Story by Catharine Lo
Photo by Jack Wolford
It’s a simple truth that when two paddlers are together, non-paddlers won’t get a non-paddling word in edgewise. See, paddlers are obsessed with paddling. So until they can get back in a canoe, they’re thinking about paddling, talking about paddling or drinking beer. Or, most likely, drinking beer and thinking and talking about paddling all at the same time.
The Queen Lili‘uokalani Long Distance Outrigger Canoe Race gives these gregarious fanatics a chance to gather together and paddle their hearts out: Each paddler commits about ten thousand strokes to pull their six-person crews the flat eighteen miles between Kailua bay and Honaunau bay. Kailua-Kona’s home canoe club Kai ‘Opua hosts races on each of the competition’s three days — including the premier iron race on Saturday—with endless festivities in between. Close to 2,500 participants from waterways near and far attend, including crews from the Mainland, Australia, Italy, Brazil, England, Tahiti, Japan and Hong Kong.
For longtime race organizer Larry Campos, known affectionately as Uncle Bo, the congregation of international paddlers young and old keeps the event from ever getting monotonous. “Everybody is so happy. You don’t see any disappointed faces,” Uncle Bo says, describing how the excitement grows as crews rig their colorful canoes on the beach at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. This is where the women’s race—celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year—starts. The men’s crews race the reverse course back up the coastline from Honaunau. Uncle Bo receives tokens of gratitude from all over: coffee from the Costa Ricans, a silver maple leaf from the Canadians, a ceremonial spear from the Maori paddlers. “They bring these gifts to say thank you, and I can’t tell them enough, ‘Thank you for coming,’” he says. “If I have a hat on, I give it away. If I have a shirt on, I give it away.”
Among the highlights is the torchlight parade at sunset after Saturday’s race, when competitors put down their paddles to pick up big sticks of fire and march down Ali‘i Drive. And that’s before they wreak havoc on the town. The best advice for non-paddlers? If you can’t beat them, buy them a beer. This year’s competition happens August 30 to September 2.