Climate Change Is Sabotaging the World’s Most Dangerous Canoe Race
Hurricanes, erosion, and hot, windless doldrums threaten to upend one of Hawaii’s most revered athletic events
Only three canoes dared to put in for the first Molokaʻi Hoe in 1952. The race was not yet the spectacle it would become more than 50 years later. It’s the Super Bowl of canoe paddling and a staple of the Hawaiian sports scene in which over 1,000 participants from across the planet compete in the more than 40-mile race from Molokai to Oahu. But the Molokaʻi Hoe — pronounced ho-eh, so that it almost rhymes with “boy” — has always been extremely dangerous. The treacherous Kaʻiwi Channel has been locally infamous for a lot longer than the Hoe has been internationally famous. Kaʻiwi translates to “the bone,” a reference to the collection of human remains strewn across its depths. Just a few miles down the coast from the Molokaʻi Hoe’s finish line, corpses of fishermen and sailors regularly washed ashore from Kaʻiwi’s torrents.
The channel’s most well-known casualty was big wave surf pioneer Eddie Aikau, who in 1978 disappeared there when his double-hulled canoe capsized. But Hawaiians have always been well aware of Kaʻiwi’s dangers. A traditional legend, translated in 1902 as “The Wind Gourd of Laʻamaomao,” described the channel like this:
The winds will turn before you and find you.
You’ll be overwhelmed.
The winds will gather.
The leaves will bend.
You’ll be swept ashore,
caught in a fishing net.
Your thigh bone and upper-arm bone
will be made into fishhooks.
Your flesh will be without bones.
The black crab and the shearwater will eat your remains.
The life from your parents will be broken off.
Listen to my life-giving words:
A storm is coming.
When you sailed yesterday, it was calm.
The legend speaks to the unpredictable and wildly variable conditions in the channel, where violent wind and rain can materialize in minutes. Completing the Molokaʻi Hoe is a man-versus-nature feat that has inspired risk-taking athletes for centuries; it also imbues the race with special local heroism, the bravery that inspired ancient Polynesians to explore their vast oceanic horizons thousands of years ago. The Hoe is no less daunting in 2019, but it has also…