The Molokai Hoe is the world’s longest-running outrigger canoe race, having first started in 1952. It’s regarded as the World Championship of 6-man (3 change) outrigger racing and is an event eagerly awaited each year across the globe. This 66km race crosses some of the world’s most dangerous waters, including the Kaiwi Channel. Kaiwi means ‘the bones’ & not without reason as crossing it can be treacherous.
Molokai Hoe History
The Molokai Hoe history goes deep. It’s conducted by va’a (outrigger canoes). The crafts themselves were invented by Polynesians and carried the original Polynesian people to Hawaii and Tahiti. The race preserves Polynesian cultural traditions dating back thousands of years. The race has significant spiritual significance as Molokai, the sacred island, and Hale O Lono, a place of the god of water.
The beginnings of the race in 1952 were set in the context of a Molokai that had been established as a leper colony in the 19th century. The government’s isolation policy was not repealed until 1969, the 18th year in which the race was conducted. Paradoxically Molokai was and remains a paradise preserved in its natural state.
Originally the entire race was paddled from start to finish by 6 men. The actual distance of the race has changed 8 times from the original 61kms with the distance ranging from 61-89kms but has remained the same course at 66kms since 1979.
Nowadays, the canoes are paddled by a 9-man team allowing paddlers to be relieved during the somewhat tortuous event. These change-of-paddlers made mid-channel during the race are thrilling & add greatly to the spectacle.
Thousands of paddlers come to Hawaii each October to compete in what many consider the world championship of off-shore canoe racing. A record fleet of 122 va’a competed in the 2010 edition of the Molokai Hoe.
There are many great stories surrounding the Molokai Hoe, and this is among my favorites:
Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon paddled in his first Moloka‘i Hoe in 1958 aged 17. He would subsequently complete a staggering 50 consecutive ‘Molokai’s’ up to & including 2007, being part of the winning team on 6 separate occasions (1958, 1961 1966, 1969, !972 & 1973). The crew for his 50th crossing was made up of ‘Nappy’, his 5 sons & 3 grandsons!
Another is the true story of the Coast Guard approaching Te Oropaa in 1976:
Te Oropaa were leading by around half an hour & travelling at speeds never previously seen in the event to the extent that the Coast Guard anticipating that the race would be paddled at ‘normal’ speeds, approached them advising that there was a race in progress & requesting that they leave the course!
Tahiti are indisputably the world’s best ocean paddlers as witnessed by their 35 gold medals (of a total of around 50 on offer) at the recent World Championships in Brazil. They have had a dynamic involvement in the Molokai Hoe whenever they have been able to send a team to compete:
- Te Oropaa won in 1976, a victory very fond to me as my brother-in-law, Joseph Prokop, once paddled for the team. The race was conducted over a distance of 89 kms, the longest ever Molokai Hoe, which took the Tahitians 7:53:40 to complete. Tahiti also filled 2nd, 3rd & 4th places (Tautira 2nd & Mataiea 3rd);
- Faa’a Va’a won the event in 1993, smashing the mythical 5-hour barrier at the same time. They would win again in 1994 & place 2nd in 1995.
- Ra’i, a team specifically prepared for the race, would venture across the Pacific in 2002 to win the event. It was their first win – and it happened in the biggest race of all!
- Shell Va’a first came to Hawaii for the Molokai Hoe in 2006. They would win & have not lost since – 8 victories in a row! In 2011 Shell Va’a set the race record of 4:30:54 (record by time as well as speed (km/hr) at which the course was paddled) in a truly unbelievable performance! 2010 marked another special year for Tahiti when Tahiti finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th (Shell, OPT, OPT 2 & Paddling Connection) with Bora Bora Va’a finishing 7th. GOOOOO Bora!
- In the last 2 years Tahiti has filled the first three places each time (2012 – Shell, EDT & Shell 2; 2013 – Shell, EDT, & Tahaa Nui Va’a).
The domination of the Tahitians in the 1976 Molokai Hoe was total. The Tahitians came to Hawaii with a longer, sleeker design canoe, the Tere Matai, an outrigger the likes of which the Hawaiians had never seen.
It had a reinforced (acacia falcata) balsa-core hull & a substantially different shape from the Hawaiian fiberglass hulls of the time. This saw the Tahitians win by a substantial margin, finishing half an hour before the second va’a. The Tahitian va’a was so fast the Hawaiians dubbed it “The Rocket”!
The OHCRA would regulate hull shape & weight from 1977 onwards – intriguingly, the hull approved was taken from the shape of the Tere Matai, but that’s another story!
My Experience Watching The Molokai Hoe Race
The event started at 8 am at Hale O Lono on Molokai’s southern coast, where less than a fortnight ago, waves reached more than 6 m. They closed out the start of the women’s equivalent to this event, the Na Wahine O Ke Kai.
As tradition would have it & reflecting the devout beliefs of Polynesians, the competition starts with a prayer. It’s a moment that even ardent atheists tell me is compellingly moving.
Tahiti, who has won the last 9 consecutive Molokai Hoe races, was again here in force. If the outstanding team from EDT that won last year’s event was not present to defend their title, Shell Va’a, who had won the preceding 8 Molokai Hoes in a row & was here.
It was backed by 3 further powerful crews in the proven Team OPT, the rising stars from Air Tahiti Va’a & a skillful team Tahaa Nui reduced to only 8 paddlers overall due to a passport problem. The Tahitians were joined this year by crews from Japan, Hong Kong & Brazil, down surprisingly from previous years.
Hale O Lono was relatively calm when 93 outriggers lined up at the start. Shell charged immediately to the lead, sticking closely to the island coastline & followed by the other Tahitian crews, all looking to be protected in the event of any wind.
The Hawaiian outriggers were more seaward. Bora Bora Insider & official race photographer Nick K took this shot of Shell Va’a powering along:
The Va’a reached the open water that separates the islands of Molokai & Oahu after some 45 minutes of effort. Once in open water, competitors were greeted by calm seas, around 1.5m of swell & a light 14/15 knot breeze from the SW.
From this point, the teams are permitted to start making crew changes (up to 3 paddlers at a time) & it can be chaotic & quite dangerous given the support boats involved. Normally the sweep will never change as he directs the va’a & his experience is invaluable, something that must be retained in the outrigger at all times.
By contrast, the stroke or the number one paddler, invariable changes on each occasion, as it is equally important to always have a fresh man up front. He sets the rating & maintains the boat’s glide. As a result, the change is usually 1, 2, 4 or 1, 3, 5.
The Hawaiians like to change paddlers regularly every 15 minutes, and the Tahitians at slightly longer intervals. The changes are a thrilling spectacle which takes a great deal of training to complete in less than 5 seconds as most are so completed. Anything more can prove costly at the race end.
Shell have over the years, built up a close relationship with Bradley Outriggers. Indeed they paddle a Bradley Lightning in the event. It can pay big dividends to an outrigger company to have the winners of the Molokai paddling their canoe & Sony Bradley, head of the family company, is an invaluable member of the Shell team from a tactical point of view.
This was particularly helpful this year as Shell is in a phase of rebuilding with a number of younger paddlers entering the team & this year was the first year their sweep had made the crossing.
Given the ‘relatively light’ conditions, Shell decided to take the direct route to Diamond Head. The other Tahitian crews followed, with the exception of Tahaa Nui, who headed northwards as did the Hawaiian crew Hui Nalu. A couple of favored Hawaiian crews, including Lanikai & Primo made the decision early that simply following Shell would not lead them to victory.
They headed south, no doubt hoping to pick up a southerly swell and current once reaching closer to Diamond Head. OPT would stick with Shell, as would Hawaii’s Na Koa O Kona, but Air Tahiti Va’a soon headed northwards to join Tahaa Nui in search of victory.
An hour & a half into the race Shell was still paddling at an impressive 80 strokes per minute, leading by around 500m from OPT. Na Koa O Kona was a further 500m back on equal footing with Air Tahiti Va’a & Tahaa Nui to the north & Lanikai & Primo to the south.
Crews would hold their courses & relative positions over the next few hours before reaching the waters protected by Oahu’s headland for the charge to the finish line.
Once into the channel, tactics form an essential part of the MOLOKAI HOE race strategy & the right choice inevitably produces the event winner. There are many variables to consider. Almost the first half of the race is conducted over waters around 60m in depth, but this suddenly drops off to 700m making what locals call ‘the washing machine’.
Here paddlers are faced with a myriad of telling conditions. The chop created by the change in water depths, a prevailing wind from the north making wind waves pushing the va’a southwards against an underlying current moving northwards in exactly the opposite direction- the ‘washing machine’.
Do you head north in the hope of riding the wind-generated swell south to victory, or head south believing the underlying current will bring you home first? The crews also need to consider the changes in conditions that will face them on reaching Oahu.
A northerly swell with the potential of a favorable water current close to shore as they approach diamond head or the prevailing southerly water current & swell that forms in the waters protected by the island as they head towards Diamond Head.
As the crews started to narrow their paths towards Waikiki, Shell led OPT & Na Koa O Kona. Tahaa Nui was moving southwards to join them whilst Air Tahiti Va’a, who had held their northerly trajectory, were now heading southwards at a good speed.
Shell had continued to increase their lead throughout the course & hammered home for a comfortable win. It was a powerful & totally dominant performance.
A great shot from Nick K of Shell Va’a nearing the finish:
As usual, Tahiti Mana headed by well-known Tahitian Manarii Gauthier, were there to welcome them as tradition dictates with the sounding of the pu & the playing of toeres.
Air Tahiti Va’a had closed quickly on OPT & their race neck & neck for 2nd place will go down in history as the very essence of what this sport is all about! What a finish as Air Tahiti Va’a clawed their way past OPT in a gutsy performance before OPT headed left to catch a magnificent wave on turning into Waikiki Beach & surfed to within inches of regaining second place.
A couple more shots from our photographer on the water Nick K taken moments before the finish after just 5 hours of gutsy effort showing the thrill & excitement of the great battle between Air Tahiti Va’a & Team OPT for second place.
Na Koa O Kona was 4th, with Primo 5th & Australians Mooloolabah 6th in a great performance. Tahaa Nui finished 9th, a top performance at this level for a team, a man short. The performance of the Brazilian team Samu Tam Brazil in finishing 10th was exceptional.
Here’s Hiromana Flores, a ‘top 15 in the world’ ranked kayaker & one of the powerhouses of Shell Va’a, being interviewed for the world’s press immediately after finishing the tough course.
Ocean Paddler TV did a great job streaming the event this year, so here is their photo of the winning team.
For the Tahitians, victory was sweet. For the Hawaiians, it was to some extent summed up by the spokesman for Na Koa O Kona who dryly said: “Well at least we could see the Tahitians this time!”
Many continue to ask why the Tahitians are so dominant (not only in the Molokai Hoe but at every level given they won almost ¾ of the events at the World Championships in Rio). Some advance that culturally Hawaiians see paddling as a leisure sport, whereas in Tahiti there is real envy to paddle given Tahiti’s dominant position in outrigger racing.
I remain of the belief that it is in the paddling technique. The Tahitian’s shallow scoop versus the Hawaiian’s deep pull. The leading Hawaiian crew, No Koa O Kona (mostly former Mellow Johnny paddlers), would tend to confirm this as they are trained technically by Tahitians & their sweep is a Tahitian. Of all the Hawaiian crews paddle closest to the Tahitian style.
That said, there was a period of some 20 years when Tahiti could not break through to win. The Tahitians used that time to train their youth and to work on their paddling technique. The Tahitians are now reaping the benefits of that effort and enjoying it!