Hawaii Gung-Ho

The Pacific Rim's most explosive endurance sport combines speed, pain, and ancient tradition

Jan 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Six-man canoes remain outrigger racing's cultural anchor—an aspect of Hawaiian tradition that is refreshingly unsullied by tourism or kitschy commercialization. Most clubs build their rituals around a classic koa dugout that is maintained by club members across generations and blessed with holy water sprinkled from tea leaves whenever it is lowered into the sea. "The outrigger canoe is so beautiful in its natural environment," says Karel Tresnak, a boatbuilder who moved to Hawaii from Czechoslovakia in 1986. "It's got so much of Hawaii and its heritage in its heart." There's nothing subtle or delicate, however, about driving the 43-foot, 400-pound craft through the ocean at speeds of up to ten knots—an enterprise that is so exhausting that teams rotate three substitutes during distance races like the Molokai. Spent paddlers roll over the side as the canoe bears down on rested paddlers who have been positioned in the open ocean by an escort boat. As the canoe sweeps by, the new paddlers seize hold, clamber aboard, and pick up the stroke.

"It's an adrenaline rush, for sure," says Mike Field, who steers for the Waikiki Beach Boys six-man, which struggled to a sixth-place finish in this year's Molokai after Field's paddle disintegrated under the force of his stroke. "You're absolutely cooking and counting the minutes until the escort boat drops fresh paddlers." The speed and skill of a crew's "changeovers" often determine who wins and who loses—except in the case of something called an "iron crossing," in which there are no replacements. "When you're doing it iron, you're pushing your body to its maximum," says Todd Bradley, an Oahu-based racer who has been paddling for 30 years. "It's the traditional way to race—no substitutions."

In contrast, solo outrigger canoeing is all about the freedom to train and race alone, while surfing a 21-foot, 25-pound carbon-fiber torpedo from wave to wave. A moment of carelessness, like getting caught too close to a reef by a breaking wave, can huli, or flip, the canoe—or worse, break it in two. (A top-of-the-line solo craft goes for $3,000.) To win, racers have to develop an almost mystical ability to discern and then ride powerful ocean swells. "It's like a big mogul run and you are trying to connect the bumps and having a blast," explains Dale Hope, a paddling fanatic who is writing a history of the aloha shirt in his spare time. "Spray is in your face, you are dropping into waves almost weightless, hoping your rudder is hanging in there, and wondering if you're going to pull it all off."

Learning to tame the big ocean can take years, and consequently many of the best solo racers are in their thirties and forties. But one of the sport's emerging stars is Karel Tresnak Jr., whose boatbuilder father produces some 200 to 250 high-tech one-man racing canoes a year. For the past two years,Tresnak has been enduring a special weekly training regimen involving 18 hours of paddling, weight lifting, cross-training, and heart-rate and lactate-threshold monitoring designed by his father, who was an Olympic whitewater slalom canoeist for Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Last summer Karel Jr. won the Molokai in four hours and 17 minutes, a full seven minutes ahead of Mark Rigg, his closest competitor, who was reduced to vomiting over the side of his craft. In some ways, Tresnak's trajectory into the limelight seems to mirror that of the sport itself. "We all looked at Karel and wondered how this skinny little kid was hanging in there with us," recalls Walter Guild. "Then last season, he just lit it up."


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