Posted on Jul 07, 2013
Aloha and New York City aren't normally used together in the same sentence. But that is exactly what the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge is. Much more than just a canoe race, New York Outrigger Canoe Club puts on a festival of Aloha, Manhattan style.
After emerging from the humid bowels of the NYC subway system you arrive at the race site at Pier 26. The backdrop is New Jersey, the Freedom tower, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty. In the foreground is a massive concrete platform extending into the Hudson river. Every inch of Manhattan is bustling with activity and the multicultural atmosphere of the city makes unusual sites common place so most passerby's wouldn't even give the pier full of outrigger canoes and tradeshow tents a second glance. But to us, after spending four days outside of our comfort zone wandering the city, that pier felt like home. Finally after nearly a week of taxis, museums, hipster bars, pizza, and hot dogs, here was something that we understood. Twenty canoes sat on the pier and for the first time all week, we knew exactly what we were supposed to do.
In order to maximize the small amount of outrigger canoes on the East Coast, the women, men, and mixed all race separately. So the race organizers have created a festival to go along with the race. While your friends are out waging war on the East River and the Hudson, you get to hang out on the pier and do what paddlers do best: talk story. The Liberty Challenge, true to the spirit of Manhattan, is probably the most diverse of any outrigger canoe race. There are teams from South America, Canada, Australia, California, Europe, Hawai'i, and, of course, all across the East Coast. You can move seamlessly from talking about traditional Panamanian Cayucos (ama-less canoes) to hearing about what it's like to scrape ice off your OC-1 in London to the best way to navigate a loch in the North Eastern rivers. But, the best part of it all is the hum of activity surrounding you. A Manhattan based Hula troupe performs all day with intermissions filled by slack key guitarists; there is a trade show; and, the best part, there are twenty massage tables just waiting for willing patrons.
However, at some point you need to actually do the race. Though there were many times where we forgot it, racing is why we traveled six thousand miles from Hawai'i nei. The race goes down the Hudson, around the tip of Manhattan (called the Battery by NYC locals), through the Brooklyn Bridge to a turn buoy under the Manhattan Bridge, then out around Governor's Island to another turn buoy in front of the Statue of Liberty, down past Ellis island and 5.5 miles up the Hudson. The big circle of New York harbor insures that you get a little bit of every type of condition. Off of the battery can feel like a mini Makapu'u run, heading up the East River into a 3 knot current feels almost like your standing still, then when you make the turn you fly down the river at 10mph into a small surf run from the Statue of Liberty back into the Hudson. The most exciting part of the race, other than the epic scenery and unpredictable currents, is the fact that you are literally paddling a canoe in the busiest waterway in the world. Massive ferries, barges, speedboats, cruiseships, freighters, and tour boats are flying all around you. To get a sense of the madness, imagine the water traffic outside of Waikiki, multiply it by 1000 and add in a written law that commercial traffic has the right of way.
After the race, the organizers go one last step and put on a New York style Lu'au on a floating barge that doubles as a bar. Hula dancers perform with the sun setting over the Hudson river and New Jersey skyline in the background. Spam musubi, kalua pig, and kim chee are the meal. And, as all good parties in Manhattan, there is an open bar and standing room only. By the end of the evening, after a very full day, you feel as if the race organizers have thrown you in a pot, mixed in some Polynesian spirit, a little New York controlled chaos, and a lot of Aloha and the result is an incredible experience that you can't get anywhere else.
Check out this short video of our experience. Team Kamanu consisted of: Makana Denton, Justin Watts, Alfred Van Gieson, Keola Wright, Manny Kulukulu'alani, and Luke Evslin.