Considered the pinnacle of long-distance Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing, the Kaiwi Channel is a grueling 41-mile stretch of open ocean separating the Hawaiian Islands of Molokai and Oahu. In Hawaiian, ka iwi suitably means “the bone”—it takes every muscle and fiber of the human body to complete, a reminder that, when one’s physicality is stripped away and tested, our ka iwi is truly all we are.
Renowned, revered, sometimes feared for its sheer unpredictability, with surf and wind conditions that can fly in the face of weather forecasts come race day, paddlers are required to use their full arsenal of skills, training and instinct because the only thing certain in the Kaiwi is that anything can happen here.
It’s why seasoned crews flock to this challenging zone to compete annually in the esteemed races it hosts, deemed the trials of technique, endurance and crew camaraderie for die-hard denizens of the sport the world over. Athletes who have charged these waters in all its liquid transgressions, from the smooth and relatively calm to the outright terrifying 20 to 30 foot swells, always reach that final leg where Diamond Head peeks her crown over the horizon, with tales to share once they reach Waikiki’s sheltered shores, some boasting record times of under five hours. Because in the moments when your crew is locked into a single-hull waa (canoe) and a wooden hoe (paddle) is all that comes between yourself and the channel, stories are born.
Stories that for decades were once reserved only for men. For 27 years, women were restricted from racing the Kaiwi Channel.
Since the inaugural Molokai Hoe competition in 1952, men have been competing in crossing this colosseum of the sport, able to continually challenge themselves, upgrade their techniques, perfect their craft and honor its Hawaiian origins, while their female teammates watched from the sidelines.
That all changed on October 15, 1979, when 17 all-women crews pushed forward into the channel from Molokai’s Hale O Lono Harbor with Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the first organized long-distance race of its kind dedicated to female paddlers and a new landscape to master in women’s outrigger canoe paddling.
Only it wasn’t the first time that female paddlers dared to go the distance.
The year was 1954 when three female paddlers from Waikiki Surf Club had the really foolish, very risky, perhaps plain stupid idea of hopping on a stranger’s escort boat headed for Molokai, just hours before the third annual Molokai Hoe, in a desperate attempt to witness the race from its starting line, and, no, they didn’t have the men’s permission.
Hannie Anderson, La Abbey and Vi Makua were walking along the beaches of Waikiki, barefoot, in cut-up Levi’s shorts and without a single cent in their pockets that morning, when they found someone willing to take them across the Kaiwi Channel to Molokai’s shores. They were going to spy on the men.
Their mission? To learn as much as they could about the men’s race with the hopes of laying the groundwork for their own female equivalent.
“Three of us were so lolo (crazy),” Anderson, now 82, says, remembering their covert operation to get in on the action with a cheeky smile.
Two years after the first Molokai Hoe, in 1952, Anderson and the rest of the senior women’s crew approached their club with a radical notion for the era: They could do what the men were doing. At 20 years old, Anderson was one of Hawaii’s premier female paddlers. If there’s something called an S-Factor, she has it: Svelte, strong and all shoulders. Her abilities, however, like those of her teammates, were confined to regattas—intense, mile-long sprints in shallow waters—and whenever they suggested a women’s Molokai-to-Oahu race they were turned down. It’d be too challenging and dangerous for crews like theirs, they were told. After all, they were just wahine. Women.
“We had the Coast Guard and our own coaches against us,” says Anderson. “We asked so many people about how to get permits, to get canoes—just to let us go, but everyone said, ‘No.’”
With that word loud in their ears, they knew, to get anywhere close to the Kaiwi, they’d need to take matters into their own hands, hence their secretive ride to the men’s race to see it for themselves.
As Anderson, Abbey and Makua approached Kawakiu Bay on Molokai’s north side, where the men’s canoes were lined up for the race, the waves were breaking hard. The captain turned to the women and said he couldn’t take them any nearer; it wasn’t safe enough. Before an ounce of disappointment could sink in, Duke Kahanamoku passed by in his own dingy little vessel, Anderson recalls. They shouted out to him in the pre-dawn darkness and this gracious, guiding light said he could give them a lift.
“He lied,” Anderson laughs. The conditions that morning weren’t a joking matter; even for the godfather of surfing, the waves were deemed too choppy. Kahanamoku towed the three women as close to the shoreline as he could before he concluded that, if they really wanted to get to land, they would have to bite nature’s bullet and swim. “Well, we’d already come from Oahu and gotten this far,” Anderson shrugs, explaining their split-second decision to release Kahanamoku as their chauffeur and throw themselves into the water.
After reaching the bay, the soaking-wet trio, who “looked like a bunch of drowned rats,” navigated through the collective of canoes to find the one belonging to Waikiki Surf Club, the only landmark they recognized in this unfamiliar territory. When their coach, Wally Froiseth, saw them, he was expectedly livid.
“Oh, boy, he was so mad,” says Anderson. “‘What in the world are you doing here?!’ Wally yelled at us and we just answered, all quiet, ‘We came to watch the race.’” Too dazed and famished to realize it then, but the three women were already carving out a little moment in the sport’s history. They’d successfully breached a space designed for only men, the starting line of the ultimate race in long-distance outrigger canoe paddling.
On Froiseth’s boat to Oahu, Anderson, La and Makua were spellbound by the race, picking up invaluable notes about long-distance paddling and the Kaiwi previously not afforded to them. They also gained clarity on the channel’s intense winds, swells and currents, which put it all in negotiable perspective because, in sports, half the battle is knowing what you’re up against.
Back in Honolulu, society was another challenge. Their accolades won during regatta season didn’t make it any easier to garner the necessary legion of support from escort and safety boats, insurance companies and emergency responders, all largely run by men, but a seed had been sown.
“We were the ones who had the conception of it. It started in the minds of those women, the first of us who just wanted to do it,” says Anderson. “It was a dream that never left the six of us.” Time would do what it does and press on. Many in the crew would pause from paddling to have children and raise families, but they still held onto their belief it could be done. If not by their crew, then another.
“We always felt it was bound to happen,” Anderson says. “As we got older, younger girls would become interested in a Molokai-to-Oahu crossing on their own. We just had to wait for the next generation to come up.”
Twenty-one years later, enter the ever-determined Donna Coelho-Wolfe, a spunky and smart 21-year-old from Kailua Canoe Club, who refuses to live on an island of “no.” There was hardly a day that went by in 1975 when she didn’t have a paddle in one hand and a stack of homemade flyers in the other, printed with a call to all wahine who might want to—gasp!—race the Kaiwi Channel. All summer long, she shoved them at the crossed arms of male coaches from canoe clubs across Oahu, and when they wouldn’t pass them on to their female crews, she’d march directly down to them on the beach to make sure they knew: Meet at the Ala Moana Hotel. We’re forming a league of our own.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” says Wolfe, now 62, when looking back at her tenacity. “I was just one girl!” A Kamehameha Schools graduate with a gift of gab, her plan was to organize an official women’s race that would kick off the following year, in 1976. After she typed up a formal letter proposing the idea to the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association (it was resoundingly rejected), she figured a year would give her enough time to go through the arduous process of sanctioning a full-fledged competition, independent of the organization. Sending a blitz of canoes across the Kaiwi would require the coordinated support of safety personnel (and sponsors to fund them all) and the roadblocks Waikiki Surf Club’s ’54 women endured were still in place.
It was the rousing sight of the Kaiwi Channel months before that spurred her into sudden motion. Wolfe witnessed the men’s event up close in all its competitive glory aboard an official boat. She watched the canoes edge each other out across the ocean and could feel the thrill and adrenaline of the race spark an urgent desire within her. Suddenly her experience in regattas felt limiting and stifling, and she began to sense that most unsportsmanlike of feelings, the antithesis of any team sport: Being left behind. “How come women don’t cross?” she asked the man beside her, a fleck of frustration in her voice. It was George Downing, the big-wave Makaha surfer, one of Hawaii’s most famous watermen and an original member of Waikiki Surf Club, who’d competed in the men’s races since their inception. He shrugged, then answered flatly, “They don’t think they can do it.”
“I think we should do it,” she retorted.
“Well,” said Downing, “you spearhead it and I’ll back you up.” Whether he realized it or not, he had just pledged an oath to Wolfe, a powerful paddler who regularly sat in noho waa ana (seat three), considered the vessel’s engine, and Downing just fueled her up.
Back on Oahu, 23-year-old Carleen Ornellas, Wolfe’s friend and Kailua Canoe Club’s best female hookele (steerer) was helping to spread the word by gathering and lobbying girls, building hype for a Kaiwi Channel race that existed purely in their minds.
“The more the men said we couldn’t, that just drove us even more,” says Ornellas. “Not to be stubborn, but because we knew we could do it. Between the women in the canoe, we all grew up in the ocean. We belonged there.”
The 1970s were banner years for women in outrigger canoe paddling, marking brand-new terrain for the sport. The first women’s long-distance race in the world, a 10-mile course from Hawaii Kai’s Maunalua Bay to Waikiki, had taken place in late ’74. A couple of other long-distance races, from 6 to 18 miles, were held soon after. Finally, women were getting more time in the water.
But a caveat: they were all shoreline courses, never open ocean.
“The Association and the men who were, of course, already doing distance, weren’t really interested in having us out there also,” says Ornellas, especially not in the Kaiwi Channel. With each new race offered them, their sights never wavered from the widely scoffed-at big one: Molokai to Oahu.
“I was receiving the biggest rebuttals everywhere,” remembers Wolfe, her most memorable detractors being coaches Richard “Babe” Bell of Healani Canoe Club and Tommy Connor from Outrigger Canoe Club. “There was a lot of male opposition. They just didn’t think women should do it. They didn’t think we could handle it.”
At the Ala Moana Hotel, a faction of female paddlers trickled in, piqued by the flyers she’d been handing out. Present was Downing, following up on his word to Wolfe; he was holding an informal meeting for anyone interested in the idea of crossing the Kaiwi. That night, as dusk settled over Honolulu, he shared everything that not just a man, or a woman, but a paddler would need to know about the channel. By treating them as equals, he was instrumental, says Wolfe, in giving them their first serious picture of the Kaiwi. On that night, the first unofficial coaching session for women on how to tackle the canoe paddling world’s supreme race was held.
Suddenly, the word wasn’t merely out about paddling the Kaiwi, it carried a certain weight. A confidence was brewing. Namely, in the female paddlers of Healani Canoe Club, coached by Wolfe’s biggest critic, Bell, who were unstoppable that year. The club’s 18 women were winning first-place honors left and right and were the de facto crew to beat during regatta season. If any single women’s team were going to cross the Kaiwi right then, you could imagine it’d be Healani.
It was an afternoon like any other in Waikiki, except on the water. Haunani Olds and Anona Naone were jogging along the Ala Wai Canal when they saw something peculiar for the off season: The senior women of Healani Canoe Club were still in the water, practicing. Intrigued, the two slowed their stride to survey the sight. Naone, who recognized one of the paddlers, called out to her to find out why. When they heard her answer, they couldn’t believe their ears. If the two were running a moment ago, now they were sprinting to the nearest phone.
“They’re going!” Wolfe heard them say through the receiver. “Healani’s girls are going to paddle Molokai!”
Wolfe was floored. Healani? Babe Bell? Wahine? Molokai? Five words she couldn’t believe were said in the same breath. More phone calls started pouring in, girls calling from all the other clubs to let Wolfe know the latest gossip: Healani Canoe Club was planning to make a crossing in about a month.
“I was crushed by that and a little hurt,” Wolfe admits, “because I had put a lot of work into trying to set up a race for all of us and everyone knew it. And here’s the guy who gave me the hardest time, too. Like, ‘You of all people?’ I couldn’t believe it.” Speculation suggests Bell changed his mind about it after seeing how well his women’s team performed during the regattas. With this turn of events, an old competitive spirit bubbled over.
“Call everyone,” says Wolfe.
It was time to start training.
Nearly overnight, paddlers from three different canoe clubs—Kailua, Lanikai and Outrigger—assembled at the practice site of Waikiki Surf Club to join its senior women’s crew and incorporate a new one, for the sole purpose of crossing the Kaiwi alongside Healani. They named themselves Onipaa, which, in Hawaiian, means “steadfast” and is the motto of one of Hawaii’s most commanding feminist figures, Queen Liliuokalani.
The first order of business: Nailing those water changes, the most crucial maneuver of the race. Jeff Chee, a Waikiki Surf Club paddler who became their lead coach, could be heard barking from the rock walls of Ala Moana Harbor, “Get in! Get in that canoe!” The arms and legs of 18 women flailed above the ocean surface in front of him as they scrambled to pull their bodies out of the water and into a fleet of canoes in motion. If one woman couldn’t do it, the entire team failed.
“They had a kick out of that,” Rosie Lum, now 72, one of Onipaa’s original members, recalls of the Waikiki Surf Club men, who agreed to guide them, even if they were occasionally caught laughing in disbelief from land. “There was nobody stepping up to the plate as far as coaches were concerned, except for those guys and they taught us the best they could.”
Chee fell in line along with the rest of the senior men’s crew, all formidable figures in Hawaii’s paddling world. With Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon, Randy Chun, Wally Froiseth and, again, George Downing, they were learning from the sport’s elite.
“I’m sure, their initial thoughts were, ‘You gotta be kidding,’” adds Lum. “In fairness, it wasn’t strictly because we were women. Remember, these guys had been competing—it was, are we up to the task? The men had a lot of rough races coming across that channel,” she points out, referring to the infamous 1966 Molokai Hoe that encountered swells upwards of 20 feet and winds of 40 miles per hour. It was a year when, of the 12 canoes in the race, only six finished.
If the men were thinking ahead in terms of safety, the women were focused on surviving those changes. Through both Onipaa and Healani’s coaches, an October date had been determined for the crossing. It was less than a month away.
Every night, Onipaa conditioned, completing some of the longest runs they’ve ever done, 30 miles from Ala Wai to Alan Davis Beach at Makapuu, and then back again. They also began to unify as a crew, a unique challenge for a team made up of four rival clubs with slightly different styles. “It was innocence let loose,” Lum says of their practices. “We were young people then, just adventuring, really. It truly brought us together, to be with people from other clubs and just learning all this together. That’s honestly what it was—an adventure.”
In the same mile radius, Healani’s training was as, if not more relentless. Florence Apa, who was 45 years old when she crossed with Healani, says the team’s winning momentum gave everyone, including their previously unconvinced head coach, Bell, a huge morale boost.
“We weren’t really scared or nervous,” recollects Apa, now 86. “We trained so hard, running up past Diamond Head and back to the Ala Wai, every day. Coach Bell really believed we could do it.” When Healani’s crew wasn’t enduring Bell’s yells correcting stroke technique from the canal or practicing changes, the crew were paddling from Pokai Bay on the west side to Kailua in the east to camp overnight, comparable to the Kaiwi’s length of 41 miles. At the break of dawn, it was back to Waikiki to do it all over again.
Even if “this was a crossing, not a race,” reminds Wolfe, “there was an instinctive competition added to it. Someone has to cross first.”
Still, it never splintered the teams away from what they collectively set out to do—overthrow a decades-long belief held about the limits of female paddlers. “If we didn’t finish the crossing, then the men were right,” Apa says. “We weren’t going to let them be right.”
The night before the 1975 crossing, Onipaa and Healani united on Molokai for the first time. Before their arrivals, the teams asked the permission of the community at Hale O Lono Harbor if they could set up camp there, to which the residents answered with Hawaiian food and music for them. They were excited for what these ladies were about to embark on.
“It was a very unified feeling,” Wolfe says, of the hours leading up to the crossing. Even with the former dissenter, Bell, everything fell to the wayside. All 36 paddlers wished each other good luck. The electricity in the air couldn’t have been more palpable, says Apa. “We were all on the beach together and nobody wanted to sleep.”
That evening, on the precipice of an incredibly big moment for their sport, it wasn’t even about the water, the channel or the ocean. It was about the stars. They shone down on Onipaa and Healani with a fierce and gentle glow they’ll never forget. Olds, gazing up at the twinkling expanse, was overwhelmed with not just how far they’ve all come, but were about to go.
“It was like, ‘We are really going to do this,” she remembers. “We’re going to paddle home.’”
Home. it’s only 41 miles away, the ladies told themselves, as they planted their blades into the sea at the starting line. It was 6 a.m. on Sunday, the morning of the crossing. The weather proved gorgeous, the water was warm and the conditions in the Kaiwi were fair, as Onipaa and Healani thrust themselves toward an invisible Oahu.
Healani, outfitted in their classic navy jerseys, blended with the channel’s blue water. Onipaa glided right beside them, wearing matching, homemade mesh tank tops they had screen-printed in their teammate Luana Froiseth’s garage two days prior. The rainbow-gradient ink representing the colors of each of their canoe clubs was still fresh on their backs as they reached with their paddles to pull themselves forward as a single crew.
Running alongside them were the escort boats with their coaches on board and the rest of the crews’ teammates anticipating their turns. In a full-circle moment, Anderson, who had dared to propose the idea in 1954, was also there, officiating the race with colleague Leinani Faria, another longtime champion for the crossing.
The race was going smoothly. For nearly 45 minutes of paddling, Onipaa and Healani were neck and neck. “Both teams, as far as paddlers, had the best women across the Islands,” says Anderson. “They were doing something that no woman in the world had ever tried. They were the pioneers.”
When the teams hit Laau Point, Molokai’s westernmost tip and last piece of land mass anyone would see until reaching Oahu, the crews split. Onipaa continued the course, north, and Healani, using a strategy of Bell’s, made a break for a southern route. With the crews separated, the moment on everyone’s mind for the past weeks was fast approaching: the first water change.
“We’re in this vast place where land is there, land is there and in between is our little canoe,” says Lum, painting a picture of that suspenseful moment with Onipaa. “Then, just like that, we were in the ocean, doing the change—we were doing things we’d never done before in our lives. It was exhilarating! Every change after that, once we got past the uncertainty of it, we were past it. We were paddling.”
As they paddled, a channel once foreign to them would give back in ways neither crew could’ve expected, drawing new connections and prompting awakenings they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
“For me, it was the realization of how vulnerable we are in the water,” remembers Wolfe. “I was fine in the canoe, but when I jumped out to do a change, you could really feel the deepness of that ocean,” recalling the washing machine effect, the swells coming at every angle. “It was so awesome.”
For Lum, everything about paddling, the why we do the things we do as Hawaiians crystallized in that koa canoe. “Canoe paddling,” Lum says, her voice trailing off before finding its center. “This is how our people traveled once upon a time. It’s in our DNA.”
Olds echoes her experience of the crossing. “When you’re overthinking or you’re getting tired, you’re hurting, something happens in the middle of the channel. It’s like you’re there with your kupuna (ancestors), the spirits around you that support and encourage you, and everyone before you. This is our culture.”
Ornellas, who was steering Onipaa that day, called it her “first real education on the channel.” She spent most of it trying to really feel what was happening with the water like never before. “When I was on the escort boat, I’d be sitting there, next to Uncle Wally, who’s a legend, the all-time waterman, relying on his experience,” says Ornellas. “He’s telling me about the swells, currents, the landmarks we’re heading for, Portlock, Koko Head, Diamond Head, which is a big one, but also specifically pointing out the peaks to keep that line.”
When Oahu came into Onipaa’s view, an extra surge of pride propelled them toward their destination. “It took so long just to get close to where we knew, OK, it’s almost over. We had to dig deep to finish,” says Ornellas, whose crew had been paddling for more than seven hours. Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki was finally in their sights and they were nearing the end.
With about 25 strokes left for Onipaa’s crew, Healani, who had reached the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor about 15 minutes prior, was already there to help them celebrate. Bell’s hunch about the channel that morning proved victorious when they were catching swells, coasting down waves along the southerly route to a final time of 7 hours, 19 minutes and 20 seconds. In the final moments of the crossing, everyone in the canoe, on the escort boats and in the harbor erupted with screams and cheers. Spectators dived into the water, splashing it up with congratulations and joy. Onipaa paddled their hearts out.
“When we were finishing the crossing, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, no other group of women has ever done this before,’” says Lum. “I truly thought that, ‘Wow. This is history.’”
In the Ilikai Hotel, the fanfare continued. The paddlers’ shoulders, strained from the race, were weighed down with lei from friends and families. The hotel staff snapped photos of them as if they were national celebrities. Anderson surprised them all with trophies. Both teams had won that day.
In the glint of those awards, the legacy of what Healani and Onipaa had just achieved could already be reflected on. To each of their clubs, the women brought back with them the lessons they learned in the Kaiwi Channel, opportunities to further master the sheer act of what they loved and lived for: paddling. In merely proving it could be done, they inched further toward closing the gender gap in their sport. By the end of the decade, Na Wahine O Ke Kai would attract enough sponsors and support to hold its own official race. They shifted people’s minds.
During their changes, what Healani and Onipaa might have lacked in finesse and poise wasn’t really the point—all of that would come in time. They made up for it with the boldness and fearlessness to throw themselves into the Kaiwi at all.
As both teams huddled together in the afterglow of the first women’s crossing, all that mattered was they were crazy enough to try.
On this searingly hot day in July at Keehi lagoon, the women of the first 1975 crossing are still in it to win.
Coach Ornellas leans into a huddle underneath the Kailua Canoe Club tent with Olds, who in a few more heats will hit the water in the league’s Women’s 70s division race, the number corresponding to the age bracket of its competing paddlers.
At the neighboring Lanikai Canoe Club tent, Lum congratulates her grandson who steered the winning canoe in a boys race earlier in the day.
In the secluded hills at the far end of Keehi, Apa sits in the shade of Anuenue Canoe Club, chatting with her teammates, where the current topic of conversation is nail polish. Beside her is the team’s coach and founder, Nappy Napoleon, who started the club with his wife, Anona.
Surveying the scene from the lagoon’s rock-stacked pavilion center, between tables of open laptops tracking sprint times and the endless crackle of lane directions given over two-way radios, is Luana Froiseth, the president of the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association.
It’s about two weeks until the state championships, marking the end of regatta season and the start of long distance racing. All the women’s crews present today will turn their focus to the Kaiwi. For some, it’s just to survive the crossing; for others, to break the record time of 5 hours, 22 minutes and 5 seconds set by Hawaii’s Team Bradley, which Lum’s daughter, Mahealani, paddles with.
After the day’s proceedings, Olds and Ornellas will continue to devote their energies to the race’s executive board; Anderson is currently organizing its details from her home in Waimanalo. Appropriately, she is Na Wahine’s race director, and shows no signs of slowing.
“When you see all those canoes lined up, you see women who we trained and who want to do it,” Anderson says of race day. “You see how badly they want to know that feeling—what it’s like to cross the channel.”
“I’m still so happy it’s become this big, world class event,” says Wolfe, who now lives in Las Vegas, but still follows the races closely. Crews from across the Mainland U.S., Asia, Australia, and the Pacific enter it each year.
“I still cry at the start of every Na Wahine,” says Olds, when she witnesses the sight of nearly 1,000 female paddlers gathering on Molokai for a race that unofficially began with just 36. “It’s something you sense deep in your naau (gut), this shared love for paddling. They’re the future.”
In the water, a teenage girls’ crew from Healani Canoe Club raises their paddles up into position with six other koa canoe racers, angled to pierce the water’s surface. The official boat sends a flurry of flags—yellow, red and green—shooting up into the air, their hoe drive deep beneath the sea and the waa are off. At the edge of the lagoon, the girls’ clubs from across the island shout to their crews with calls of encouragement that ring across the ocean. “Reach!” they scream with everything they’ve got. “Reach!”
The 2017 Na Wahine o Ke Kai will be held on Sunday, September 24. For more information, visit nawahineokekai.com.
This article originally appeared in our Sept/Oct 2016 print issue. To get your copy, please contact our Circulation Department at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-788-4230.