Issue 10.3: June / July 2007

Master Strokes

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Dana Edmunds

 

For those who consider ocean-going a religion, early morning is the ideal time to float out and pray. The sea’s surface is glass; its texture is silky. A crew of bronzed paddlers in a six-man outrigger canoe appears as a moving speck on the horizon. On Sundays, the Pacific is their church, and services start at dawn.

Returning to Hale‘iwa from their weekly excursion to Waimea Bay, they turn the corner at Pua‘ena Point. The steersman plies the water with the wide, wooden blade and angles toward the shore. The paddlers stroke in unison, dipping their paddles into the water simultaneously, reaching and twisting in model form. They find their glide, and the canoe gains wings.

When the boat touches sand, the paddlers exchange high-fives. They step out of the boat, their wise eyes and weathered faces revealing that experience is what made it look so effortless—they’re all over 55, and they’ve been paddling together for years. It’s no wonder, then, that these seniors are better known as Masters.

After a shower, steersman Randy Sanborn sits at a picnic table for breakfast—shoyu poke—and indulges in what makes Sunday morning easy, as it should be—talking, eating and laughing with his crew. “Uncle Randy” is the head coach
of Manu O Ke Kai outrigger canoe club, based in the country town of Hale‘iwa; he co-founded the club in 1984. Ever since, he’s been as much a fixture at this beach as the coconut trees he planted here, which now tower twenty feet overhead.

“This area was rubbish all the way to the water,” he recalls. “We cleaned it up. We got the seedlings from Kawela Bay.” He points from one tree to the next, naming fellow paddlers, past and present. “This is Blue Makua’s. This is Longhi’s. Uncle Joker’s there. Mine’s the one in the back.”

Now 70, Uncle Randy started paddling at 42. There aren’t many sports (especially strenuous ones) that people pick up after 40, but outrigger canoe paddling is one of them. In formal competition, elders like Uncle Randy are classified as Masters,
a category further divided into four groups: Masters (40 and over), Senior Masters (45 and over), Golden Masters (55 and over) and Platinum Masters (60 and over).

Manu O Ke Kai has come a long way since it had to borrow money to buy its first two canoes twenty-three years ago. Their first race was at Kahana Bay, the crew a motley mix of parents whose kids played football together. “We get in the canoe, and we look at all the other guys—all old guys—‘Oh, we’re going to kick their butts!’” Sanborn thought. But the best kind of justice is often the poetic kind. “At the end of the race, everybody else’s canoes were already on the beach, and we were still coming in.”

Stung by the thumping, they trained. Little by little they improved until, at the end of the year, they won the championship race. Over the decades that followed, Uncle Randy built the reputation of his Masters crews to heights greater than the big North Shore waves he’s been known to canoe-surf. In 2006, the Golden Masters women were undefeated, and the Golden Masters men placed first or second in every regatta.


 

 

O‘ahu's two racing associations were both established in the ’70s: Na ‘Ohana O Na Hui Wa‘a races fiberglass canoes, and O‘ahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association races koa (Manu is a Hui Wa‘a club). The modern resurgence of this Polynesian tradition has reached its golden age along with its Golden Masters. Now there is so much interest in paddling that it has become Hawai‘i’s official team sport, a direct result of the uncommon devotion of the Masters who established these clubs thirty years ago.

“I loved it the first time I got in the boat, even though I was dying like a rat when I got out,” says Chuck Meade, one of Manu’s founders and fomer coaches, taking a seat at the picnic table. Uncle Chuck moved to Hawai‘i almost fifty years ago for surf and took up paddling when he was 43 to stay in shape. A fracture in his back keeps him from racing these days, so he paddles solo two or three mornings a week. As much as he loves riding waves on his one-man, however, his most glorious memories are those of steering his six-man crews to victory.

“It’s exhilarating. You can actually take a boat that’s 400 pounds, forty-four feet long, and you can get it moving. Hull speed in that boat’s about eight or nine miles an hour. For me, that’s an accomplishment.”

Maybe it’s all the ocean time, or maybe it’s the camaraderie—there’s something that keeps these paddlers young. “I keep paddling, and I don’t get sick,” Uncle Randy reasons. “I don’t catch cold. Maybe it’s the beer I drink or whatever. Plus, you hang around the young guys, you act young,” he says, laughing. Then he howls, “The young women make you young, too!”

“I’m 71,” Uncle Chuck says.
Sure enough, a young woman turns to him and says in astonishment, “You don’t look 71.”
“I look 91, yeah?” he responds.
“No, you look like you’re in your 50s!”
Chuck grins. “I think I just fell in love.”

“I come from the generation where they didn’t really have women’s sports. It’s totally different now,” says Dr. Kay Bauman, one of Manu’s winning Golden Masters Women. She started paddling at 50 after being recruited to help start the Department of Family Practices at the University of Hawai‘i’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. “I wanted to do an ocean sport and figured I was a little old to learn to surf,” says the Michigan native, who has now been paddling for fourteen years.

Her crew’s typical Sunday paddle often takes them on the eight-mile roundtrip to Waimea Bay. “People think we can’t do it because we’re older, whereas actually, that’s what we do better—paddle longer—because we have the stamina. We love to go for the long haul.”

Part of the allure comes from the love for the deep, blue sea.


 

 

"It's so peaceful. It’s quiet, and all you hear is the paddles hitting the water together,” she says, describing marvelous encounters with dolphins and turtles. Now that her kids are grown, she has more time to walk—she clocks more than 1,000 miles a year on foot—and to paddle. She also appreciates the social aspect of paddling, a sport that encompasses all ages and all kinds of people.

Several of Bauman’s teammates have become close friends on land as well. “It’s reassuring to know that we are a support system for each other any time any of us have problems—like health problems, which are common, unfortunately, as you get older,” she says.

“Longhi died of a heart attack paddling his one-man. Fell off the boat. Another one had a heart attack right here. We start losing our colleagues when we’re in our 50s and 60s,” she says, looking down at the sand. “That was years ago, but we never forget.”

Asked what the best paddling advice he ever received is, Uncle Randy pauses before blurting, “Show up for practice!”

Sanborn credits his cousin, renowned beach boy Blue Makua, for teaching him technical skills like how to rig the ‘ama, the outrigger, to the canoe’s hull. These are skills that you can’t learn from books, and he passes this valuable knowledge on to younger generations. “He’s a legend. There’s only one person like that,” Sanborn says of his late cousin. Each year, he holds a popular Masters race in honor of Blue Makua.

Manu’s 170 members—more than sixty of them kids—hold Uncle Randy in the same high regard. His volunteer commitment to his paddlers, ranging from ages 8 to 71, reflects the selfless service he gave for twenty-five years as a firefighter. At regattas, he and his wife of forty-six years, Aloha (presiding secretary of the Na ‘Ohana O Na Hui Wa‘a Association) are the first to arrive and the last to leave. He’s the one who shuttles the club’s canoes to rotating regatta sites around the island. When everyone gathers to make laulau for club fundraisers, he brings the pork, teaches everyone how to tie the ti leaf bundles and mans the giant steamer. Each year, he hosts a big lü‘au after the club’s home regatta. His generosity makes his paddlers feel privileged—when you’re part of Uncle Randy’s club, you’re part of his paddling ‘ohana.

Coaching with encouragement and good humor—“Drunk driver!” he’ll shout when a novice canoe swerves down the race lane—Sanborn cultivates new crews that understand the values of teamwork, devotion and good sportsmanship.

“Respect,” says 23-year-old Mato Park without hesitation when asked what she has learned from eight years of paddling under Uncle Randy’s tutelage, starting when she was a high school sophomore. Now she steers the open women’s crew. “Uncle Randy taught us respect. Not just for other paddlers. He makes us take care of the things we use.” She rattles off other values: teamwork, dedication, work ethic. “He also teaches us to work with what we’ve got,” she says. “He’s so fair to everyone. It’s surprising how far you can go with that attitude.”

Then she smirks, adding, “Nah, what he really taught me was how to yell!”

“You mean, how to be heard,” a smiling fellow crewmember chimes in. They’re referring to the steersperson’s duty to not only navigate but also to cheerlead.

“Canoe paddling, you always learn. New techniques, new styles of paddles, new rules. It never stops,” Sanborn says. He emphasizes it’s all about having fun. “If you don’t enjoy yourself, no sense paddle. Find another sport. Play ping-pong or something—you know what I mean?” HH