story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa
Donna Kahiwa Kahakui stands at the edge of a long dock that extends into the still waters of Kane‘ohe Bay; behind her stand the sheer green cliffs of the Ko‘olau. Kahakui blends comfortably into the natural scene in her khakis and brown tank top, her long hair tucked beneath her cap. Sunglasses shield her eyes from the early morning light as she gazes across the bay with her chin up and her shoulders back, casting a silhouette that is strong and confident. She is surrounded on three sides by the sea—a place where she is entirely at home. For the past decade, the 44-year-old paddler has embraced the ocean in a way that few humans can imagine. She has defied the limits of solo outrigger canoe paddling, completing a series of record-breaking distance paddles and traversing each of Hawai‘i’s inter-island channels. She has paddled to promote ocean conservation and taken her message to Manhattan, Tahiti, Aotearoa, Rapa Nui, Canada, France and beyond.
“People ask me, ‘Where do you come from?’ I come from the ocean,” Kahakui says matter-of-factly. She mentions the Kumulipo, the seminal Hawaiian creation chant. “What is the first animal named in the Kumulipo? It’s the polyps that make the coral. We come from the polyps, and therefore we come from the sea. The ocean is my best friend.”
She bends down to open her palm to the water. “And like any relationship,” she continues, “you have to pay attention. We’ve lost the ability to pay attention to simple things. Which way is the water moving? Which way is the wind blowing?”
She pauses and lets the water and wind answer her questions.