Keeping Culture Afloat

Maui's winningest canoe club is borrowing lessons from the past to surge ahead.

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Story by Matthew Thayer

Maui girls canoe club
Hawaiian Canoe Club’s girls twelve-and-under crew celebrates after their first-place finish at the 2014 HCRA State Championship Regatta at Keʻehi Lagoon on Oʻahu. Clubs at the annual competition swap their usual fiberglass canoes for traditional koa wood versions.

It is a calm Ka‘anapali morning as paddlers in the under-twelve age group pile into their clubs’ outrigger canoes and stroke to the lanes assigned for their quarter-mile race, one of forty-six events that crews of all ages will complete during the daylong regatta. Guided by steersmen and –women, paddlers skillfully guide their long, brightly colored canoes to the proper lanes, back paddling to a halt just behind the starting line.

At the wave of a green flag, the kids turn the water to froth, propelling their crafts to top speed. Before long, repeating a sight that has vexed competitors around the state for years, the blue canoe from Maui’s Hawaiian Canoe Club steadily pulls away to win.

After the race, they return to the beach, but there’s no time for most of the kids from Hawaiian Canoe Club to pick up their first-place medals. For those enrolled in the summer Kamali‘i Program, the challenge is just beginning.

After a few hugs and quick goodbyes from anxious moms, the ten- and eleven-year-old paddlers are back in their canoes. They scoot across regatta lanes between races to join a flotilla of support boats making the program’s yearly open-ocean crossing to the island of the Lanaʻi. Seventy youngsters in rotating crews make the crossing, inspiring twinges of envy among the paddlers and coaches watching from shore. The adults know the kids are setting off on much more than an adventure; they are beginning a cultural and personal exploration that may well change their lives.

Arianna Gerry was an eleven-year-old steerswoman when she first crossed the nine-mile, blue-water ‘Auʻau Channel and rounded the towering sea cliffs of Lanaʻi to reach Manele Bay. “It was probably one of the scariest experiences of my life, but it bonded my team,” Gerry recalls. “To go out on the open ocean as an eleven-year-old, you have to trust the people in the canoe with you. To find that kind of confidence helped me develop my skills as a keiki [youth], and even until now.”

At twenty-five, Gerry has won six state championships as a steerswoman for Hawaiian Canoe Club crews, steered for clubs when she lived in Florida and California, and currently serves as Hawaiian’s club manager. It is no coincidence that a Kamaliʻi product has continued to play a role with the club as an adult. Hawaiian’s coaching ranks are filled with paddlers who came up through the free program.

This summer marks the twenty-third year Kamaliʻi will bring lessons together seventy Maui kids, ages ten to fourteen, to learn about water safety, navigation, food preparation, sustainable practices, and, most of all, Hawaiian values and history. It is deeply meaningful that a canoe club has become the vessel for teaching island children about Hawaiian culture. Canoes are how Hawaiians reached these far-flung Pacific islands long ago. Canoes figured hugely in trade, war and food gathering in pre-Contact Hawaiʻi. It was a voyaging canoe, Hokule‘a, that launched the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and continues to be a touchstone of island pride.

The seven-week Kamaliʻi Program is not only steeped in Hawaiian history, it aspires to ensure a positive future for the Islands. Each day begins and ends with an oli, or chant, features two hours of classroom work, and also plenty of time on the water. One of the core Hawaiian values taught by the Kamaliʻi Program is respect for elders. If a child is to be trusted to cross the cobalt waters of island channels or help work the taro patches deep in Molokaʻi’s Halawa Valley, he or she must be able to respond to instruction without question — even if it is coming from a youth leader who is only a few years older.

maui canoe club for kids
Nohealani Ledesma and her teammates haul a cone onto shore during a recent practice.

Leaders use traditional Hawaiian methods to convey lessons that range from ancient legends to the components of an outrigger canoe. Each year concludes with a sold-out show at the King Kamehameha Golf Course’s Grand Waikapu Ballroom, where participants perform oli and hula they have spent seven weeks learning and sharpening. “The goal is to build character and self-confidence, but also to give these kids some perspective and respect for the culture,” Gerry says. “We get kids from all over the island. They develop their paddling skills and also their friendships with kids from other schools, other towns. They’re competitive on the water, but they are friends and family on the land.”

Kamali‘i’s success can be measured on a variety of levels. Administrators point to youngsters who have gone on to be the first from their families to attend college. There are also disadvantaged and homeless children who have found direction and camaraderie through the program. Its focus on developing thoughtful leaders pays dividends across Maui.

“The Kamaliʻi Program is practically my home during the summer,” says twelve-year-old steerswoman Nohealani Ledesma. “I’ve learned so much that a lot of people think I’m in Hawaiian Immersion. When I hang out with my Hawaiian friends, I speak Hawaiian with them.”

Longtime Kamaliʻi participant Traesyn Shimoda says it is powerful to respect the environment as well as the ancestors. “Everything we do is to benefit or to learn about the Hawaiian ways. When we go to Lanaʻi, we go to this waterfall, and you can feel the mana [divine power] around it.”

Lando Kahalehau, thirteen, says the program has helped him get in touch with his Hawaiian roots.

“You get a lot of experience and you want to learn more,” he says. “I am amazed at what the Hawaiians did and how they did it. I feel proud to be Hawaiian.”

That cultural resonance may help explain the club’s rise to dominance in the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association’s annual State Championship Regatta. Riding the strength of its junior-division crews to build large early leads, the club has earned twelve state titles in the past sixteen years. Hawaiian has also won every Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association championship since 1985. The club’s teen crews won thirteen medals at the 2014 Vaʻa World Sprint Championships in Brazil, and also fare well each year while competing in Tahiti.

The unprecedented success of a neighbor-island club in a sport long dominated by crews from Oʻahu leaves many folks around Hawaiʻi scratching their heads, wondering how Hawaiian does it. Like many great outcomes, this one had humble beginnings, a nexus of the right people, and a canoe full of dedication and hard work.

kids canoe club maui
Head keiki coach Kauhane Lu’uwai gathers his young paddlers during a practice at Kahului Harbor.

Head coach Diane Ho says the club didn’t have a proper home and was being run out of the back of a car parked along the shore of Kahului Harbor when she turned to an upbeat nineteen-year-old named Kauhane Luʻuwai and told him he was the new head keiki coach. Thirty-five years later, Luʻuwai runs a program that sets the standard in Hawaiʻi.

“I love our canoe club and what we stand for, the morals we try to teach our kids,” says Luʻuwai. “We’re not perfect, but we give it our best effort.”

Ho says there isn’t a keiki coach in the state who can match Luʻuwai’s knowledge, commitment and heart. And now that the car trunk has been replaced by a modern, two-story hale [building] and an adjacent, traditional Hawaiian structure, the coach has a place for his flock to gather.

“He’s creating a family down there, a safe place to grow up,” Ho says. “Instead of hanging out at the mall, they would rather be at the club. He’s strict with them. If they want to hang out at the club, they better behave. It is a testament to [Kauhane].”

As the 1980s gave way to the ’90s and the junior paddling program continued to grow, the club saw more and more kids hanging around, waiting for practice to start.

“We had all these kids,” Ho recalls. “We said, ‘What are we going to do?’”

The question led to a collaborative effort by coaches, grant writers and other behind-the-scenes workers to develop a summer program. In 1992, seven years before the club would win its first state championship, it held its first Kamaliʻi Program. Luʻuwai was program director that year and has been in the thick of the action ever since.

“It was kind of the Wild West out there,” Luʻuwai recalls. “We weren’t the greatest paddlers and we didn’t have the greatest coaching, but the passion was there. As time went on we got better. It started with the kids; we started building, and all of a sudden the kids won the county championship on their own. We started getting more serious and we kept getting better.”

Maui canoe club kids volunteer at Kahoolawe
Kamaliʻi participants haul rocks to a trail they are building on Kahoʻolawe.

Each summer, Luʻuwai takes older Kamaliʻi participants on interisland crossings to do community service projects on Moloka‘i and Kaho‘olawe. The Kahoʻolawe trip, which entails working on the trail the Kamaliʻi Program has been building for the past twenty-two years, is a privilege that must be earned.

“I make them write an essay on why they want to go,” Luʻuwai says. “Some kids have the right reasons and some don’t. The kids learn what Kahoʻolawe is all about. It’s really a cultural retreat. I always tell parents, ‘Your kids are not going to come back the same.’”

Registration for the Kamaliʻi Program begins in April and ends when all seventy spots are filled. The program itself runs June through mid-July. For details, visit HawaiianCanoeClub.org. Though the program is free, participants must pay paddling fees ($80) and expenses for off-island trips. Sponsorships available based on need.


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