Early on a Thursday morning, while half-awake Maui residents bustle off to work and school, a group gathers in a circle at Kenolio Beach in Kihei across from the old Suda Store. The group of about 50 is an equal mix of Maui natives, longtime resident transplants and visitors joined together to mele oli, or chant. The mele oli calls us to rise up, focus our energy and seek knowledge. Leaders of the Kihei Canoe Club slow down the ‘olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) for the tourists who try to keep up, as the distinction between locals and visitors becomes more obvious.
This is how paddling begins at the Kihei Canoe Club. It starts with culture and aloha. Then waiver forms. I’m kindly handed a wooden paddle that fits my height and given a lesson in holding it so as not to offend the ancestors. First time paddlers are given a non-intimidating course on all the basics: how to push a canoe into the water, proper stroking technique and how to hop into the canoe so you’re not left on the shore or dangling off the side when the boat launches into the water. Kihei Canoe Club faithful, recognizable in their red shirts, are a fit, spry and happy bunch, eager to share their knowledge and passion for paddling wa‘a (canoes) and Hawaiian culture.
Leaders match visitors and recreational members according to the size of their party, and we’re off. A few awkward canoe entries, sure, but no one is left stranded in the sand. My group paddles in a wa‘a kaulua, or double-hulled canoe, guided by steersman Jerry, a veteran canoe club member and a Texan transplanted on Maui long ago.
After paddling for about 15 minutes we stop a few hundred feet from shore. The morning ocean is still calm and we rock gently on the deep blue water for a few moments. Jerry opens us up with some banter, and we go around the boat introducing ourselves to each other. On the wa‘a, we are a community and must work together.
“If any of you are dolphin whisperers,” Jerry says, “now is the time to do your thing.” The groups often encounter wildlife, including turtles, dolphins and monk seals. Just last week, Jerry lets us know, they paddled alongside a pod of dolphins.
We learn a little more ‘olelo, then i mua (move forward). Our next destination is Kalepolepo loko ‘ia (fishpond), right outside the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center. All the Kihei Canoe Club wa‘a come together in the shallow water, while paddlers take a break, snap photos and hop out for a swim. The honu aren’t bothered by our presence and swim around us or continue basking on rocks in the morning sun. Jerry tells us about the history and importance of the loko ‘ia and points to the remnants of a neighboring pond that has since been claimed by the ocean. The steersman is knowledgeable and shares a breadth of information and upcoming events with the tourists curious to take in as much as they can of the island.
We paddle another leg farther out from the shore, over more open ocean to get a breathtaking panoramic view that stretches from Mauna Kahalawai (“holding house of water,” the West Maui Mountains) to Haleakala. After another break to splash around, the wind begins to pick up on the way back. Now it’s time for some fun. The canoe club wants us to get the full experience, so we pick up the pace and cut across the water, gliding back until we’re across Suda’s, then carefully ease our way onto shore. What a magnificent way to start the day.
“Before 1973 we had no canoes, we had no paddles,” Vanessa Kalanikau, the daughter of Moki Kalanikau told me after we’d arrived on shore. It was Moki Kalanikau who, along with a group of friends and community supporters, started Kihei Canoe Club in 1973. “His main purpose was to keep the kids off the street, to give them something to respect and believe in,” Kalanikau said proudly. The canoe club gave many keiki something about themselves that they could feel good about.
“Tradition comes first,” Vanessa emphasized. “Paddling always will come later.”
“It’s not just about paddling,” she said. “It’s beyond that. It’s the ocean, the water, the wind, the rain, the air, the animals. It symbolizes a lot. When I paddle, I don’t just paddle. I feel everything, from my dad, from my ancestors, from way back… the wa‘a to me is a spiritual connection.”
Visitors wanting to experience paddling for themselves should come to the canoe club on Tuesdays and Thursdays by 7am to sign up for the 8am paddle, as the spots can fill up fast. Tourists are asked for a $40 tax deductible donation, which supports the Kihei Canoe Club’s many educational and cultural programs. Maui residents can come for free as the guest of a club member or for a first-time trial. Recreational paddling happens every day at 7am for club members and there are programs for people with special needs and paddlers from ages 5 to 92. If residents want to come back and become club members, they’re asked for $150 in membership dues which covers unlimited paddling with the group for a year. “Cheaper than any gym membership!” longtime member Kathy exclaimed.
“What would you say to anyone who wants to try paddling for the first time?” I asked Vanessa.
“It is important that a lot of people understand the cultural part of any canoe club before they get into the wa‘a,” she responded, adding an invitation, “come with me, I’m here on Thursdays.”
[Editor’s note: the original and print version of this story stated that Kalepolepo loko‘ia is outside the Pacific Whale Foundation office. In fact, it is outside the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center. It has been corrected.]
KIHEI CANOE CLUB
Kenolio Beach (Sugar Beach)
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Photos: Kihei Canoe Club
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