Our respite from the second leg of the seventeen-mile outrigger canoe race from Maui’s Launiupoko Beach to Ma’alea Harbor was over. From the back of Alohi’s family fishing boat, I watched our club’s purple and white canoe approach, cresting the white-capped bumps of the Pacific Ocean.
The crew moved together in rhythm, working as if one lone woman dipped her wooden paddle into Maui’s waters and pulled with hungry strokes. We had one shot to make this water change and stay in position. I would be in the second seat of the six-man canoe for the final stretch.
Three of us leapt from the motorboat into the ocean. The rush of water was both refreshing and disorienting.
“Two!” I yelled as I surfaced and treaded water. Many words we used in paddling were spoken in Hawaiian. At the moment, I was grateful that counting was not among them. I had yet to master one to ten in the islands’ native language.
The other women shouted numbers for their seats. We bobbed in the blue water, clear enough for me to see my feet but deeper than I wanted to think about.
“Paddles up!” Alohi called from seat six of the approaching canoe.
Some of the elite crews paddled the race “iron,” paddling nonstop, to keep their momentum strong. Others made changes so fast the boat barely lost any time. Populated with novices and intermediates, our crew took advantage of the water changes to rest our muscles and drink Gatorade. All except Alohi. She was steering the race iron, seventeen miles in the same seat without taking breaks like the rest of us had.
The day before the race, I rode in the bed of a pick-up truck with Alohi to Launiupoko to rig the boats. She was talking to Koa’s daughter, another sixteen year old, about a party from the night before. Alohi laughed at how drunk her friend was when he drove her home. I wanted to give her my number and tell her I’d pick her up and take her home if that happened again. But I didn’t. Alohi was half my age but cocky, native. She belonged here and I only wanted to.
“Out!” Alohi yelled.
Paddlers in seats one, two, and four launched themselves out of the right side of the canoe. Our cluster of human buoys latched onto the left — the side with the outrigger. The ama is the fiberglass outrigger alongside the boat and attached by two pieces of wood called the iako. I had become so accustomed to hearing the Hawaiian words for parts of the canoe that I couldn’t always remember the English ones.
I needed to pull out of the warm waves and get into the canoe before I hit the iako between seats two and three. I kicked and pulled but started to slip back into the ocean. My neoprene shorts weighed me down. The more drag I created, the harder the crew in the canoe had to work. If I didn’t get in now I would have to abandon the race. Abandon my team.
Forget that. I looped my leg over the gunnel and flopped into the canoe. I got in my seat, grabbed the paddle from its foam holder, put my right foot forward, and paddled on the right.
My job was to follow the stroker in seat one like we breathed the same breath. I paddled on the opposite side, sending small eddies of water back for the rest to dip their paddles into and pull the canoe forward. My left hand covered the top of the paddle, my right held the base before it flared out. I twisted my body and reached for the water in front of me, steadying myself so we wouldn’t huli or capsize.
“Hut!” Janet called out behind me. Seat three was meditative, counting strokes up to fourteen, calling out changes and counting again. The next stroke would be my last on the right.
“Hou!” We called in unison and switched sides.
I saw a turtle surface for breath. If this were a practice run, I would have called out Honu! But this was a race. Only Alohi and seat three could speak.
We built speed and kept going. Alohi was young but she could read the ocean. She found a line between the waves, out of the current, and away from the other canoes.
My arms ached. Goosebumps, what Hawaiians call “chicken skin,” prickled my wet legs as the trade winds blew. I looked up as we changed sides and saw the mouth of Ma’alea harbor.
“Catch this bump,” Alohi called out.
The stroker picked up the pace and we paddled like maniacs to get on top of the wave. Janet didn’t call a change. The back of the canoe lifted as we rode the peak.
“Lawa!” Alohi said.
We pulled our paddles out of the water and the canoe propelled forward on energy that had travelled the ocean to reach us. We surfed to the finish line.
Other canoes had made it in ahead of us, but not many. We laughed and reached our hands toward each other in congratulations.
“Take us in, ladies,” Alohi said.
She began the sequence to get us going.
“O mau kau kau.” We lifted our paddles.
“O hoe hup hai.” We reached forward.
“Imua.” We paddled again, this time for the shore.
Photo used with copyright permission.
Elisabeth F. Venetiou's fiction has appeared in The Evening Street Review and poetry in The Blue Guitar’s Unstrung. She has published nonfiction pieces in the Arizona Daily Sun and was a regular contributor to Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine. Her essay, “Good on Paper,” was published in Boston Parents Paper. A graduate of Northern Arizona University’s creative writing program, she is currently at work on a novel.