While the world-class athletes from Tahiti who make up outrigger canoe paddling powerhouse Shell Va‘a respect their “cousins” from Hawaii, the juggernaut crew from the South Pacific made it clear that Sunday’s 67th edition of the Hawaiian Airlines Molokai Hoe will be anything but a family get-together.
“It’s good to have competition,” said Shell Va‘a paddler Ta‘aroa Dubois earlier this week, shortly after his team arrived on Oahu in anticipation of the sport’s world championship. “For now, we’re cousins, (but on Sunday), we go to fight.”
Shell Va‘a has made a habit of letting its paddles do the talking, as the red-white-and-gold-clad paddlers have won 11 of the past 13 editions of the race, which is regarded by many as the sport’s Super Bowl.
At least 90 crews will make the 41-mile trek from Molokai’s Hale O Lono Harbor to Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki on Sunday, including squads from Hawaii as well as teams from California, Virginia, Washington, Australia, Canada and Tahiti. Participants in the ultimate test of strength, endurance and strategy will face unpredictable winds and waves in addition to the varying currents throughout the treacherous Kaiwi Channel; reports early in the week called for light, variable winds and manageable 4- to 5-foot surf.
“It’s a good race for us Tahitians — it’s a faster race, but (the difficulty results) because the waves and currents are different,” said Dubois when comparing the Molokai Hoe to races in Tahiti. “We want to win this race again, and we came here to win.”
After claiming their eighth straight Molokai Hoe crown in 2013, some Shell paddlers stated that they would continue chasing the outrigger canoe paddling world championship “until we die.” The Shell Va‘a squad appeared poised to back up its assertions after setting the course record in 2011 and finishing in 4 hours, 30 minutes and 54 seconds – nearly eight minutes faster than the previous record, which it also held.
Streak stopped at 10
However, Shell’s run for 10 straight titles was denied in 2014 when Tahitian competitor EDT Va‘a, which paddles under the banner of an energy company, claimed the Molokai-to-Oahu crown. After Shell Va‘a reclaimed the Molokai Hoe championship in 2015 and 2016, Red Bull Wa‘a emerged in 2017 to best the two-time defending champions by 31 seconds as the Kona-based crew blended a crew with paddlers from Hawaii and Tahiti.
As is the trend, Shell Va‘a bounced back last year, and took its anger out on the competition en route to winning its unprecedented 11th title in 13 tries by a mammoth margin of nine minutes and five seconds ahead of runner-up Red Bull Wa‘a.
Lanikai, the last Hawaii-based team to win the Molokai Hoe, in 2005, is another homegrown favorite come Sunday along with Hui Nalu and Outrigger as paddlers prepare to face what officials believe is a record 12 crews from Tahiti scattered throughout the open, junior and masters divisions.
Veteran paddler and watercraft purveyor Kai Bartlett will participate with Team Wailea/Maui Jim (formerly Team Primo), which still holds the record for the fastest time by a Hawaii competitor – 4 hours, 42 minutes and 59 seconds – set in 2011.
“We’ve been blessed with a tight-knit group, and for me, I’ve been fortunate to be in these positions with so many great paddlers,” said Bartlett. “Not a lot of people are that lucky.”
Lanikai still holds the distinction as the last crew composed completely of paddlers from Hawaii to win the Molokai Hoe after triumphing in 2005; Bartlett was part of that crew as well.
In recent years, Bartlett challenged the local paddling ranks to take a new approach to tussling with the Tahitians. Local clubs including Lanikai, Outrigger, Hui Nalu, Kailua and Red Bull Wa‘a have ramped up training regimens and will aim to dethrone the favorites on Sunday.
“I see that gap maintaining in a sense because I don’t see Hawaii getting closer; when you bring in paddlers from Tahiti, New Zealand and elsewhere, that’s not Hawaii,” said Bartlett. “It’s such a different chemistry, Tahitians vs. Hawaii, because there’s not that same drive to go that extra mile as paddlers. It’s just different, and when you make up teams to win, sometimes you sacrifice being a true Hawaii team.
“For Hawaii, it’s hard, and I‘m not saying what others are doing is wrong, but if we’re going to promote Hawaii, we should be Hawaii, and hiring others to do that job as ‘club members’ only sets us back. In the long run, if everyone is out there having a good time, that’s all that matters.”
Veteran Hui Nalu paddler and team captain Mario Mausio is looking forward to Sunday’s test following last year’s fourth-place finish. He explained that his team’s Molokai Hoe crew will include four international paddlers from Australia, Cook Islands and New Zealand and five paddlers from Hawaii. “Team Oceania” will be guided by George Wilson, a young steersman from Waimanalo who has trained hard over the years to earn the honor.