If canoes could talk!
A history of Keoua Honaunau Canoe Club
by Jean Cluff
For centuries, the canoe was the fastest method of travel. Other options included walking, running, or swimming. The canoe delivered people, food, water, and communication. Today, it is jet airplanes, cars and the Internet. Which would you prefer?
Some say that long ago, the strongest paddlers of the Honaunau Coast were the fisherman. Today, motors power fishing boats. Back then, the fisherman’s muscles transferred force to paddles to power their fishing canoes. Paddling a fishing canoe out to the depths of the sea was physically demanding. Paddling back, with a canoe full of fish was brutal.
If canoes could talk! They could tell us our history: from the men in the forest looking up with a vision to drifting in ocean currents over massive areas of our globe.
Keoua Honaunau Canoe Club’s ‘ohana history comes primarily from people’s memories. So, picture yourself sitting at the halau overlooking Honaunau Bay, listening to stories.
In the 1930s, there was a well-known canoe club in Honaunau. Julian Yates was the coach. Some of the paddlers were county workers who maintained the pathway and land between Honaunau and Ho’okena. It’s rumored that Yates, a fierce taskmaster, encouraged the workers, “you work hard, come lunch you can paddle and get paid.” They were unbeatable! Some of the people on that paddling team were: Abe Kalihi, Ben Kekuewa, Eli Carter, George Keli’i, Eugene Gaspar, Charlie Hua, family names of generations past that still reside in South Kona.
These paddlers were raised respecting their relationship with the ocean and their canoes. A pule, guarding, guiding, warning and blessing accompanied everything they did.
On August 9, 1952, the HCRSA (Hawaiian Canoe Racing and Surfing Association) welcomed the First Annual Julian R. Yates Hawaiian Canoe Racing Championships at Kailua Bay, Kona. An official program from that event provides some interesting paddling history:
In 1934, in Kailua Bay, some 20,000 spectators watched a Kailua-Kona Canoe Club defeat all comers.
In 1935, “Julian Yates’ persistent coaching of Honaunau’s great collection of canoe crews, paid off with Honaunau winning six of eight races.”
In 1936, the races were in Honolulu Harbor. Honaunau won the regatta with the most team points, winning seven out of nine races. The little club from Honaunau dominated on Oahu. I was told that in the 1936 winning crew, a woman, Adeline Kaneau, steered the canoe to victory.
During the 1960s on Hawai‘i Island, there were three clubs: Kawaihae, Waiakea (now Kamehameha) and Kai O Pua. Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau was established as a National Park.
This quiet period for canoe racing for Honaunau Bay came to an end in the early 1970s. Hale o Ho‘oponopono came into being, an alternative school that included Hawaiian language, history and cultural awareness. Uncle Moses and Auntie Lily were the house parents, advisers and friends to students. They took the kids fishing, ‘opihi picking, taught canoe maintenance, paddling and halau upkeep. Whatever needed to be done at Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau was a part of their curriculum.
Hale O Ho‘oponopono staff members Boots Mathews, Dixon Enos, Joe Tassel, Andrew Coito and others, along with enthusiastic community members, formed Keoua Canoe Club as a vehicle for the school’s students and the community to participate in Moku O Hawai‘i races. The legendary Tutu Clara, a beloved kupuna of Honaunau, was a guiding force in these early days of the club.
Rafael Ramirez (a Keoua member for more than 30 years) remembers Tutu Clara in her big papale, gathering everyone around our two fiberglass canoes, Keoua and Ka‘ahumanu, on the beach in Hilo, before the regatta begins . . . holding hands . . .pule kakou!
Keoua Canoe Club had acquired Keoua and Ka‘ahumanu in the early 1970s when Hawaii County bought and gave to Moku O Hawai‘i ten Malia fiberglass canoes for distribution to Hawaii Island clubs. At that time, koa canoes were only used at State Championships. Very few clubs had a koa canoe. Those who did not have one received plenty kokua from other clubs who would make a koa canoe available for that day. By 1980, all regattas had to be raced in koa.
In the mid 1970s, Uncle John DeGuair and Calvin Kelekolio both coached Keoua. Their right hand helper, usually with guitar or paddle in hand, was Uncle John’s son, Kaipo.
In 1980, for one challenging paddle season, Keoua Canoe Club moved its home base to Napo‘opo‘o. In 1983, through the efforts of Uncle Louie Kahanamoku and the woodworking skill of some chosen Tahitians, six koa canoes were carved, one of which became Keoua’s beloved Honaunau.
Starting from a tree in the forest, and becoming a canoe of the sea, their labor of love settled with our club.
Calvin died in 1986, while devoting his efforts to preparing for our club’s Tutu Clara regatta. His passing literally took place in the act of serving Keoua canoe club. His efforts will never be forgotten.
After Calvin’s death, Keoua created a long distance race in his honor. To this day, Calvin’s Race is recognized as one of the most popular and challenging of all long distance canoe races on Hawai‘i Island, and is equally known for its delicious and unique luau served afterward.
At the time of his passing, Calvin had been carving a koa perpetual trophy for the Tutu Clara Regatta, hosted by Keoua. In honor of fulfilling Calvin’s efforts, a group of men stepped forward. In four 24-hour days, Dave Kermott, Kawika Spaulding, Mike from Ka‘u and James Siu finished the carving, in time to be presented at the regatta. The trophy now resides in the lobby of the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook.
Kurtis Yamauchi became head coach the season before Calvin’s death, with Calvin as advisor/mentor. He has served as coach for almost a score. Kurtis is a master woodworker and canoe maker and has shared his skills with us on all levels. Kurtis is a world class steersman. There is no steersman who knows Honaunau’s coastal shoreline, currents and particulars as well as he does. Jacque Wikum held the coaching position in 1997 while Kurtis rebuilt the koa canoe Ka’ahumanu, which was severely damaged in a Molokai world championship channel race.
To this day, as we depart Honaunau boat ramp, and as we paddle over sacred Honaunau waters, we feel the presence of kupuna, ancestors, spirits, warriors and the ancestors of our ancestors watching, blessing our efforts, looking after us. The spirit of their presence should remain with every paddler. Our canoe is a vehicle to teach us how to remain strong, rely on each other, respect the ocean and perpetuate paddling, a valued and important aspect of Hawaiian culture.
Kaipo DeGuair would respectfully say, “Look at the canoe, you see six seats, but within, there are seven spirits. There are six paddlers’ spirits, and one powerful spirit of the canoe. This canoe spirit protects and guides the paddler spirits safely through our beautiful waters.” That is why, when the canoe and its paddlers return from the ocean, all within the canoe, stack hands upon the canoe and give a quick cheer of praise and mahalo. This shows our respect to the canoe for guiding us all safely back to shore.
If canoes could talk!