At the Wind Line
Photos by Monte Costa
Nimble fingers tie life-securing knots in the rigging. Free hands grab onto hulls and outriggers and muscle each of the 800-pound, fully loaded canoes so their noses face the sea. Supporters arrive with cameras and breakfast sandwiches in clutch. Morning beach joggers slow their stride as they pass, and early risers stand on their hotel balconies, coffee in hand, watching the scene unfold.
Crew members gather in a circle for the blessing, clasping hands as the kahu (priest) prays for a safe journey across the water. The paddlers get ready to go: They paint their faces with thick layers of zinc oxide, clean their sunglasses on available dry shirts, phone loved ones not in attendance. Finally, they embrace family, friends and each other before taking their places alongside their boats.
An air horn lets out a suspended blare, and the seven canoes push off together. The multicolored flotilla glides out to the open ocean, and the crowd watches until the canoes become specks dwindling into the horizon.
“That,” a spectator gasps, “is just beautiful.”
The sailing canoe is one of the Pacific’s great engineering feats and cultural archetypes. Sailing canoes have multiple designs, each adapted for its particular function: There are the large canoes like Hokule‘a, which made the watershed 2,500-mile voyage from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1976, navigating entirely by Polynesian wayfinding. Voyaging and war canoes exceeded lengths of eighty feet to carry passengers and provisions, warriors and weapons. Then there are smaller canoes, which in olden days were used for fishing and transporting supplies and people around and between the Islands. For everyday life, even more compact designs—like the twenty- to thirty-foot single-hull sailing canoes used to catch ‘opelu—sufficed.
The racing canoes used today, though built from modern materials, were inspired by those smaller traditional canoes. In essence today’s racing canoes are modified six-person outriggers, with a hull typically forty to forty-five feet long, a mast between the first and second seats, and a second, smaller ama (outrigger float) added to provide greater stability. A trampoline that stretches from the main ama to the canoe becomes the platform from which the sheet man trims the sail.
In those early years of modern canoe sailing, the races had a freewheeling, sail-by-the-seat-of-your-board-shorts quality. In 1988, the second year of Na Holo Kai, Cappy Sheeley was living on Maui when he got a phone call from Mike Spalding suggesting they compete. Never mind that they didn’t have a sailing canoe. There were only a handful of canoe sailors around the Islands, most of them resourceful paddlers who’d simply raised a mast and thrown up a sail. If they could do it, Spalding insisted, there was no reason he and Sheeley couldn’t—and with the prospects of a $10,000 first prize, they couldn’t resist trying.
Though the two had met only briefly, Spalding was confident that together they could assemble a winning vessel and crew. Sheeley was an exceptional waterman who’d competed in two Olympic trials: swimming in 1964 and sailing in 1976. He’d learned to race catamarans with Duke Kahanamoku and Woody Brown in the 1950s. (Brown, inspired by double-hulled Polynesian canoes, built the first modern ocean catamaran in 1947, a design that predated the Hobie Cat and outraced the fastest single-hulled yachts in the Transpac regatta.) What’s more, he was an accomplished paddler and part of the winning crew in the 1970 Moloka‘i Ho‘e.
“Let’s go for it. Let’s see what we can do,” Spalding convinced Sheeley. They borrowed $5,000 from the bank to buy the hull and constructed the rest themselves. The canoe was finished a week before the race, leaving little time to figure out how to actually sail it. The dress rehearsal took place when they crossed the channels from Maui to Moloka‘i to O‘ahu, all to get to the starting line at Wai‘anae’s Poka‘i Bay.
The race to Kaua‘i was grueling. The name Na Holo Kai suggests a swift run across the sea, but the 1988 run was any-thing but—the winds were extremely light, and the contest became a paddle battle. “We were lucky to get into a squall, and we stayed in it as long as we could,” Sheeley recalls. “It turned into an endurance contest. I think we won because we had more [drinking] water in the boat.” They arrived at N awiliwili Harbor after ten and a half hours, just as the sun was setting.
On a good day it’s very different. “Canoe sailing reminded me of cat sailing. You’re low to the water,” Sheeley says. He describes what it’s like when there’s some swell and the wind is clocking twenty-five knots: “The spray’s coming up on both sides, and the canoe is on its feet. The water’s moving so fast, and you hear it tapping—shhks, shhks, shhks—against the canoe.”
He compares the channel crossing races to endurance events like the Ironman. “But obviously,” he laughs, “I think it’s better because you’re getting wet. And then there’s the survival aspect. You’re in between islands. You can’t stop. You have to get to the end. People who are successful at this sport are the ones who can do things for hours at a time.”
A sailing canoe crew of six must have an experienced sailor to control the sheet and a keen steersman who can negotiate rough water, read the swells and pick a favorable course. “The steersman and the sheet man have to work in unison,” Sheeley says. “And all six people have to work together to make the canoe go fast.”
The Na Holo Kai is a tough race. But for extreme athletes like Sheeley and Spalding—who has swum across seven of Hawai‘i’s nine channels—it’s fun.
“Isn’t that what makes something exciting, the fear that you might fail?” Sheeley muses. Canoe sailors possess a sense of humor, a staunch will and nerves of steel. These are guys like Ronnie Kang, who fashioned his own paddle from plywood and resin and stroked it more than 4,000 nautical miles before it snapped. Guys like Kendall Struxness, who steered the outrigger sailing crew that collectively paddled 461 miles through the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for eighty-three hours straight from Mokumanamana to Laysan Island. Guys like Gaylord Wilcox, who, after being bucked off a canoe, spent the night floating two miles off Moloka‘i before a sailboat rescued him the next morning (“I think after that everyone started carrying lights,” Sheeley chuckles). Guys like Matt Buckman, who boarded a plane wearing duck fins when the airline demanded he don footwear.
“Canoe sailing is the most fun you can have in the water in downwind conditions. It’s amazing to go that fast, surfing big, open-ocean swells, having waves crashing over you and trying to avoid getting slammed,” Spalding enthuses, explaining why in 1989 their crew signed up to race Na Holo Kai again. For five consecutive years they dominated the event, reaping the acclaim of being the fastest canoe on the ocean.
Prejean points north toward Kualoa beach, the birthplace of Hokule‘a. Directly behind them is densely forested Hakipu‘u Valley, recognized as the landing point for Pa‘oa, the Marquesan navigator who reportedly brought the first breadfruit tree to Hawai‘i. On the shoreline that fronts the valley sits their house.
Galpin is the president and Prejean the cultural advisor of the nonprofit Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association, which was founded in 1987 after the first Na Holo Kai. HSCA’s mission is to “revive, educate and practice the ancient Hawaiian skills and values as they relate to the Hawaiian sailing canoe and its culture.” The organization has now grown far beyond Na Holo Kai: Each summer, from May through September, it hosts a series of rough-water races that start on Hawai‘i Island and travel to Maui, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. In between events HSCA members participate in community service projects.
“We take time out on each island to share,” says Galpin. “We don’t just race in and race out.” The day before the race at K a‘anapali, for example, HSCA sailors took more than four hundred visitors out on complimentary sailing canoe rides.
Among HSCA’s founders were Prejean’s uncles Mike and Jimmy Kincaid, who raced in the first Na Holo Kai. They began taking their nephew sailing when he was a kid and living on the Big Island. He quickly discovered he shared their intense passion for the canoe. His formal boat-building education came from Kirkwood Clarke, founder of Hawaiian Catamaran and master of the trade. Clarke was devoutly “old school,” Prejean says; he fabricated every piece from scratch, down to the canoe trailers. As an apprentice, Prejean learned to transform fiberglass, wood and metal into magnificent, sturdy, oceangoing vessels that could reach speeds of twenty-five knots—as fast as a strong wind blows.
“There will come a time when you’re going to have to teach it, because there are not a lot of teachers,” Clarke told him. Today, Prejean builds canoes and uses them to teach students math and science through practical application. “Sailing is a hook, but to me it is an expression of our culture,” he says. “It’s a holistic practice. Traditional values—kuleana [responsibility], laulima [cooperation], aloha—and sustainability mauka to makai [from the mountain to the sea]. The canoe connects it all.
“For us it’s about the kids,” he continues, “so that future generations can understand this is how we got here, this is how our kupuna [elders] fed themselves, this is how the way of life was sustainable—so in a hundred years, somebody’s not going to be looking at pictures to figure it out.”
“Knowledge not shared is knowledge wasted,” says Otsuji, explaining why he always offers course advice and helps to rig his competitors’ canoes before each race. His attitude mirrors the magnanimous disposition carried by members of the HCSA. Galpin describes the group as “one big family”: ambitious but generous, competitive but compassionate. “If something happens, they will stop to help,” she says.
Otsuji was born on Moloka‘i and grew up on O‘ahu, always with the ocean as an integral force in his life: It was 1983 when he first attached a mast to his twenty-two-foot surfing canoe. He is a natural athlete— he went to college at UCSB on a baseball scholarship and returned to Hawai‘i to be the tennis pro at Kaua‘i’s Island Holidays Waiohae Resort. Besides surfing and windsurfing, he was also an avid motorbike and car racer.
As a captain, Otsuji is focused and demanding. “We don’t win these races by a fluke. It’s by design,” he says. His select crew members—a contingent of Hawai‘i’s top paddlers—are well aware, as Otsuji reminds them, “It’s not a picnic. When it starts, you paddle. When it ends, you stop.
“First and foremost, I pick guys I want to spend six or seven hours in the canoe with,” he says matter-of-factly, explaining how he goes about selecting a crew. Otsuji also coached outrigger canoe paddling for twenty years, so the competitive nature of the sport is not lost on him, and he also considers the intensity of a paddler’s will. A good blend of resolute paddlers can give a team a competitive edge, especially when such long races can be decided by a matter of moments—a wave caught a little sooner, ridden a little longer. “What I get a lot of mileage out of is the guy who doesn’t win [the] Moloka‘i [Ho‘e] but gets to sit next to the guy who does,” he says. “They get a taste of it.”
Though he studied to become a lawyer, Otsuji ended up opening a beach concession at Waiohae and later established a dive shop in Po‘ipu, Seasport Divers. A strong entrepreneurial streak runs through the HSCA: Every canoe captain in the association, in fact, owns his own business. And Otsuji runs his canoe like he runs his business: “Know what your competition is doing. Value your staff and make them feel valued. I don’t go into a race without having what I need—never missing a paddler, missing a piece of the boat.”
When his canoe hits the water, he formulates the most efficient strategy for navigating, steering, paddling and sailing. “Putting these together at the right time is key,” he says. “I take risks but I take educated risks. Being in the water so much, I do things by feel. There’s no steering wheel—there’s a wooden blade. Getting too mathematical, too technical—that’s not how these sailing canoes work. It’s not ‘If it’s blowing fifteen knots, then this is the proper action,’” he explains.
Perhaps canoe sailing pioneer Mike Kincaid describes the necessary attributes best: “Once you’re committed, you gotta go,” he says. “People have to be fearless about trusting that their crew can handle it, their canoe can handle it, their captain can handle it. This sport is not for timid people. Guaranteed, if you’re timid, this is not where you want to be.”
Spalding shares a tale of sailing off Ka‘ena Point. His crew was barreling down twelve-foot waves when the boat suddenly made a false jibe, and everyone was tossed overboard. Everybody was able to climb back in, he recalls, “except my daughter, Nicole. She was trying to grab her paddle, and the canoe pulled away. So she grabbed the fishing line. And right then, a mahi hit the line. We pulled her in with the fish.”
A big reason he’s still sailing so fervently, Otsuji says, is because of something Spalding once told him: “One of these days you’re going to wish you still could, but you can’t.” Recognizing the truth of that statement, Otsuji continues to appreciate the peace and balance he unfailingly finds at the wind line. He describes a kind of immeasurable satisfaction that comes from jumping in a canoe and sailing out to sea destined for another island. “When I get in the canoe,” he says, “I leave land stuff behind.”