One day changed everything for the outrigger canoe in Hawai’i. On October 17th, 1976 the Tahitian built canoe, Tere Mata’i, followed by three other Tahitian crews, blazed across a glassy Kaiwi channel to dominate the Moloka’i Hoe. The Hawaiian and Tahitian outrigger canoes went down drastically different paths in the 19th and 20th centuries; and it was not until the 1976 Moloka’i that the varying canoes and styles of paddling came into direct competition with each other. The victor of the competition was clear, and it forced Hawai’i to figure out an identity for the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe.
The Tahitian domination brought Hawai’i into the modern age of outrigger canoeing as a sport and those who participated in Hawai’i were forced to look deeply into the meaning and preservation of that sport. The controversial spark of 1976 was the Tere Mata’i. Not only was it completely revolutionary in design, it was equally revolutionary in construction. It was built with laminated strips of balsa wood, which allow the builder to move out of the matrix defined by the Koa log. In pre-contact Polynesia, the individuality of each log made every canoe unique. When massive Redwood logs would drift from North America and land on the shores of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau, Hawaiians would use those logs to make huge voyaging canoes. These Redwoods of pre-contact Hawai’i opened up possibilities for the Hawaiians in just the same way that composite and laminate canoes open up possibilities now. The Tahitians moved on from the matrix of the log with wood laminate construction without qualms as part of the evolution of the canoe.
The success of the Tere Mata’i in 1976 divided the paddling community. The HCRA adopted a strict set of strict regulations based on measurements of fifty hybrid fishing canoes in Hawai’i in order to ensure that the Hawaiian Canoe did not move out of the matrix defined by the log; effectively ending the evolution of the canoe.
The Tahitian canoe has continued to evolve freely with very few restrictions, while its Hawaiian counterpart has only had halting progress within the regulated limitations. There are currently only two sanctioned competitive models of canoe in Hawai’i. Nowadays OHCRA sanctioned canoe races are extremely fair. When someone wins, the design of their canoe will rarely be considered a factor in the win. This has brought the focus completely on the people in the canoe rather than the canoe itself.
In removing the uniqueness of each individual canoe, we are losing sight of what makes paddling more than just a sport. It's not a test of fitness. We don't race merely to see who the best paddlers are. We paddle to perpetuate the canoe and the history of Polynesia.
The Moloka’i Hoe is undoubtedly the greatest and most influential outrigger canoe race in the world. Other races are longer, harder, and more competitive, but the Hoe is the granddaddy of them all. It also happens to be governed by the only remaining association in the world that won’t let go of the archaic restrictions on design.
“Kamanu,” in our name, references the Manu on a six-man canoe. It is a unique design feature only found on Hawaiian canoes. It leads the canoe, encompasses the canoe, and is a constant reminder to us that whatever path the company takes, we will always be rooted in the tradition of Hawaiian canoe paddling. It doesn’t mean that we have to restrict ourselves to what has been deemed “traditional,” but it means that we should never forget where we come from
In the same fashion. Let's never forget the path that the canoe has taken, but lets perpetuate the life of the outrigger canoe by letting it evolve.
Goodluck to all of the competitors in the Moloka'i Hoe this weekend. Be safe, take care of the ocean, and respect your canoe. It has traveled over 2,000 years to arrive at its present state. Let’s hope that it continues to evolve over the next 2,000 years.
Posted on Oct 07, 2011