Canoe paddling: World sprints in Hilo, Moku O Hawaii season canceled due to COVID-19

  • Kai Opua Canoe Club’s senior women’s masters crew pulls away from the pack to win its race at the 2019 Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing championships at Hilo Bayfront. Kai Opua reclaimed the title, dethroning Puna by a point, but it won’t have a chance at a repeat after the 2020 Moku O Hawaii season was canceled. (TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald file photo)

Put away those paddles. Keep the outrigger canoes on land.

For a while.


The potential for a boom season on the Big Island for Hawaii’s native sport went dry last weekend with decisions to cancel the world sprint championships, set for August in Hilo, and the Moku O Hawaii regatta season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mike Atwood, president of the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association, said he understood the International Va’a Federation’s decision to nix the biennial championships, which are considered the World Series of canoe paddling.

“We were disappointed we were not able to host the sprints, but overall we see the big picture,” Atwood said.

Instead of returning to Hilo Bay for the first time in 16 years, the next world sprints are scheduled for 2022 in London. Atwood said it was too soon to tell if the HCRA would make a bid to host the 2024 sprints. The IVF is expected to decide the site for that event in October.

Scheduled from Aug. 13-23 and drawing approximately 3,000 from paddlers from 21 countries, the sprints were expected to provide a boon for the Big Island economy.

“We had guesstimates and they were substantial,” said Atwood, also the athletic director at Kai Opua Canoe Club in Kailua-Kona.

In terms of sweat equity, much already had been accrued

“We had to go through some steps to host, and a lot of good people from different (islands) already had put in a lot of work,” he said.

In a release, the IVF paid homage to the state and Moku O Hawaii paddling associations: “We acknowledge and (recognize) the amount of work that HCRA and in particular, their local organizing committee, have done in preparation for the August event. In addition, how much they wanted to welcome the global paddling ohana to Hilo Bay. Having done everything possible, they are now faced with impossible circumstances.”

On Saturday, Atwood said the Moku O Hawaii club presidents voted unanimously to cancel 13 events, including all nine regattas.

“We understand and know that Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddling is such a big part of your lives, however, it is much more important we keep ourselves updated with this virus as it presents a very real problem,” the association said in a release.

The first of nine regattas was to be held May 16 at Kailua Pier, with two more on tap for Kona and six in Hilo, including the annual Aunty Maile Moku O Hawaii championships in July.

The HCRA finals, scheduled for Aug. 1 on Oahu, have not been canceled, Atwood said, adding that paddling associations on other islands have suspended their long distance seasons but have not yet canceled their regattas. Conceivably, Moku O Hawaii could choose its entrants if the state championships are held.

“We would like to hope it’s the state championships that can get us back to normalcy, and return us to our paddling lifestyle and our traditional culture,” Atwood said. “I’m not holding out a whole lot of hope.”

With all organized activities on hold through April due to Gov. David Ige’s lockdown order, one club president – who wished not to be named – issued a word of caution to paddlers: “Stay out off the water. Too much is unknown.”


Atwood knows paddlers will be itching to get in their six-person canoes, but he warned against it.

“No matter what we do in life, it’s impossible to predict,” he said, “but we all have to follow these social distancing and physical distancing guidelines. We all need each other, and socially and physically we need to be involved in each other’s goodwill.”

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