story by Catharine Lo
photo by Dana Edmunds
For many an outrigger canoe paddler, muscling across the rough Kaiwi Channel in a 400-pound, six-man boat might be what the Tour de France is to a cyclist: the feat of a lifetime. But for legendary paddler Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon, the 41-mile journey from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu is more like a joyride in the park. The 66-year-old founder of Anuenue Canoe Club was 17 when he entered his first Moloka‘i Hoe, Hawai‘i’s most challenging open-ocean race. This year marks his 50th consecutive channel race.
Of course, some of the crossings are more memorable than others. There was the exhilaration of Nappy’s first race—and win—in 1958. Back then, only eight boats competed (more than 100 participate today). Flatbed trucks hauled the canoes through the dusty pineapple fields to Kawakiu, where what seemed like the entire population of Moloka‘i gathered for the ceremonious send-off. Nappy fondly remembers those early years—the feasts of venison and poi, canoe club skits and festivities lasting into the early morning while the paddlers slept beside their canoes.
Then there was the harrowing 1966 race in which 15- to 20-foot swells kept half the crews from finishing, splintering the koa canoes and thrice capsizing Nappy’s boat. That year, famed beach boy Rabbit Kekai steered Nappy’s crew to victory, an honor Nappy himself would later enjoy in 1969, 1972 and 1973. There was the solemn 1996 race, during which the Anuenue crew scattered the ashes of beloved steersman and Nappy’s mentor, “Blue” Makua, by the cliffs of Koko Head.
But perhaps his most memorable will take place this Oct. 7, Nappy’s “golden” crossing, which he’ll undertake with a dream crew: his five sons and three grandsons.
Although this year marks his 50th channel race, Nappy has frequently made the trip in a one- or two-man canoe; he estimates he’s made the crossing more than eighty times. How does he remain so indefatigable? Perhaps it’s the lifetime of paddling he’s shared with Anona, his wife of forty-three years. Perhaps it’s his devotion to perpetuating the sport’s cultural tradition (he says he still cries when he hears that non-Hawaiians have won the race). Perhaps it’s his intuitive understanding of how to use the paddle as a lever and let the ocean provide the power.
Nappy will tell you that the paddling part is easy. “To paddle, it’s no big deal,” he says. “To win is hard.” Maybe that challenge is what really keeps the veteran steersman going after all these years: “I still feel like I can win.”