Alohas, sisterhood and grit: the Queen Lili'uokalani Long Distance Canoe Race experience

Susan B. Barnes

Paddlers line up at the start of the Queen Lili'uokalani Long Distance Outrigger Canoe Races.

As the crews took their places at the starting line in Kailua Bay, a sense of excitement filled the air. Smiles stretched across their faces while a look of determination was in their furrowed brows.

Eyes looked out onto the horizon, focused on the 18-mile course that follows the rocky Kona, Hawaii, coastline. Overhead, the sun peeked through a hazy cloud cover, and the trade winds kicked up small swells.

The yellow caution flag gave way to the drop of a red starting flag, and they were off!

Over Labor Day weekend, 117 women's crews and 126 men's, for a total of more than 2,500 paddlers from around the world, came together to compete in the 2017 Queen Lili'uokalani Long Distance Outrigger Canoe Races, the world's largest in the sport. The race is hosted by the oldest canoe club on the Big Island, Kai 'Opua Canoe Club, founded in 1929.

Crews from as far as Australia, Japan, Singapore and the United Kingdom all represented, along with those from the continental U.S. and, of course, locals from Hawaii.

"They all come to paddle and race," said the club's president, Lawrence "Bo" Campos, during a chat before the race weekend began.

"All the aloha [pleasant greeting/goodwill] that is spread in this one event is everything. That's what makes this whole race," Campus added. "They're part of the ohana [part of the family]."

Now in its 45th year, the Queen Lili'uokalani races began in 1972 as a way for men to train for the long-distance canoe races from Molokai to Oahu. Eight men's crews participated in the first Queen Lili'uokalani race, approximately 14 to 15 miles from Kealakekua Bay to Kailua Bay.

Two years later, women got in on the action and used the Queen Lili'uokalani races to train for their own Molokai to Oahu race, the Na Wahine O Ke Kai. When women joined in 1974, the distance of the course grew to 18 miles, starting in Kailua Bay and finishing in Honaunau Bay. The race remained that way after that, with the women's crews paddling out first and the men's teams paddling from the back.

Charla Photography

Coach Mel Kelekolio digs in.

Today, a series of races are held throughout the weekend, including the signatures -- the women's, men's and mixed six-person Iron.

"We started as a local race with eight entries," said race director Mike Atwood. "In the late '70s, California crews started coming and had traveled to other events around the world, where they'd talk about our race.

"The races are competitive but a lot of fun. The emotional benefits are obvious -- the friendships you make."

Those friendships and relationships developed through paddling came up time and again when chatting with a few top women paddlers over the weekend.

Cheryl Villegas, a tall and lithe 54-year-old, began paddling when she was 30. "I was working at a restaurant downtown in Kona, and some of the coaches from local clubs came in and saw me and said, 'You need to paddle.' And that's how I got sucked into it," she said with a chuckle. "I needed that sisterhood."

Over the course of her nearly 25-year paddling career, Villegas has coached other female paddlers for at least half of that time.

"Paddling has afforded me travel, amazing friends, health, and I wanted to give back to my club and share that with other women," Villegas said. "I coached women who were 72 years old, girls who can start as early as 9, and families can paddle together in the series of canoe races."

"Paddling is a lifetime sport," added Amy Young, 61, who has lived on the Big Island for 27 years and has been paddling for over two decades. "There are amazing women in our seniors' group. They're phenomenal."

Like Villegas, Young had coaching experience with the women's program at Kai 'Opua in 2007.

"The bonds that they develop as first-year paddlers, it's amazing to watch. They've got each other's backs right away because they're figuring it out," Young explained about novice paddlers. "You can just see that they love paddling right away. It's a life-changer for most women.

Susan B. Barnes

Participants cheer on fellow paddlers in Kailua Bay.

"Paddling is the ultimate team sport. [The crew] should have identical techniques, because that's how the canoe runs the best. The stroke -- inhaling, exhaling and breathing -- should happen at the same time. You're doing everything the same way, at the same time. And you can feel it.

"Once you start paddling, you can't stop. I love everything about it. We chat as we put the canoes out and connect with friends. Paddling is a social network. And just being on the ocean here is wonderful."

Current Kai 'Opua's women's coach Melanie "Mel" Kelekolio, 50, was born and raised on the Big Island, and her love of paddling came naturally -- her dad was the head coach of the Keoua Honaunau Canoe Club, and she started paddling when she was 7.

Before being asked to coach the women's crews last year, Kelekolio coached the club's teen girls for seven years.

"Watching their eyes light up and watching them transform throughout the season," Kelekolio said with a seemingly ever-present smile, "it's my kuleana [responsibility] to teach them to treat each other with respect, to respect the canoes and to respect everyone around them."

Kelekolio also talked about the fact that paddling with a club crew is a huge commitment.

"The reality for a lot of women is that the commitment is a burden. You commit to the sport and all of the women," she explained. "If you don't show up [to practice], you let five others down. It's not just about you."

That commitment is something that Kelekolio knows well. Since she's coaching the women's team, she's often unable to do her individual practice. She fits her own time in at 6 a.m. before going into work. After hours, she runs the crews through their workouts during evening practices and often goes back to work "to get things done."

Susan B. Barnes

The Kawaihae Canoe Club finished strong.

Part of Kelekolio's coaching duties is to ensure that all of that hard work pays off. She does her best to put everyone who wants to race in a canoe -- even if that means sitting out herself, as she wound up doing for this year's races.

"They work hard for their club. It's not about me, it's about everyone else," Kelekolio said.

Before the Queen Lili'uokalani races began, Kelekolio contemplated her life without paddling.

"No," she said without a moment's hesitation. "I can never stay away. I can't see myself away from it."

Villegas explained that "padding with my sisters" was what she was most looking forward to over the course of the race weekend, 

After the starting flag dropped, for the most part, smiles disappeared from faces and the look of sheer determination set in. For the next two or so hours, the women paddled through the swells, against the trade winds and under the warming sun. Directives were heard faintly over the motors of race official boats that monitored crews' progress. There wasn't any weakening or any giving up from the crews in the lead yearning to win, to those at the very back hoping to simply finish.

Just as their canoes passed over that line, however, everything changed. The smiles were back, perhaps a bit exhausted, as the crews shared congratulatory high fives and hugs.

The aloha was back, too.

Susan B. Barnes (travlin' girl) is a freelance travel journalist whose bags are always packed and ready for her next adventure.

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