Ko'olina Resort's Hale Magazine

11 DEC 2018

Leeward Kai Canoe Club: The Wa‘a Speaks




Me‘e means “hero” in Hawaiian. Thirty-four years ago, I was given this name by Henry “Baldy” Van Gieson after being sculpted out of a koa tree. Since my creation, however, I’ve become convinced that the real heroes are not wa‘a (canoes) like myself but rather their caretakers. My caretakers are the paddlers of Leeward Kai Canoe Club. Their meticulous hands put together my intricate rigging before every regatta and remove every grain of sea salt from my hull after. They’ve also given me Nānākuli Beach, which contains some of the purest sand and clearest waters in all of Hawai‘i, to call ku‘u home (my home).

The annual Father’s Day Regatta that takes place here is hosted by my caretakers, as it has been since 1968. Today, June 17, is the 50th year of the event. Many paddlers and wa‘a arrive beforehand, spreading mo‘olelo (stories) and laughter along the shore. I relish their recollections of memorable races, which they occasionally pause to greet paddlers from other clubs who are passing by. Although the camaraderie continues, today, we’ll be competing against each other in outrigger canoe races, as our Hawaiian ancestors did.

Leeward Kai Canoe Club was founded by “Baldy” and his wife, Edith Van Gieson, or “Auntie Edie,” in 1967. Many of the youth who regularly swam in the waters of Nānākuli joined the club out of curiosity, never having seen six people navigate a sleek vessel with such athleticism. As Auntie Edie hoped, paddling offered community and direction to those coming from less fortunate situations. Many would later become parents, their children tagging along to practices and regattas until they could compete. In the early years, the greatest concern was not being able to maintain a club status, since they only had 20 paddlers. Now, there are more keiki paddlers than seats for them to race in.

I feel the children surround me now, their hands resting on my manu ihu (nose), manu hope (tail), mo‘o (gunnel), and ‘iako (outrigger boom). I sense the youthful anticipation in their fingers; they are likely nervous about their races, which are earlier in the day. But their touch is gentle, and many of the older ones are trying to communicate with me, all asking in their own ways that I do my best today. The elder paddlers have taught them well to treat me as an equal, if not more important, teammate. Treat your wa‘a well, and your wa‘a will treat you well. As we continue to work together, they will better understand my mannerisms, learning to adopt the slower stroke rate with which I perform best and holding the une (lever) longer in turns.

Al Van Gieson’s steersman voice brings me out of my reveries, as it does the young paddlers. At 37 years old, Al Van Gieson, the grandson of Baldy and Auntie Edie, has become the caretaker of Leeward Kai Canoe Club. When his face breaks into a smile, as it frequently does without warning, I still see the kolohe (rascal) kid who used to be scolded for climbing over the wa‘a. But since then, I’ve watched him grow into becoming the club’s head coach. He certainly knows how to inspire and encourage the keiki paddlers. Al always gives the last word before the start of the race and the first high-fives after its finish.

It’s time to begin the opening ceremony. A thousand eyes rest on me as I’m carried down the shore, about to be the first wa‘a in the water. The opening ceremonies of other regattas usually don’t include a paddle-out, so I feel honored to be in ours. My caretakers gradually disperse as I get further out into the water until only six are left, Al included, to take their seats. The feeling of isolation grows as we leave behind the hum of the beach, only the rhythmic sound of paddles entering and exiting the water remaining. We’re approaching the sacred place where Baldy rests, and I feel as if I’m going to meet an old friend. I can almost hear him say, “Aloha, Me‘e. Long time, ah?”

As the paddlers wind off and I begin to sway gently, the atmosphere becomes rife with spiritual presence. I hear Al and his crew try to steady their breathing. I sense my caretakers on the shore calm their eager spirits. I perceive Auntie Edie searching for me in the distance. And all at once, I feel a hundred prayers being channeled through me into the ocean depths below.

For those interested in paddling and joining Leeward Kai Canoe Club, email