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Hawai‘i's elder paddlers bring experience and wisdom to the canoe and rip it up on the water
Vol. 10, No. 3
June / July 2007

  >>   La Belle Vie
  >>   After 10
  >>   Love Among the Ruins

Master Strokes 

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Dana Edmunds


For those who consider ocean-going a religion, early morning is the ideal time to float out and pray. The sea’s surface is glass; its texture is silky. A crew of bronzed paddlers in a six-man outrigger canoe appears as a moving speck on the horizon. On Sundays, the Pacific is their church, and services start at dawn.

Returning to Hale‘iwa from their weekly excursion to Waimea Bay, they turn the corner at Pua‘ena Point. The steersman plies the water with the wide, wooden blade and angles toward the shore. The paddlers stroke in unison, dipping their paddles into the water simultaneously, reaching and twisting in model form. They find their glide, and the canoe gains wings.

When the boat touches sand, the paddlers exchange high-fives. They step out of the boat, their wise eyes and weathered faces revealing that experience is what made it look so effortless—they’re all over 55, and they’ve been paddling together for years. It’s no wonder, then, that these seniors are better known as Masters.

After a shower, steersman Randy Sanborn sits at a picnic table for breakfast—shoyu poke—and indulges in what makes Sunday morning easy, as it should be—talking, eating and laughing with his crew. “Uncle Randy” is the head coach
of Manu O Ke Kai outrigger canoe club, based in the country town of Hale‘iwa; he co-founded the club in 1984. Ever since, he’s been as much a fixture at this beach as the coconut trees he planted here, which now tower twenty feet overhead.

“This area was rubbish all the way to the water,” he recalls. “We cleaned it up. We got the seedlings from Kawela Bay.” He points from one tree to the next, naming fellow paddlers, past and present. “This is Blue Makua’s. This is Longhi’s. Uncle Joker’s there. Mine’s the one in the back.”

Now 70, Uncle Randy started paddling at 42. There aren’t many sports (especially strenuous ones) that people pick up after 40, but outrigger canoe paddling is one of them. In formal competition, elders like Uncle Randy are classified as Masters,
a category further divided into four groups: Masters (40 and over), Senior Masters (45 and over), Golden Masters (55 and over) and Platinum Masters (60 and over).

Manu O Ke Kai has come a long way since it had to borrow money to buy its first two canoes twenty-three years ago. Their first race was at Kahana Bay, the crew a motley mix of parents whose kids played football together. “We get in the canoe, and we look at all the other guys—all old guys—‘Oh, we’re going to kick their butts!’” Sanborn thought. But the best kind of justice is often the poetic kind. “At the end of the race, everybody else’s canoes were already on the beach, and we were still coming in.”

Stung by the thumping, they trained. Little by little they improved until, at the end of the year, they won the championship race. Over the decades that followed, Uncle Randy built the reputation of his Masters crews to heights greater than the big North Shore waves he’s been known to canoe-surf. In 2006, the Golden Masters women were undefeated, and the Golden Masters men placed first or second in every regatta.