Story by Leslie Lang
Photos by Jack Wolford
I’m no athlete, so it’s surreal, to say the least, to find myself paddling a canoe out in Hilo Bay with a group of women far older—and fitter—than I am. I blame it on Momi.
In her other life, Pearl “Momi” Lyman works at Hospice of Hilo, but here on Hilo Bay she’s a paddler with Wahine on Water (WOW), a women’s outrigger canoe paddling team that’s part of the Keaukaha Canoe Club. It was Momi who thrust a paddle into my hand and encouraged me to step far outside my comfort zone on terra firma. Now I’m in the fifth seat of a blue and white outrigger canoe called Ha‘aheo (Pride), wearing the same red “Fearless Hawaiian” rash guard as everybody else.
I’m a tender 49, but I’m in a canoe with the paddlers called Honua (Earth)—all 60 and older. The other divisions are Makani (Wind), who are 55-59, and Ahi (Fire), who are 50-54. I look at these Honua women’s athletic figures, watch their easy, powerful strokes and wonder whether they’re telling the truth about their ages. These women—teachers, sheriffs, park rangers, lawyers—are not your stereotypical grandmothers. The first year they competed, the novice Honua wahine qualified for the state regatta on O‘ahu.
I try to match the strokes of the 60-plusyear- old woman two seats in front of me and realize it’s harder than it looks. “You’re going to be great, Leslie!” encourages Miri Sumida, the team’s founder, coach and matriarch, who’s sitting behind me. Out here on the glistening sea, outside of mist-shrouded Hilo, feeling the steady, strong rhythm of women working together to pull that canoe, I understand why people love to paddle.
Looking back, I see the white mantle of Mauna Kea from the water, and for a moment things take on their proper proportions. “Everything just falls into perspective,” Miri says. “Whatever crisis you think you have, it’s just not as important as it was when you were on shore.”