Connecting the Bumps

Racing the Wind in a Modern-Day Outrigger Canoe

May 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

CENTURIES BEFORE COLUMBUS MADE his little transatlantic trip, Polynesian wayfarers were crisscrossing vast stretches of the Pacific in their great voyaging canoes, guided only by their ancestral knowledge of the stars, winds, and waves. So I can't help but feel a certain sense of tradition blowing in the breeze as we chase gust lines in Matt Buckman's 45-foot fiberglass Hawaiian sailing canoe. Two outriggers, connected by a trampoline, balance the narrow hull as it slices through a light chop just outside the breakers fronting Waikiki's skyline and the serrated Ko'olau Mountains. At 75 degrees, it's a wintry day by Honolulu standards, and the spray blowing back from the outriggers forces Matt, me, and his two canoe-racing buddies to pull on light wetsuit tops.

Canoe sailing is the long-lost cousin of outrigger paddling, the state sport of Hawaii, and uses similar boats outfitted with triangular, lateen-rigged sails. Over the last decade, Buckman and a hard-core group of sailors have been reviving the sport, competing about a dozen times a year in interisland races. On off days, he extends his passion to anyone who wants to climb aboard and hang on for dear life.
A haole (non-native) in his late thirties and raised on Oahu, Buckman has a waterman's permanent weathered tan and will go to any length to keep his boat floating. His seat-of-the-surf-shorts exploits are notorious among fellow sailors. Once, after flipping a canoe during a race and breaking a key piece of equipment, Matt and crew were towed to shore, where he cockroached screws from a rental van to patch the broken fitting. Certified sailing canoes made for racing run about $17,000—likely the reason there are only 15 in the islands.

Buckman handles the sheet with casual ease, occasionally tossing a steering order back to Leimomi (Momi) Kekina, a compact Hawaiian woman who teaches canoe sailing at a local community college and usually races against Matt. "Steering with a paddle is the essence of what makes a canoe a canoe," Matt observes as he watches Momi deftly work an oversize steering paddle to surf the swells and catch the gusts. "Connecting the bumps," she calls it.

We skim along in a 20-knot wind, flying one ama (outrigger) catamaran-style over the turquoise water, and I scoot out on the canoe's broad trampoline to provide counterweight. The boat tucks into the face of a breaking wave as easily as it rips through the reef shallows off the Ala Wai Marina, taking full advantage of the canoe's eight-inch draft. "You won't find too many 45-foot boats that can do this," Matt says with pride. It's a sleek, strong work of art that tacks well as we zigzag back up the coast toward the postcard profile of Diamond Head. Safely moored back at the Outrigger Canoe Club it looks like a nimble water bug—all legs and long thorax.

Once we're settled into a beachside bar and sipping margaritas, I ask Momi what sailing these historic boats means to her. "When I'm out there on the ocean, I feel a sense of spiritual freedom," she says. "It's like my ancestors are right there with me, showing me what to do."

"What do they tell you?" I inquire.

"To go for it!"

"We have a saying," Matt adds. "Wherever there are two canoes together, it's a race."