One year into outrigger canoe-paddling, I was feeling pretty good about having been recognized as 2005 Paddler of the Year and elected President of Hoewa’a Dallas Outrigger Canoe Club. But the biggest thrill of my brief paddling career began with a call from my brother Kawika. His invitation to be a member of his select ‘Ohana ‘Oiwi mixed crew at the 2006 Liberty Challenge in New York City sent me to unimaginable heights of excitement and anticipation. Once I descended back to reality, however, apprehension began to set in. Could I be physically and mentally ready in two short months? For an opportunity to paddle with Kawika in a world class race, I would be ready.
I have always had great admiration for Kawika and his paddling peers. I could not imagine the physical strength & conditioning nor the mental toughness it took to survive, much less excel, at the sport. One thing I was pretty sure of: I didn’t have what it took. So when Hoewa’a was founded in 2004, I had little interest and it took more than a year for me to give paddling a try. What enticed me to finally pick up a paddle was the fact that my parents and sisters were active paddlers and loving it, and the opportunity for us to do something together as a family was impossible to pass up. What I found when I climbed into Hoku Kaukahi was the key ingredient for any hope of success: passion. The surge of the canoe, wind in my face, waves breaking over my knees sent me soaring and I was hooked.
I found great joy in paddling with Mom, Dad, Lia and Kel, and with Nani, too, when he came to town. I hoped one day to be able to paddle with Kawika as well, preferably in Hawaii’s blue waters rather than Texas’ green lakes. I could never have imagined that this desire would manifest itself in the black waters of New York’s Hudson and East Rivers.
But get real. You’re talking about being a yearling novice on a crew consisting of choice paddlers from clubs across the country, competing against teams from around the world, in fucking New York City! Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . but I don’t care. I’m not missing this for the world. So I asked Kawika what I needed to do to prepare for this race, and he told me to work on my cardio, get my heart rate up each day for a certain length of time, continuous. I borrowed Kel’s old stationary bike from Ian and tried that, but it was too boring. I went running through my Oak Cliff neighborhood and the wilderness of Cedar Hill, but my knees gave out before I even started breathing hard. So I showed up in New York in no better condition, counting on my excitement and my determination to keep me from making ass in front of my crewmates.
On our first morning in the big city, we walked to Chelsea Pier and took one of New York Outrigger’s boats out on the rivers to get a feel for the waters. It was stinky, oily, black and I loved being on it. Two of our wahine were not yet in town, which gave Dad the opportunity to join our practice cruise. What an unreal feeling being on those rivers with my Dad and brother. With Kawika at the helm, I paddled along happily as if I was on a sightseeing trip more than a practice session. I enjoyed seeing Jersey, Manhattan and Brooklyn from such a unique perspective. The outing did serve to erase whatever trepidation may have existed about racing on the rivers, though the excitement was still going strong, and upon docking back at the pier I felt mentally prepared for tomorrow’s race. We walked from the pier to Nani’s and Ralph’s apartment, accompanied by the men of the Air Tahiti Nui outrigger crew, looking like South Seas savages come to conquer Manhattan.
That night Kawika’s business partner and team sponsor David Kim treated our family and crew to a Chinese feast, where we met the remaining two wahine paddlers. Our crew, in seating order, consisted of Dana from Lanikai (Hawaii), Sara from Marina del Rey (California), me from Hoewa’a (Dallas), Kalani from Kailua (Hawaii), Maria from NYO (New York), and Kawika from Anuenue (Hawaii). The camaraderie we enjoyed that night would gel into an incredible bond the next day when our paddles sliced into the East River as one. Come tomorrow, no one would ever guess that this was the first time all six of us had ever been in a canoe together.
Race Day dawned as awful as one could imagine. Low-hanging clouds obscured Manhattan’s skyscrapers; cold rain pelted the river and all who ventured out upon it; thunder and lightning threatened to force cancellation of our race. I don’t know whether it was the cold rain or the hype of the race, but I stood with Dad and Kawika shivering, waiting for the completion of the women’s race and the start of ours. Dad and the crew retreated to a Starbucks around the corner for a warm latte and a last-minute shishi op.
Finally, our turn came. Sporting our sleek red ‘Ohana ‘Oiwi racing jerseys, we took our places in a red and white Force Five borrowed from a Canadian team. Our bright red was striking against the grey world as we slipped into the East River to warm up. We paddled upriver and down, under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, laughing and joking as if an 8-mile sprint ain’t no big thing. Maybe it wasn’t for the other five, but I had yet to paddle anywhere near that far, and certainly not at the pace I was about to experience. I think we were all just a little awestruck and giddy, too, sitting in a Hawaiian outrigger under the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Manhattan skyscrapers towering on one side and the factories and warehouses of Brooklyn looming on the other. I looked over and the tops of both the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings were hidden in the low clouds. My fascination with the surroundings made me forget that I was supposed to be nervous. I felt only wonder and great anticipation. “Hurry up, you guys, line up,” I silently urged the other teams.
When the rest of the field was assembled, we nosed up next to them. Paddles poised, senses heightened and muscles tensed, we listened for the starter’s horn. In the next moment, the world was a flurry of bodies in motion and water a-flyin’. Down came the rain and up splashed the river. Our stroker Dana set a blistering pace and we jumped out to an early lead, which we held halfway to Governor’s Island. My adrenalin served me well up until we rounded Governor’s Island and entered the wide-open space below Manhattan, where the East and Hudson Rivers come together. Combined with the rain, wind and the heavy traffic of barges, tour boats, water taxis and luxury yachts, this mixing of rivers made a mess of the currents and raised the swells to waves. My adrenalin having petered out, it was time to reach down and grab hold of something, anything, until my body, heart and lungs got into that good groove. Blinded by raindrops, I struggled but never flagged, until the groove arrived halfway between Gov’s Island and The Statue of Liberty.
One of the things I was looking most forward to was looking up and marveling at Miss Liberty as we rounded the buoy at her feet. But when we arrived at the buoy, our turn revealed to me that there were two canoes right on our tail. The competitor in me overshadowed my inner tourist, and in my determination that our competition not slip past us, I completely forgot about Liberty and missed my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see her from that vantage point.
Driving into the return leg of the race, we found ourselves in a close race with the two canoes ahead of us and the two on our heels. Our chances seemed good until we crossed paths with a large freighter. The laws of the United States Coast Guard and of common sense reward the right of way to the big boys. The two frontrunners managed to race across the big ship’s path while we idled until the way was clear. We dug hard and paddled with all we had to the finish line, outdistancing the rest of the field but unable to catch the leaders, who crossed the finish three minutes and one minute ahead of us. From the rocky shore below the Brooklyn Bridge a bright and enthusiastic crowd of fans decked out in ‘Oiwi red – Mom, Dad, Nani, Ralph, Lia, Kel, and David – cheered our third place finish. What a thrill to bring it home in front of your loved ones. You would have thought we had won Olympic gold. We laughed and hollered and mugged for pictures, and topped our celebration with a sassy over-the-head rainbow saaaal-loot to our cheering horde. We carried the canoe ashore and embraced each other and our supporters, big smiles and happy hearts in evidence everywhere. We then devoured the dim sum that Mom and our sibs had schlepped all the way from Chinatown in the rain.
Dripping from rain, river and probably a few tears, we made our way onto the subway for the trip back to the apartment. I’m sure we were a sight, carrying out primitive weapons of battle. Back at the apartment, the hot shower felt marvelous after a cold, rainy, exhilarating day. We dressed for the post-race/awards luau where we enjoyed Hawaiian music, food, and leis and continued our celebration.