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Sepa Napoleon looks ahead
Vol. 5, No. 6
December 2002/January 2003


People of the Canoe 


story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Monte Costa


If it’s true that our lives are written on our bodies, then Joseph "Nappy" Napoleon’s hands tell an epic tale of the sea. They’re tough hands, muscled and callused from more than fifty years of wielding a paddle and knotting the ropes that hold together a waa, the Hawaiian outrigger canoe.

But they have a light touch, too—watch them as he’s steering, reading the sea from the feel of his paddle as it slices through the water. He makes it look easy, but it’s a delicate skill: First, you have to be strong enough to keep hold of the paddle when a cross-current makes it jump in your hands, then you’ve got to learn how to handle it gently enough to feel what those currents are telling you. When Nappy’s steering, he’s constantly in motion, but sometimes you’ll notice that he’s got the paddle perfectly balanced in just one hand, holding on with just a thumb and three fingers as the boat runs with a cresting swell. Seeing that, it’s easy to understand why, at sixty-one years of age, he’s considered one of the living masters of Hawaiian outrigger canoeing.

Nappy’s forehead, too, tells a story—the series of fine tan lines there marking a lifetime spent working in the sun, first as a Waikiki Beach Boy and later in construction. When he’s smiling or concentrating, his eyebrows rise, and six deep creases appear: They could be one for his wife Anona and each of their adult sons—Joey, twins Aaron and Darryn, David and Jonah. Then again, they could be for each of the nearly six decades he’s spent in canoes ... because when Nappy’s brows are up, more often than not it’s when he’s reading the ocean, steering his course by the patterns of swell, wind and current.

Looking back, it’s clear that there was no other course for Nappy’s life; he was just born to paddle. "I didn’t really get into it until I was in sixth grade, I think," he says today, sounding almost as if he considers himself a late bloomer. "But then I really got into it. All the older guys, they used to just come down to paddle, but I used to stay late to help glass the canoes—we had wooden canoes, but we used to put fiberglass over the cracks—and then I learned how to rig. I remember I went home one time and built a small canoe, and I rigged it and everything—I was less than twelve then, but I had really good teachers."

A 1958 photo, inscribed, "To Nappy ...
thanks for being soft-hearted enough to
steer a bunch of uncoordinated
malihinis (newcomers)."

(photo: "Scoop" Tsuzuki,
courtesy Napoleon ohana)

Raised in the Kapahulu district on the outskirts of Waikiki, Nappy learned to paddle from a who’s-who list of legendary, now-deceased Waikiki watermen like Steamboat Mokuahi and Blue Makua. He has been racing outriggers since before there was such a thing as a keiki division—paddling with a crew of sixteen-year-olds when he was half that age. In 1958, at seventeen, he first entered the forty-one-mile Molokai-to-Oahu channel race that is today regarded as the world championship of long-distance outrigger canoeing—and his crew won. He was there in the early ’70s when the traditional sailing canoe Hokulea was first being built and tested on Oahu; in the ’80s, he and Anona founded Anuenue Canoe Club, for which he still serves as head coach. (Check out the club’s website at anuenuecanoeclub.org.) He has traveled much of the Pacific as both a racer and a teacher, giving informal paddling clinics everywhere from California to Fiji and beyond, and in 1999 he narrated and starred in an instructional video—One Paddle, Two Paddle: Techniques of Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Paddling—that was recently honored with a national "Telly" award for sports videography.

Nappy has certainly earned the right to kick back a little, yet he continues to compete in a sport traditionally dominated by men and women half his age. He currently holds the record for consecutive appearances in the Molokai channel race, which he has entered every year since 1958 (the first modern crossing was completed in 1951). In 1999, Nappy’s crew finished second in the forty-and-older age division at Tahiti’s three-day, four-island Hawaiki Nui long-distance race, one of the most grueling in the world. He also took up solo outrigger racing a few years back, competing during the November-to-May off-season for the larger outriggers. As a solo paddler in the Molokai World Championship races, he’s won the sixty-and-over division in each of the two years (2001 and 2002) that he’s entered. And, along with his paddling partner, Gaylord Wilcox, he also competes in an annual relay race across the channel.

Like many watermen, Nappy tends to speak louder with action than words. Ask him how he’s maintained his competitive edge for all these years, and he’ll give you the cut-and-dried answer first: "You know what the secret is? Get in the canoe and work hard." Ask him again, though, and you’ll start to see that paddling is simply Nappy’s calling in life. "All my kids are into sports, they watch all kinds of sports on television," he says with a laugh one afternoon while watching his four-year-old grandson, Riggs, zip by Anuenue’s Waikiki practice site in a one-man canoe.

"Me, I’m an old lolo, I’m just out there cleaning the yard ... unless it’s paddling, then I’m in there. It’s lucky I had canoes ... I wasn’t that good in school, but in the water I hold my own, you know?"

Nappy and Anona, 1976
(photo: courtesy Napoleon ohana)

Not long after Nappy made his first channel crossing, a young woman he had known for nearly half his life was preparing for another paddling challenge: By the time she was eighteen, Anona Naone was attempting to qualify for the 1960 Rome Olympics in the two-person kayak—a sport that had been introduced to Hawaii barely a year earlier. Not that she wasn’t an experienced athlete—she’d been racing outriggers for four years at that point—but she and teammate Karen Knudsen were a long shot.

"Hawaii took a chance on us and paid our way to Ohio, where we trained under a Hungarian coach," she says now. "The tryouts were in New York. We came in second, just by a few tenths of a second behind first—it was so close." Four years later, they tried out for the Japan Olympics, once again narrowly placing second in the trials. After all the years of nonstop training, she says, "at that point, we just decided we had to have a life other than just grinding for the Olympics."

By then, Anona and Nappy were dating, but it wasn’t quite love at first sight. "Nappy and my older brother were really good friends," Anona says, "and I was the tag-along sister. To me, he was my big brother in addition to my other brother—you know, he would take me home from the beach ... he would even take my boyfriends home and then take me home.

Aaron and Riggs

"Then, in 1959, he said, ‘I don’t wanna be your big brother anymore,’" she recalls with a chuckle. "I kind of ran away—mainly because, how do you shut it off from being big brother, little sister? I ran for years—but you can only run so much, right?"

Nappy and Anona were married in 1964; their eldest son, Joey, was born a year later. After raising five sons and suffering a near-paralyzing back injury, Anona has gone on to reach several paddling pinnacles: In the late 1980s, her masters crew won the women’s Molokai channel race for three consecutive years, and in 1998 her crew won the International Polynesian Canoe World Sprint Championships in Fiji.

Today, Anona traces her life with Nappy back to their ancestral bonds with the sea: "You know the Hawaiian custom? After the dried-up part of the umbilical cord, the piko, falls off, people bury it or whatever they choose. Nappy and I have been taught through our families to give it back to the ocean, because we’re people of the canoes. So what my parents did with my piko and what we did with all of our sons—and now what they’ve done with their children—has been a ceremony where we paddle out and we give it back to the ocean, because that’s their connection to life. So the ocean has always meant family to me—we are people of the ocean."

Sepa, Tekahi and Joshua

On any given summer day, there are now three generations of Napoleons down at the Anuenue practice site by the Hilton Hawaiian Village. At thirty-six, son Aaron is probably the most formidable paddler of the group—along with teammate Kai Bartlett, he currently holds the time record for the one-man outrigger relay across the Molokai Channel—but all the Napoleon boys have been shaped by their parents’ relationship to the sea.

Thirty-three-year-old David, an assistant professor of Hawaiian language at Honolulu’s Kapiolani Community College, echoes his mother’s sentiments when it comes to his family’s kinship with the water: "To put it in a simple way, my parents see the ocean as their parents, and my brothers and I are the moopuna (grandsons) of the ocean. Because of my parents’ relationship with the ocean, I have been given life, and it is the ocean that keeps me alive and living."

David (front right) and crew
haul out at Waikiki.

Perhaps in return for what the ocean has given them, Nappy and Anona continue to find ways to repay its favors. If you were to ask Nappy whether or not he viewed himself as someone involved in cultural preservation, he’d likely tell you that he’s just doing what comes naturally to him. But in doing so, he’s now fostering his third generation of paddlers, including some thirty youngsters from Anuenue School—a Hawaiian language immersion school based in Honolulu’s Palolo Valley that coincidentally shares the canoe club’s name, which translates as "rainbow." (Anona and Nappy say that’s the name they would have given their daughter if they’d had one, so they gave it to the canoe club—in a sense their sixth "child"—instead.) "The kids from Anuenue come down, chant, do their workout, then after they’re pau for the day, they chant again," says Nappy with obvious pride. "I’ve never had something like that before."

In February, Nappy and Anona will travel to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to take part in a mentorship project led by paddler and environmental activist Donna Kahiwa Kahakui. Anona, meanwhile, is working on a Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii, where her emphasis is on creating teaching curricula based on the Hawaiian mediation technique called hooponopono. "What it’s really about is creating culturally responsive curricula, because there are too many Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian students who are over-represented in special education, suspension, in jail—you name it," she says. "If we had this culturally responsive curricula, maybe it would help them. I also want to help the teachers—because they’re so overburdened."

More recently, Nappy and Anona have also become involved in trying to keep the state-run marina adjacent to Anuenue’s practice site from being privatized—a process which the Napoleons fear could lead to less public access and in the process a kind of cultural erosion.

Anona, Nappy and Sepa, with
newborn granddaughter Kainaniokekua.

In the end, all of this is what comes naturally to Nappy. "It seems that my father has put all his trust and love into the ocean, and who he is today is due to it reciprocating with him," says David. "My parents’ relationship with the ocean can be scary at times: I know that if the ocean called them to sail to Kahiki or wherever it may be, they would. That is how much trust and respect they have in it."

Driving down Ala Wai Boulevard on the way to the beach recently, Anona mentions that the folks from ABC television had called, looking to profile the Napoleon ‘ohana as part of a series that would cover fifty families in fifty states. This sort of thing has become somewhat common for the Napoleons, and Anona has learned to take it in stride, saying only that "if you live long enough and keep yourself healthy, you just never know what life’s going to show you."

Case in point: A little over a year ago, Nappy got the kind of job offer that most people would jump at: An all-expenses-paid trip to the remote Fijian island of Rotuma, where he and his sons were to be cast in a movie being produced by Rotuman playwright and University of Hawaii professor Vilsoni Hereniko and his wife Jeanette. It is the first feature film ever to be shot in Rotuma, and the Napoleon ‘ohana’s job was simple enough: They were to portray the island’s first inhabitants, arriving on its shore in a traditional sailing canoe.

But that’s not quite how it worked out: Nappy did go to Rotuma, but not as an actor. "The important thing they needed was the opening of this movie, where eight brothers and one sister are coming to the island to get things started—so they wanted to use me and my boys," he recalls. "I said to them, ‘What doesn’t make sense to me is that when people make movies about Hawaiians, they use Samoans or Tongans or whatever—why don’t you use your own people?’ Vili said no one on Rotuma knew how to paddle. So I told him, ‘I can teach them in no time.’"

Off went Nappy and Anona, carrying with them a set of high-tech sails borrowed from famed Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson. "They’d built this canoe—whoa, talk about original: all dug out, not even sanded, and so heavy it took eight of us to drag it to the water. When we went down, I made some paddles—just fast kine—but when I looked at the canoe, I said to Anona, ‘Cannot use Dacron sails with that!’ Down there, they’re into the weaving, so I got some big lauhala mats and made sails ... then it looked original."

Standing on the beach at the Anuenue practice site, Nappy smiles as he recounts that trip. "I’ve been lucky—paddling took me all around the world: Aotearoa, Fiji, western Samoa, American Samoa, Tahiti, California. When I was surfing, I went to South America, too ... yeah, paddling’s been good to me."

Some of the Napoleon ohana, Waikiki, 2002