Wahine paddlers to challenge channel Sunday
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
|Hannie Anderson, a race official since Na Wahine O Ke Kai began in 1979, is pleased and surprised by its growth.
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The Hawai'i Modular Space Na Wahine O Ke Kai will celebrate its silver anniversary on Sunday with the 25th crossing of the Kaiwi Channel. It is a 41-mile outrigger canoe race from Hale O Lono Harbor, Moloka'i, to Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Waikiki, for women only.
From humble beginnings in 1979, it is now considered the world championship long-distance canoe race for women.
"This race has become so successful because of the women," said race director Hannie Anderson. "The women have always wanted a chance to paddle and the numbers have just grown and grown over the years. I never imagined it would grow this fast."
Anderson should know. She has been a race official every year since the inaugural Na Wahine O Ke Kai.
That first race drew 14 entries. On Sunday, more than 65 crews are expected to race.
"It was a difficult process just to get it started," said Carleen Ornellas, who has also been on the race committee since 1979. "We were selling Portuguese sausage and T-shirts just to help raise money."
Ornellas was on the Onipa'a crew that crossed the Kaiwi Channel along with Healani Canoe Club in 1975. Those were the first two all-female crews to paddle from Moloka'i to O'ahu, and it started the process for Na Wahine O Ke Kai which translates to "women of the sea."
"After (1975), we knew it could be done," Ornellas said. "But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined that teams from Australia and California and all over the world were out there wanting to race in something like this."
The men's Moloka'i Hoe started in 1952, but women were not considered long-distance paddlers back then.
"The guys really thought it was too dangerous for us, and that we couldn't do it," Ornellas said. "So that was the challenge. Well, (in 1975) we took that challenge and made it. After that it was a matter of organizing an official race."
It did not come easy. For starters, the women wanted a race to call their own.
Rather than petitioning for a women's division in the Moloka'i Hoe, the women set out to create a separate event on a separate date.
Not coincidentally, the race committee was composed entirely of women.
"I think it was pretty important that it was a race for women, run by women," Ornellas said. "That way, we all understood what we were up against."
Through the years, there was one canceled race (in 1980, because of hazardous conditions), dozens of controversies, annual rule changes, and sponsors lost and found. Mostly, there was perseverance.
"Once we got it started, we knew we had to do whatever it took to keep it going," Anderson said. "That's why we've stuck together for so long."
Of the six current members on the race committee, four (Anderson, Ornellas, Haunani Olds and Shelly Gilman) have been volunteering for more than 20 years.
Today, Na Wahine O Ke Kai is recognized even outside of the paddling world.
Anderson likes to say that each Na Wahine O Ke Kai is special. With each new paddler comes a new addition to the sorority.
"The women's race is different from the men's," she said. "The women's race, there's more of a feeling of togetherness. It's like we're all doing it together."
As Outrigger veteran paddler Paula Crabb put it: "There are some teams that enter to win it and some that enter just to cross it. Either way, it's a special feeling to be a part of this race."
NOTE: JoJo Toeppner of OffShore Canoe Club from California will participate in her 25th Na Wahine O Ke Kai on Sunday. She is the only paddler to participate in every race since 1979.
Reach Dayton Morinaga at email@example.com or 535-8101.