As Queen Liliuokalani race week begins, canoes in short supply

  • Paddlers take part in the Hulakai OC4 Sprint Relay Race at Kailua Bay on Thursday. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)
  • Paddlers take part in the Hulakai OC4 Sprint Relay Race at Kailua Bay on Thursday. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)
  • Paddlers take part in the Hulakai OC4 Sprint Relay Race at Kailua Bay on Thursday. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)
  • Paddlers take part in the Hulakai OC4 Sprint Relay Race at Kailua Bay on Thursday. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)
  • Paddlers take part in the Hulakai OC4 Sprint Relay Race at Kailua Bay on Thursday. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Hosting the world’s largest outrigger canoe race with crews from around the globe requires many things, the most premier among those being the availability of canoes.

With thousands of paddlers assembling in Kona for the 47th edition of the Queen Liliuokalani Canoe Race, officials have been working hard to take care of a canoe shortage stemming from Hurricane Lane last week.


Race director Mike Atwood said the race usually rents canoes from clubs around the state to accommodate for the massive amount of crews that participate. However, the hurricane has set back the shipments tremendously.

“With the shipment that came earlier this week, we would usually receive anywhere from 20 to 30 canoes. We got one,” Atwood said, adding that another shipment was due today, but he wasn’t expecting a fleet of canoes to arrive. “It’s hard to do a race without canoes.”

The legendary Wa’a Kaukahi 18-mile races are slated for Saturday, but it’s still very much a wait-and-see approach when it comes to canoe availability, with out-of-state crews being given priority.

Fortunately, the paddling community on the Big Island has helped out during the problem-solving process, helping ease the burden.

“What’s been really exciting is how the Moku O Hawaii clubs have stepped up and helped us out by supplying canoes. That’s been a huge help to account for the ones we are not going to get,” Atwood said. “The aloha that everybody has shown is really impressive.”

He hopes that feeling that will also be felt by the visiting paddlers, who are coming from as far as Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Tahiti and the US mainland to take part in the race.

“Paddling is a competitive arena, but we are all part of an ohana,” Atwood said. “It’s a big family and we want the visitors who are here to feel like they are apart of that too.”

Local crews from Hawaii — where outrigger canoe paddling is the official state team sport — will also be represented on race day with dozens of crews competing on the water. Among that group will be some from host club Kai Opua, with many paddlers serving double-duty as volunteers during race week.

“Kai Opua is working really hard to put on a world-class event. We have the biggest club on the island, but sometimes that’s still not enough,” said Atwood, who is the club’s athletic director. “An event of this scale takes a lot of people working really hard. Luckily we have been able to bring more people into the fold. A lot of the tradition and ways we have been doing things are being maintained, but it’s also been great to have new people bringing fresh ideas on how we can improve the race.”

What to watch for

The women start the day at 7:30 a.m., paddling from Kailua Bay to Honaunau. The men bring it back in the afternoon. Six-person Iron crews paddle all 18 miles with no changes.

“The start lines stretch almost a quarter-mile out to sea,” Atwood said. “It’s a sight to behold.”

Kona-based Red Bull Wa’a will be the crew to watch, going for a rare three-peat in their backyard race. The Red Bullers won the iron unlimited division in 2016, and added a second title in the iron open non-koa category last year.

The most notable mark on the crew’s resume is a first place finish at last year’s Molokai Hoe. It was the first win by a Hawaii-based crew since 2005.

“In this race they are shooting to protect home waters,” Atwood said.

A new wrinkle this year is that the race is serving as a qualifier for the 2019 International Va‘a Federation World Distance Championships. The Australian Outrigger Canoe Racing Association will host the IVF World Distance Championships in August of 2019.

“This is an exciting moment for outrigger canoe racing in Hawaii,” said Kai Opua Canoe Club President Bo Campos. “The iconic Queen’s Race is now the only Hawaii qualifier for the IVF World Distance Championships. We are looking forward to spirited competition so Hawaii is well represented against the more than 33 countries expected to participate.”

Best of the rest

The event has grown by leaps and bounds since its humble beginnings almost half-a-century ago, expanding from a single race with a handful of crews to a full, five-day slate of events. The festivities started on Thursday with some well-attended, lighthearted Hulakai OC4 (four-person) races at Kailua Bay.

The fun continues today with the Royal Splashfest. In its second year, the cannonball contest — described to be in the style of Lele Pahu, plunging feet first with a great splash — has quickly become a highlight of the long weekend.

Later in the day, Red Bull Wa’a paddlers will host a talk story at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel Grand Ballroom at 5 p.m. The short film “This and Nothing Else,” which profiles the crew’s Molokai Hoe experience, will also be shown.


The Kupuna Classic on Monday is a race for the 50-plus crowd, featuring mixed iron crews paddling from Kailua Bay to Banyans and back.

Other highlights from the weekend include the post-race torchlight parade on Saturday night along Alii Drive and OC-1, OC-2, SUP and double-hull races on Sunday.

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