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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Canoe paddlers make Nihoa crossing

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

A team of outrigger canoe paddlers made a historic 160-mile crossing from Kaua'i to Nihoa last week after 27 hours of straight paddling.

It was the first known paddling passage between the two — Kaua'i, the northernmost of the main Hawaiian Islands, and Nihoa the southernmost of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Last year, the voyaging canoe Hokule'a became the first Hawaiian sailing canoe in more than a century to cross the same channel.

In last week's crossing, 14 crew members alternated paddling a six-seat canoe from Hanalei Pier on Kaua'i from dawn Thursday through the night and into the dawn, until 10:30 a.m. Friday, when they stopped in the lee of Nihoa's western cliffs. The paddlers were accompanied by an escort boat.

"We decided that the best description for Nihoa — it's like a cathedral, with the two spires at the sides and the saddle in between," said paddler Pepe Trask.

Veteran paddler Donna Kahakui said the island had a magical look as she approached it: "After dawn, aiming straight for it, it looked like a castle. Like a rock castle."

Kahakui, who steered one of the crews during the event, said the overnight paddling and the arrival at the remote bird sanctuary island gave her a sense of connection with the past.

"We were definitely supported by our ancestors," she said.

Kahakui makes long-distance canoe passages by herself to highlight ocean conservation issues. She said this trip was a reminder to her "that our ancestors took care of our resources, and we're not taking care of our resources."

The Kaua'i-Nihoa paddling effort was part of the vision of Kimokeo "Bully" Kapahulehua, a Ni'ihau native who is a coach for the Kihei Canoe Club on Maui. His crews have paddled most of the Hawaiian interisland channels. The Nihoa passage was by far the longest to date.

Nihoa is a roughly rectangular rocky island about a half-mile from east to west and a quarter-mile from north to south. Its west, north and east faces are dominated by sheer cliffs. Several shallow valleys rise from its southern shore.

The seas had what Trask called a "squirrelly swell," although Kahakui said the canoe had several nice surfing rides.

Waves occasionally swept over the canoe. On one occasion, at about 2 a.m., confused steersmen began heading back for Kaua'i before the escort boat caught up with them and turned them around.

Kahakui said it was difficult to get used to paddling over waters that appeared black in the moonlight. It also took a while for the paddlers, representing several different canoeing traditions and different islands, to blend.

"We were a bunch of strangers who came together, and you found the six have to move as one. You have to be one as family," Kahakui said.

Trask said the sky was mostly clouded over. "You could see pockets of stars here and there," he said.

"It was the first time in my life that I've ever seen a full moon rainbow," Kahakui said.

About 100 spinner dolphins surrounded the boat in the middle of the night, encouraging paddlers, Trask and Kahakui said.

The paddlers used a Bradley six-man racing canoe, the Kane, owned by Kaiola Canoe Club on Kaua'i.

Trask said crew members discussed forming an organization to support long-distance canoe paddling. The next major passage might be from Kaua'i to the island beyond Nihoa, Mokumanamana, a distance of nearly 340 miles. At the 5.8-hour pace the crews kept for the Nihoa trip, that would take a little less than 60 hours or 2 1/2 days.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.