The early Hawaiians used canoe paddling to navigate their way to the
Hawaiian Islands. Canoe paddling plays an important role in Hawaii's
history. Canoe paddling has lived through ancient Hawaiian society and made
it through to the present. Canoe paddling is so popular today that it was
deemed the official state sport of Hawaii.
The Hawaiians of old Hawaii required an extensive knowledge of nature
and spirituality needed for survival. Hawaiians respected all things in
nature. All forest plants belonged to the gods. Samuel Kamakau states, that
no tree in the forest could be cut down without permission from the gods.
For every tree cut down in the forest there was a spiritual ceremony that
followed. A canoe builder would have to go through great feats to
accomplish the task at hand. " It was not because the canoe itself was
considered sacred. Rather it was because so agonizingly many things could
go so horrendously wrong from the time a canoe builder first stepped foot
in the forest till the finished canoe entered the water( Malo 30)." The
long process of canoe building took tremendous amounts of expertise along
with spiritual knowledge of the kahuna kalai waa. The process of canoe
building was not only extensive and laborious but dangerous as well
sometimes resulting in death.
A canoe builder was well respected in society not only for their
expertise but because they abided the laws of the gods. There were
different canoe builders for both the chiefs and the commoners. Sometimes
the canoe builders of the chiefs and the commoners were equal in their
Hawaiians of old Hawaii preferred the use of Koa for their
canoes. Canoes were made of other native woods such as ohiaha, coconut,
kukui and breadfruit trunks. Hawaiians also used a tree called the alamea,
which grew to a large size. This alamea tree was not as abundant as the koa
tree, but because the wood was much stronger than the koa it was used to
make war canoes. Canoes that were built from the kukui, breadfruit and
wiliwili trees were used for training purposes and ranged from 10-20 feet
in length. Canoes were also built from driftwoods that found their way to
Hawaii from the Northwest coast of America. Some of the driftwoods
consisted of giant redwood, fir and pine these were favored and considered
a blessing from the gods.
First a man would select a tree that he wanted to cut for making his
canoe. The man would then go to the kahuna kalai and he would then seek
permission through his dreams. In the dreams of the kahuna kalai the deity
would tell the kahuna kalai if the tree was healthy. The kahuna kalai would
go to the forest and look for the tree that was selected if the elepaio
bird was found pecking at the tree this meant the tree was infested with
bugs and could not be used to build a canoe. The kahuna kalai needed a
number of offereings for the gods to ensure a successful canoe. The kahuna
kalai used a small black pig, coconuts, red fish and awa as offerings.
The ceremony also included chanting and praying to the gods. The
kahuna kalai and his assistants slept in the forest around the base of the
tree. The morning brought a long day of extensive labor. The pig was put in
the imu and cooked and followed with a feast. The kahuna kalai would begin
to make preparations for the felling of the tree. The felling of the tree
was a very important step in canoe building. Two cuts were made three feet
apart and done with accuracy to ensure the trunk would not crack. Fern was
laid on the ground so the trunk of the tree would have a soft bed to fall
upon. Finally the top of the tree and its branches were cut off. The kahuna
kalai would call out in a loud voice mentioned by Malo, " E ho'olele wale
ke 'ahu" and the felling of the tree's ceremony was complete.
Hewing was the next step in the process of canoe building. This
process was the beginning of the actual architectural structure of the
canoe. The head kahuna kalai envisioned a complete diagram of the canoe in
his mind. The hewing of the canoe was done right in the forest. The tree
trunk now evolved and looked more like a canoe and became a rough-hewn
The canoe would then be hauled to the shore where it would be
finished. This process was the most extensive and laborious step in canoe
building. Hauling of the canoe took four days and anywhere from 80-100 men.
The rough-hewn canoe could have weighed anywhere from five to twenty
thousand pounds. The hauling of the canoe had many spiritual guidelines
that had to be followed. For instance the head kahuna walked sixty feet to
the rear of the canoe and no one could walk with him or behind him making
the process that much more difficult. A feast was also a part of this
process villagers from surrounding areas would bring food to complete the
process of hauling. Men of surrounding areas were commanded to be present
under penalty of having their houses and property destroyed if they failed
The next step in canoe building is the finishing of the canoe. The
rough-hewn canoe would be taken to the halau where it would be mounted on
wooden blocks. The rough-hewn canoe would be left to cure for several
months to several years to ensure no cracking. The canoe would be shaped
with an adze when that was complete the canoe would be smoothed with stone
and coral rubbers. The canoe would then be painted and the parts of the
canoe would be attached.
The last and final step of the canoe building process was called the
consecration. The consecration was followed with a ceremony that had to be
performed with accuracy. The consecration ceremony was so crucial to the
canoe building process that it sometimes involved a human sacrifice.
The canoes of pre-contact Hawaii and post-contact Hawaii still remain
the same in design. Today on the beaches of Waikiki you will find canoes
that look similar to canoes built in the late 1700's. The first racing
canoe was built in 1902. This canoe was built for Prince Kuhio and was
supposed to be the fastest canoe in the islands. The canoe was called the
'A and a paddling crew from Kona beat a haole team on numerous occasions
The days of ancient Hawaiian canoe paddling was met with a wager.
Competitors waged their land, wives, property and even their lives to the
winner of a race. Most canoe races of ancient Hawaii mainly consisted of
two canoes. Chiefs acquired teams to represent them in competition.
The first regatta held only for canoe racing started in 1933 in
Napo'opo'o, Hawaii. In 1934 another regatta was held in Napo'opo'o and
Outrigger Canoe Club wins the overall competition. In 1935 Honaunau wins
six out of eight races. In 1936 canoe paddling took a decline according to
a historian, " Kona crews were too strong for the outside island crews."
From 1937-1943 there were informal canoe races but because of the war there
was still a decline in canoe racing. 1943 was the start of the MacFarlane
regatta that still exists today held in Waikiki.
During the 1940's there was much chaos that occurred due to no rules
in canoe racing. In 1950 the Hawaii Canoe Racing and Surfing Association
was formed to regulate canoes and to come up with a set of rules. In 1970
canoe racing became a popular sport. The HCRSA changed their name by
dropping the S and became the HCRA.
In 1939 was the first proposed Molokai-Oahu race across the Kaiwi
channel. Many believed it could not be done. Finally in 1952 three canoe
clubs Waikiki Surf Club, Hawaiian Surf Club and Kukui o Lanikaula
(Molokai). Many advised them not to do it and it was dangerous. Despite the
worse ocean conditions due to Kona winds the three canoe clubs set out.
Kukui o Lanikaula prevails and wins the race in eight hours and fifty-five
The HCRA started in 1950 and had around three hundred active
participants competing in canoe racing. By 1980 the number of people
participating in canoe paddling grew to over five thousand.
Today canoe racing has become a popular sport, so popular it is now
the official state sport of Hawaii. Canoe Paddling has lived through the
ancient days of old Hawaii, and overcame obstacles of war and near
distinction to revitalizing itself and becoming an important part of life
Chun, Naomi N.Y.. Hawaiian Canoe-Building Traditions.
Honolulu, Hi:Kamehameha Schools Press, 1995.
Holmes, Tommy. The Hawaiian Canoe. Honolulu, Hi:.Editions Limited,