Queen Liliuokalani race celebrates 45 years of hosting wahine paddlers

  • The Hui Nalu Canoe Club led most of the way Saturday in the Wa‘a Kaukahi wahine race. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — In 1973, Missy Kaleohano was fresh out of high school and had just picked up a new sport with a group of her friends — paddling.

What started out as a hobby quickly turned into a piece of history. Kaleohano and her crew became one of 11 that summer to race in the inaugural women’s division of the 18-mile Wa’a Kaukahi at the Queen Liliuokalani Canoe Race.

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“We were pretty much breaking new ground with that race,” Kaleohano said. “They were literally testing the waters to see how women would fare in a long-distance race, so they started out cautiously.”

The women’s division came two years after the start of the first men’s race, and the Queen Liliuokalani had yet to become the big event it is today. This weekend, 45 years after Kaleohano and her crew trail-blazed their way into the prestigious race, more than 100 crews will take to the sea to paddle from Kailua Bay to Honaunau Bay. The bravest ones will do it as iron crews, meaning no switches between Kailua Pier and Honaunau.

“It was great, we had our crew of nine and we practiced all summer and practiced the change overs and all that great stuff,” Kaleohano said. “We actually had one gal who paddled the whole race without doing any change overs.”

Kaleohano may have learned the sport in one summer, but racing didn’t come without its set of challenges.

“You’re forced to concentrate. What you do effects the five other people in the canoe. It takes total concentration,” Kaleohano said. “So if you’ve had a crazy day at work or you’re heavy into your school or your kids, it removes you from all that and you’re forced to concentrate. You can’t be thinking about a whole bunch of other stuff and still steer the canoe, stroke, pay attention to the person in front of you and keep your timing.”

It’s that meditative state of mind that kept Kaleohano’s interest in paddling after that first race.

“It really is like a stress reliever almost,” she said. “Exercise always does that for you, but it’s the fact that you have to totally concentrate on something else. And for me, that’s always been a beneficial thing.”

Kaleohano’s crew finished the race in second that year, behind the host Kai Opua Canoe Club. Kaleohano kept paddling in short races throughout Hawaii for two years. Her competitive career ended in 1975, due to health reasons, but she couldn’t stay out of the water forever. After raising a family and being out of a canoe for decades, Kaleohano found herself paddling again, for the exercise and meditation that paddling brings.

“I still love it,” Kaleohano said.

Kaleohano hopes to pass on the competitive canoe paddling torch to any woman who is interested in the sport, but haven’t had the courage to take the first step. She said competitive paddling is something any woman can do, no matter her age or athletic ability. All it takes is some practice and not being afraid to get a little bit of saltwater on them.

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“You have to realize that most people aren’t going to be super good right off the bat,” Kaleohano said. “It will take a bit of time, but most people I’ve observed have pretty much gotten into the groove after some practice. You’re going to know if you like it after the first month or two, if it’s for you or not.

“If you’re a person who doesn’t have good hand eye coordination — can’t play tennis, can’t play volleyball, can’t play ping pong, can’t hit a golf ball — paddling might be the sort of sport for you. Which is pretty much the case with me. Don’t ask me to hit a ball, but put me in the water and I’m pretty good.”

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