Out in the Kaiwi Channel, which slices between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Molokai, the sea can be disarmingly benign. But when the channel is lashed by the northeast trade winds, the reach transforms into a tide-wracked witch's brew of immense swells and foaming crests. It was through these waters that the islands' first Polynesian settlers steered their outrigger canoes more than 1,200 years ago. And it is along this same stretch of unpredictable currents that a grueling 40-mile race known as the Molokai Challenge serves as the epicenter of an endurance sport whose appeal is rippling far beyond its Pacific Rim origins to places as diverse as Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, Sweden, and Hong Kong. "Outrigger canoe racing is really going around the globe now," says Walter Guild, 43, a leading paddler who races for Oahu's Outrigger Canoe Club. "The basic design of these boats is thousands of years old, and they give people who are used to cold water and to rowing backwards a whole new perspective on paddling."
Although outrigger racing is divided into two phases that call on different skills—a June-to-October six-man season and a January-to-May solo season—elite paddlers tend to move seamlessly between the two categories and race all year long. This month marks the start of the Poa'i Puni Series of nine coastal races leading up to May's solo Molokai Challenge, which will determine the new millennium's first solo outrigger world champion.
A traditional six-man outrigger is a 43-foot dugout canoe fashioned from koa wood and connected to an ama, a V-shaped float with built-in rocker, which greatly increases the craft's stability and its capacity to carry cargo across the open ocean. Guided by star-based navigation, these vessels were instrumental in the dispersal of Polynesian culture throughout the Pacific, as well as a source of entertainment for Hawaiian royalty. The first European explorers in the Pacific encountered outrigger racing everywhere from Tonga to Tahiti, but most of all in Hawaii, where enthusiastic gamblers staked property and possessions on the outcome (a practice that prompted Christian missionaries to ban the sport in 1820). It was not until 1908 that modern six-man racing began in earnest, with the establishment of the Outrigger Canoe Club on Oahu. Organized solo racing is a much more recent development, having been launched only about ten years ago.
Today, outrigger clubs can be found throughout the Pacific: There are 102 in Hawaii and more than 50 in Australia. In Tahiti, the sport is practically a national religion. Inter-island rivalries are fierce, and paddling teams sponsored by local governments or businesses vie for purses in excess of $100,000. On the burgeoning international circuit, teams from as far afield as Hungary and Japan vie against the Pacific's finest paddlers in the Molokai Challenge and Tahiti's Hawaiki Nui Va'a race, in which teams race on three consecutive days, paddling across the 80-mile stretch of ocean from Huahine to Bora Bora. This July, when the world's finest paddlers convene for their sport's debut in Biarritz, France, outrigger proponents are predicting that the sport will spread through Europe.