Despite some unexpected surf, dozens of paddlers showed up for the inaugural Hulakai OC4 eight-man relay in Kailua Bay — the kickoff event of the Queen Liliuokalani Outrigger Canoe Races.
The lighthearted event had participants paddle a triangular course in the bay, and is an example of how the event known for its long-distance race takes advantage of the long Labor Day weekend.
“It’s not just a single race anymore, as compared to something like the Molokai race, or most other well-known long-distance races,” said Race Director Mike Atwood. “We are glad we have been able to put on an event that attracts such a great group of paddlers from around the world and can provide them with memories they can take with them the rest of their lives.”
More than 2,500 paddlers on crews from as far away as Japan, Australia, Peru and the United Kingdom are expected to participate in the Queen Liliuokalani Races, making it the largest event of its type in the world.
Local canoe club Kai Opua hosts the event, which has been held annually for almost a half-century.
“Outrigger canoes connected the Hawaiians to the land. To be able to respect the foundation and be able to carry it forward helps leave the footprints through time and will continue to honor the tradition,” Atwood said. “We feel honored to be able to put on this event, and really could not do it without the community.”
The signature Waa Kaukahi 18-mile race along the Kona coast begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday in Kailua Bay with the women’s crews. The wahine will line up across Kailua Bay and head for their finish line at Honaunau. Iron women, who paddle the entire course without any crew changes, start the race first, followed by crews paddling in the unlimited division — boats with no weight limit — five minutes later. The women’s crews who will change paddlers throughout the race get their start at 7:40 a.m.
Waa Kaukahi men’s crews follow the same staggered start racing from Honaunau back to Kailua Bay starting around 11:45 a.m. The first men’s crew is expected to cross the finish line at about 1 p.m.
Last year, Mellow Johnny’s No. 1 took home the title in the men’s race and Waikiki Beach Boys 3 took home the women’s crown.
Atwood admits the long-distance races are not as spectator friendly as races during regatta season, but he is seeing a steady growth in their popularity.
“It’s an interesting comparison. The regattas are a family-based sport. All kinds of family members are there participating — parents, kids, grandparents. It’s a different kind of competition and workout,” Atwood said. “The number of people who stick with long-distance is growing. What used to be thought of as uncomfortable and too much of a challenge is starting to change. With OC1 and OC2 canoes people can train year-round, regardless of the competitive season.”
Hawaii will be well-represented, with more than 60 teams expected to be at the start line Saturday. However, the race’s diverse field is something that makes the event inimitable.
Among the competitors in the OC4 races Thursday were the Black Swans and Cockatoos, a collection of men’s and women’s crews based in Australia, that accommodates paddlers from nearly every continent.
The crew of Katrina Epae, Fiona Campbell, Sue Benko and Tonia Cruz tested the rough waters, but emerged with smiles on their races, saying it was a good trial run for Saturday’s main event.
“It has already been a fabulous experience and the week is just barely getting started,” said Fiona Campbell, who is making her second trip to the event. “For the first 10 minutes you are saying to yourself, ‘What the hell did I just get into.’ You spend months training and I’m not sure if you can ever be fully prepared for it, but it’s a great experience. There is nothing like it. Kona is beautiful.”
Friday at 4 p.m. a talk story with outrigger canoe racing veterans Joseph Napoleon, Kimokea Kapahulehua and Manny Veincent will be held on the makai lawn at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
“We have people who have been involved in the sport for many years and are a wealth of knowledge,” said Atwood. “The talk stories let them dispense all that information to anyone willing to listen.”
Starting at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, multiple family-friendly races — including OC1, OC2 and standup paddleboarding — will be held in Kailua Bay.
Monday, the Alii Challenge — a survivor style race and cultural experience — will close out the event.