The Molokai Hoe is an ‘ultimate’ race – the ultimate test of physical strength, mental endurance, determination, teamwork & strategy in a battle against the extreme elements that the sea can produce. The event flowed from a dream of a certain Albert Minvielle & 2014 will mark the 62nd consecutive year on which the event has been run; it’s the second longest running annual team sporting event in Hawaii.
A famous photo from the 2001 Molokai Hoe:
The Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association (OHCRA) , the event’s governing body in Hawaii, records the history this way:
On October 12, 1952 three 6 man koa outrigger canoes (Waikiki Surf Club, Hawaiian Surf Club &Kukui O Lanikaula) launched through the surf at Kawakiu Bay on Molokai’s west coast bound for Oahu across more than 61 kms of open ocean in the Ka’iwi Channel, water which can be treacherous. 8 hours and 55 minutes later, the Molokai canoe, Kukui O Lanikaula landed on the beach at Waikiki in front of the Moana Hotel. Thus began the world’s most prestigious outrigger canoe race, the Molokai Hoe.
The Molokai Hoe goes deeper – conducted in va’a (outrigger canoes), crafts themselves invented by Polynesians & which carried the original Polynesian people to Hawaii & Tahiti, the race preserves Polynesian cultural traditions dating back thousands of years. The race has significant spiritual significance – Molokai the sacred island, Hale O Lono a place of the god of water.
The beginnings of the race in 1952 were set in the context of a Molokai that had been established as a leper colony in the 19th century; where, indeed, the government’s isolation policy was not repealed until 1969, in the 18th year in which the race was conducted. Paradoxically Molokai was & remains a paradise preserved in its natural state.
Originally the entire race was paddled from start to finish by 6 men. The actual distance of the race has changed 8 times from the original 61kms with the distance ranging from 61-89kms but has remained the same course at 66kms since 1979. Nowadays the canoes are paddled by a 9 man team allowing paddlers to be relieved during the somewhat ‘tortuous’ event. These change-of-paddlers made mid-channel during the race are thrilling & add greatly to the spectacle. Thousands of paddlers come to Hawaii each October to compete in what many consider the world championship of off-shore canoe racing. A record fleet of 122 va’a competed in the 2010 edition of the Molokai Hoe.
There are many great stories surrounding the Molokai Hoe – this is amongst my favourites:
Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon paddled in his first Moloka‘i Hoe in 1958 aged 17. He would subsequently complete a staggering 50 consecutive ‘Molokai’s’ up to & including 2007, being part of the winning team on 6 separate occasions (1958, 1961 1966, 1969, !972 & 1973). The crew for his 50th crossing was made up of ‘Nappy’, his 5 sons & 3 grandsons!
Another is the true story of the Coast Guard approaching Te Oropaa in 1976:
Te Oropaa were leading by around half an hour & travelling at speeds never previously seen in the event to the extent that the Coast Guard anticipating that the race would be paddled at ‘normal’ speeds, approached them advising that there was a race in progress & requesting that they leave the course!
Tahiti, indisputably the world’s best ocean paddlers as witnessed by their 35 gold medals (of a total of around 50 on offer) at the recent World Championships in Brazil, have had a dynamic involvement in the Molokai Hoe whenever they have been able to send a team to compete:
- Te Oropaa won in 1976, a victory very fond to me as my brother-in-law, Joseph Prokop, once paddled for the team. The race was conducted over a distance of 89 kms, the longest ever Molokai Hoe, which took the Tahitians 7:53:40 to complete. Tahiti also filled 2nd, 3rd & 4th places (Tautira 2nd & Mataiea 3rd);
- Faa’a Va’a won the event in 1993 smashing the mythical 5 hour barrier at the same time. They would win again in 1994 & place 2nd in 1995.
- Ra’i, a team specifically prepared for the race, would venture across the Pacific in 2002 to win the event. It was their first win – and it happened in the biggest race of all!
- Shell Va’a first came to Hawaii for the Molokai Hoe in 2006. They would win & have not lost since – 8 victories in a row! In 2011 Shell Va’a set the race record of 4:30:54 (record by time as well as speed (km/hr) at which the course was paddled) in a truly unbelievable performance! 2010 marked another special year for Tahiti when Tahiti finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th (Shell, OPT, OPT 2 & Paddling Connection) with Bora Bora Va’a finishing 7th. GOOOOO Bora!
- In the last 2 years Tahiti has filled the first three places each time (2012 – Shell, EDT & Shell 2; 2013 – Shell, EDT, & Tahaa Nui Va’a).
The domination of the Tahitians in the 1976 Molokai Hoe was total. The Tahitians came to Hawaii with a longer, sleeker design canoe, the Tere Matai, an outrigger the likes of which the Hawaiians had never seen. A reinforced (acacia falcata) balsa-core hull & a substantially different shape from the Hawaiian fiberglass hulls of the time saw the Tahitians win by a substantial margin, finishing half an hour before the second va’a. The Tahitian va’a was so fast the Hawaiians dubbed it “The Rocket”!
The OHCRA would regulate hull shape & weight from 1977 onwards – intriguingly the hull approved was (literally!) taken from the shape of the Tere Matai, but that’s another story!
Here’s a shot of Ra’i taken during their victorious 2002 Molokai Hoe; they would win by seconds only in riding a wave to the finish from Rocky Point at the very last turning buoy only some 200m before the sands of Waikiki Beach:
Careful consideration of the performances listed above inevitably raises the question of the position of the Molokai Hoe & that of the Hawaiki’nui Va’a to be staged next month in Tahiti in the hierarchy of outrigger canoe ocean racing. It makes for an interesting debate.
Six teams departed Tahiti in early October for Hawaii to compete in the 2014 Molokai Hoe – Shell Va’a looking to win its 9th consecutive Molokai Hoe, two teams from EDT which figure amongst the favourites for the event, Air Tahiti Va’a with justifiable claims to figure in the top 5, Air Tahiti Nui looking to benefit from the experience & Tahitian Ohana a team comprised of the leading veteran paddlers in Tahiti & looking to win the veteran’s category for the third straight occasion. Tahiti is represented by a strong team, a very strong team!
The swell on the Friday before Sunday’s race was in the order of 3-4m. Although most did not wish to risk their va’a or crew, both Shell & EDT ventured out amongst the sizeable surf break to get a feel for the conditions. EDT would capsize & in the process smash their outrigger!
The Molokai Hoe would start with the traditional prayer ceremony. The event was telecast live & it was intriguing to see the Tahitian commentator’s set with enormous umete (wooden bowls) filled with tropical fruit & flowers, croissants & pain au chocolat; on the American set – microphones, pen & paper!
It was an exceptional race, a gripping race where the leadership changed with great speed from time to time. It would be a race where strategy & knowledge of the waters in which one paddled was as important as physical fitness & psychological preparation.
The Tahitian crews, all 6 of them, started quickly with Shell & EDT leading the field in a 1-2m swell with occasionally 15knots of breeze. The Tahitians would set a course just north of the ‘rum line’. The Hawaiians following, realising that there was no advantage in simply following the powerful Tahitian crews, opted for a course to the south. The Tahitian logic was to take advantage in the second half of the course of the nor-westerly winds & swell; the Hawaiians punted on the nor-easterly currents. It worked psychologically for the Hawaiians who after being out-powered at the start suddenly found 4 amongst them in the lead after the first hour.
The Tahitians held to their plan & on clearing the ocean shelf half way into the race began to power ahead with the swell & wind behind them.
Shell tried over & over again to ‘break’ EDT through a series of powerful bursts. On nearing Diamond Head Shell would use the surf created by the meeting of the N-E swell & the N-W current; EDT would try their luck in stiller water closer to shore which offered no surf but little ‘on the nose’ current either.
The plan worked for EDT &, as is often said: ‘it’s not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog’, a clearly ‘determined to win’ EDT powered ahead to a ‘gutsy’ victory in 4:51:43 just 16 seconds ahead of Shell in a most memorable finish with both teams fighting to the last stroke. EDT 2 would take 3rd place & Air Tahiti Va’a 4th in what was yet another sensational & dominant performance by the Tahitians. Tahitian Ohana finished 2nd in the veteran’s (over 40) section.
The following shots show the constant battle endured by Shell & EDT for almost 5 hours. The photos show Shell & EDT running ‘neck & neck’ less than half an hour into the event before passing Point Lanau & still running ‘neck & neck’ off Kalakaua Ave 4.5 hours into the race. A video of the closest of finishes follows:
The toeres you can hear in the background & the sound of pu to mark the Tahitian victory were provided by the sensational, Honolulu based dance group & Tahitian traditional orchestra Tahiti Mana – winners of this year’s Honolulu Heiva. They were joined by other drummers from around the island & are seen here joining beachside with the paddlers in a traditionally Tahitian way of celebrating not just the victory of the Tahitians but the performance of all competitors:
A closer shot of ‘Team Toere’ awaiting their champions:
Here’s a shot of many of those involved; drummers from different parts of the island joined to show their support:
Unpaid, they were there simply to encourage & congratulate their fellow Tahitians, to acclaim their victory by pu & to welcome them with leis so as to make them feel at home. Here’s a further video showing the Tahiti Mana toere orchestra belting out the traditional reception accompanied by tamure dancing – it gives you an understanding of what is reserved for Tahitians & a feel for the general ambience so as to better understand the reception the paddlers received………….. check out, just check out the youngster drumming with his father to the left of the toere’s:
Here are the placegetting paddlers from EDT & Shell upon their arrival &, the ‘hostilities’ ended, the va’a of these two champion teams lined up on the beach:
The members of Tahiti Mana who sounded the pu as a sign of a great event & an auspicious occasion & those from Tahiti Mana who placed leis on those who performed with such greatness:
Amongst the paddlers, Piki Arapari, a member of the orchestra, seen here with the well-known Tahitian founder of Tahiti Mana, Manarii ‘Mana’ Gauthier:
EDT Molokai Moments (image 2 – ‘in love & war’):
To wrap it all up “IaOrana Tahiti Club of Hawaii” organized a feast for all the Tahitian paddlers, Tahiti Mana put on a quick show and the paddlers joined in to celebrate……Tahitians just LOVE to party!
Reflecting on the event, much is written of the current day domination of Tahitians in ocean paddling. In days gone by the Tahitians had developed superior craft, but nowadays all paddlers compete in va’a whose weight, form & dimensions are strictly controlled. Could it be that although the Hawaiians were able to copy the Tahitian outriggers they have been slower in copying the Tahitian’s far superior style of paddling!
Molokai Hoe – be there in 2015 & find out!