blow away the traditional boats, winning nothing except bragging rights. The Olamau also serves as a field test for cutting-edge technology, and Sumi, just 31, is at the forefront of it.
Out of the 24 canoes in the race, he built 11, making him the Henry Ford of competitive outrigger racing. His rise in the field has been rapid. A native Hawaiian and Cal Poly grad, he worked in San Luis Obispo after graduating but soon returned home.
Back on the Big Island, Sumi saw what folks were paying for SUP paddles and he thought, “I can do that.” Soon he had more orders than he could fill. Then his business partner showed him a new canoe design.
“I was making paddles, so I knew how to glue wood together and put fiberglass on it,” says Sumi, whose crash-course lasted all of five weeks. “The concept was pretty much the same: Take this hollow wood, glue it together, sand it, make it into something.”
Sumi looks both young and ageless, his skin unlined. Black hair and a natural tan reveal his island origins, the mixed background so common to the melting pot of the Pacific. Just three years after his first canoe, Sumi and his designs dominate unlimited racing. Maybe that makes him more Bill Gates than Henry Ford: Like Gates, Sumi started in his garage and he currently works out of a couple of warehouses on the outskirts of Kona. At the moment, a race-ready canoe from Pure with wood-core hull, carbon-fiberglass body, resin-infused ama, and carbon-reinforced aluminum ’iakos will set you back $19,000. The personal touch remains: Every outrigger has waterproof skirts hand-sewn by Sumi’s mother.
The race plays out against astonishing views. In the distance looms the volcano Mauna Kea, at 33,500 feet the tallest mountain from underwater base to peak in the world (sorry, Everest). Big Island is the newest of the Hawaiian Islands, and its youth means constant landslides and lava flows exploding into the sea. The Olamau teams paddle opposite black cliffs and dozens of waterfalls that drop sheer for hundreds of feet into the surf. No team runs closer to the cliffs and rocky beaches than Pacific Northwest. At the moment, they’re regretting their line “inside” as the wave reflection off the shore disrupts the swells and makes it impossible to surf. They paddle at full tilt, fighting the waves, fighting the current. Most of the teams have a local steersman who knows the course, or at least an escort boat, but PNW is struggling in a race of its own, the front-runners long since out of sight.
Washington State is about as far as you can get from Polynesia, and in the PNW canoe stocky Hawaiians paddle alongside Caucasians whose skin definitely doesn’t see much tropical sun. Made up of former swimmers, distance canoe paddlers, and Hawaiian transplants, PNW is a labor of love. All of the paddlers have full-time jobs, and after they punch the clock, they head out to train. “We keep a record of our training days,” says team captain Lance Mamiya. “When you see that someone else has logged in, it drives you to keep going yourself.”
At 46, Mamiya looks a decade younger, thick muscle sloping from neck and shoulders to weightlifter arms. He grew up in the islands, but his father’s career as an Air Force fighter pilot took the family around the world. It wasn’t until Mamiya settled in the Northwest that he started paddling seriously. For him it’s both an adrenaline sport and a way to stay connected to his island roots.
“When you come back to Hawaii,” he says, “and get to surf and paddle without a gumby suit or a 4-mil steamer, you have a pure connection to the water. Every time I visit, it gets tougher for me to get back on the plane to Seattle.”
Conditions in the Northwest are very different from those in Hawaii—wetsuits are mandatory in winter, and the paddlers have to crunch through ice. Although strong paddlers take part in PNW, they’re hindered by the fact that they train in bays and on rivers. Handling big swells requires a unique skill set.
Traditionally, the canoes lack rudders or fins and it’s the steersman’s job to keep the line—not so easy to do, as swell and wind jerks the outrigger stern from side to side. Catching a swell on an outrigger is like six blind men trying to ride a wave on one longboard. Every paddler has to feel the wave and adjust his stroke. Once the wave speed is matched, the strokes need to be shorter and quicker to keep pace. Meanwhile, the steersman has to keep the canoe angled so the bow doesn’t get buried in the wave in front of it, while still keeping on course.
PNW plows forward. Last year they raced the Olamau in a spec canoe and finished last among the men’s teams, but their grit impressed the field so much that Sumi loaned them an unlimited.
Day One ends with the Johnny’s and Shell neck and neck. Shell pulls across the finish line 81 seconds ahead, a tight finish for a race that spans almost four hours. On shore, a crewman from the Sea Shepherd team lies groaning on a table in the banquet pavilion, an IV needle sunk into his arm. Croquet this isn’t, and it’s about to get much worse.
The Pacific erupts on Day Two. Thirty-knot winds (around 35 mph) and 10-foot swells crash on the exposed shore. In the sightseeing boats, tourists chew Dramamine and cling to the rails. Just reaching the starting line is a survival test: The Sea Shepherd boat capsizes in the surf, paddlers struggling to keep their heads above water. The escort boats disappear behind the swells, leaving the canoes paddling alone through the storm. Minutes into the race, Mellow Johnny’s gets swamped and the crew has to bail. The best teams take advantage of the stormy weather, using the wind waves to drop into the bigger swells, surfing from peak to white-capped peak.
Anna Mathisen, the captain of Pacific Wahine, one of the five women’s teams, is in her element. A one-time nationally ranked swimmer, she’s spent her life in the water. Her Norwegian ancestry shows in her ash-blond hair and light-blue eyes, but her soul is at least half Hawaiian. “Personally,” she says, “I thrive in the big stuff.”
“I had to lean out of the canoe and hold my paddle firm to keep us straight,” Mathisen explains. “Then switch back to paddling. The weight of water and the anaerobic intensity left me shaking.”
After an intense hour of surfing, Pacific Wahine entered the flats to find three women’s teams—Oceanic Connection, Kawaihae, and 404—only a few yards away. Exhausted from battling the waves, they now had to fight each other. “Every time I’d look up another attack was coming,” she says. “Dropping those teams wasn’t easy.”
After winning Day One, Mathisen and her team finish second on Day Two behind Na Hoa but retain their yellow jerseys in the overall rankings. Last year only one women’s team competed; this year there are five, enough to have separate rankings and prize money.
On Day Three the water is pure glass, so velvet and still you feel like you could put a blanket on it and have a picnic. Out in front it’s a three-team race, with Shell, Mellow Johnny’s, and EDT running side by side, fighting for the lead. Shell has a 4-minute advantage in the overall rankings, but they want to win every stage.
First place on a stage means $2,500, while the overall winner nets another $15,000. It sounds like decent money, until you think about dividing it 12 ways and the cost of getting from anywhere to Hawaii. The Shell team could win every race it enters all year long and still not break even. There’s something else that makes the paddlers put up with the long flights in economy class, the sleeping pads in crowded rooms, the endless hours of training. It’s the competition and camaraderie, the practice of an ancient craft along a coast that shimmers with natural beauty. It’s a way to paddle into that tradition while bringing their sport into the 21st century.
“To me it’s living at its best,” Nakachi says. “Olamau can be taken in so many different ways. ‘Strong life.’ ‘Live strong.’ ‘Live life to its fullest.’ ” Teams party at the pool post-race (it is Hawaii), slapping each other on the shoulders, trading war stories.
“We were in the inaugural race,” Mamiya says, “and we’re in this one, and we’ll keep coming back as long they’ll have us. It might not be as sexy as BASE-jumping or skydiving, but it has its own intensity, and the deep tradition. We’re paddling new boats but we’re connected to something that’s a thousand years old.”
Pacific Northwest didn’t make a dime from the Olamau. Instead they’ll fly back to the mainland with sore muscles and a 13th-place overall finish, far behind the 1-2-3 finish of Shell, EDT, and Mellow Johnny’s. One after another, crews paddle into the harbor at Kukio, weary and satisfied. Kukio is backed by a private resort and golf club, and Euro tourists in bikinis and Speedos stare as the paddlers lift their canoes out of the water. It’s a different Hawaii from the ancient heartland, but the Olamau ties all these Hawaiis together. Next year, the race will follow the same route, and continue to transform outrigger racing.
Check out the October 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands September 10) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.