A Crown Jewel
The 48th annual Queen Lili‘uokalani Canoe Race, which is set for Aug. 29-Sept. 2, remains one of the most prestigious sporting and cultural events in the state.
It started as a small affair in 1971.
Eight men’s outrigger crews, accompanied by escort boats, paddled from Kealakekua Bay to Kailua Bay in the inaugural Queen Lili‘uokalani Canoe Race, billed today as the world’s largest of its kind.
Unbeknownst to them, they would make history that day, becoming the forefathers of a uniquely Kona tradition that would grow in size to several events over several days, hundreds of crews and thousands of participants, support volunteers, family and friends.
The race, now in its 48th year, runs Aug. 29-Sept. 2 and is hosted by outrigger paddling powerhouse Kai ‘Ōpua Canoe Club, which was founded in Kailua-Kona in 1929.
Race director and veteran club member Mike Atwood began paddling in 1972 and competed in his first Queen’s Race the next year. He says that the event was originally envisioned as a training run for the men’s 38-mile Moloka‘i Hoe, the grueling open-ocean channel race from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu.
“In the beginning, there were no iron crews and everyone used an escort boat, although the 18-mile distance seems easily doable to us today,” he says. “In 1975, the first women’s crews raced from Keauhou Bay to Hōnaunau Bay. The following year, races began with courses between two important historical sites. The women started from Kamakahonu Bay (a National Historic Site) in Kailua, to Hōnaunau Bay at Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historic Park; and the reverse for the men, just as they are now. All crews had escort boats until 1980, when either nineor six-man crews became optional.”
Today, the event has grown to about 135 men’s crews and 120 women’s crews, as well as a new category added a couple of years ago for mixed crews. (Age groups 40-plus and 50-plus race with the women; open mixed race with the men.)
In all, thousands of paddlers and their supporters from Hawai‘i, the mainland and around the world (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Tahiti and Hong Kong) descend on Kailua Town over the Labor Day week and weekend for a joyous and lively celebration of paddling, the official team sport of Hawai‘i.
“We have a number of events to support the headliner Saturday races,” says Atwood. “There’s a historical walking tour, a paddlers talk story, a paddlers’ torchlight parade, a Hawaiian lū‘au and international night held to honor our international attendees at Hulihe‘e Palace. It includes an open bar, swag and entertainment.”
And, of course, there are lots of other races. On Thursday, the OC-4 relay races take place, and on Sunday, the double hulls race (sometimes dubbed the “hangover” races), as well as events for OC-1 and -2, SUP, kayak, Surfski and teens. Monday brings the Kūpuna Classic for those 50 and up, who race from the Kailua pier to Banyans and back.
There’s a lot of work that goes into planning an event as large as Queen Lili‘uokalani Canoe Race, which presents its own set of unique challenges.
For example, finding boats for all the paddlers who travel in for the event has always proven a logistical task. Atwood says the club pays other clubs around the state to ship and rent out their boats to competitors. Though, clubs much prefer to borrow boats, he adds.
Shipping containers are not long enough for the boats to fit, meaning they would have to cut their boats, a choice not many clubs are willing to make. And sometimes there are glitches. Last year, during Hurricane Lane, Young Brothers’ inter-island barges stopped shipments, but somehow the club still managed to provide the more than 60 additional boats needed for race day.
For those paddlers without a crew or those crews without a paddler, the club website offers an online blog where they can connect, complementing the venerable paper bulletin board in the hotel lobby used by many a stray paddler or crew in need over the years.
This year, many in the paddling community will be thinking of Lawrence “Uncle Bo” Campos, longtime president of Kai ‘Ōpua, who last year lost his battle with a sudden and devastating illness. “We can never replace his energy, leadership and dynamism,” says Atwood. “He always encouraged people to feel like they were part of the family, and he touched so many people. He loved being involved in the artwork and design for the merchandise. The loss was an immeasurable one. But we are determined to carry on his great legacy as much as possible.”
Indeed, for Atwood, there’s a unique sense of satisfaction in being a part of putting on such a large, prestigious race year after year.
“Being involved as a paddler, coach and race director, this is an event that gives Kona a chance to shine here and around the world,” Atwood says. “It perpetuates the Hawaiian cultural tradition of outrigger paddling and showcases the strong foundation of community involvement. We are especially so grateful for the help of all clubs here on the Big Island. They help us make the event a success for everyone.”
For more information, visit qlcanoerace.com.