Wa’alele History

by Mollie Foti

Wa’alele’s story begins in the mid 1970’s with two friends, Phil Foti and Jim Mooney, sitting on Lanikai Beach deciding to go in together and buy their own canoe because they couldn’t make time to paddle with Lanikai’s mens crews. They ordered a Malia mold boat, the only fiberglass canoe available at that time. Kenny Olds Sr. gave the canoe a home in front of his beach house and he also gave it a name, Wa’alele, meaning flying or leaping canoe.

In the 1970’s outrigger paddlers were all young. There were no masters’ crews and few men or women over 40 paddled. Canoes weren’t available for recreational paddling. When the racing season was over, clubs put their boats away until the next spring. In July of 1976 Wa’alele was launched, changing all that. She was on Lanikai beach 12 months of the year and a whole new group of paddlers had access to the sport.

Ohana o Wa’alele started slowly: one crew of men out practicing in the early morning or late in the evening. A group of moms whose children were Lanikai paddlers took their turn after the kids were off in school. It wasn’t long before the men decided that they needed to compete and they settled on the Duke Kahanamoku long distance race as their first attempt. They did pretty well and advanced to the Queen Liliuokalani in Kona. The year was 1977. There were a lot of logistics involved in racing on another island but magically it all evolved and the Wa’alele became a real racing canoe.

Through the coconut wireless news of this unusual Windward paddling group came to Toots Minvielle’s attention. Toots was a veteran paddler from Duke Kahanamoku’s orbit and he was a man of big ideas. It was Toots who brought outrigger canoe paddling to the mainland and he was the driving force that conceived of and brought the first Molokai to Oahu race to fruition, despite being told it couldn’t be done. Toots had another idea and he had been looking for a club to help make it happen. 1978 would mark the 200th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the Hawaiian Islands. Why not, he thought, commemorate this event by sending a Hawaiian outrigger canoe to cross the English Channel from Calais to Dover in a reverse discovery of England? No canoe club was interested in this crazy stunt so he approached the Wa’alele group. The answer was a resounding, Yes we’ll do it!

Now if the logistics of sending a canoe to Kona were difficult, imagine the effort required to send one to Calais, France, and then find some Englishmen willing to help them once they paddled to Dover, all before the internet, email, cell phones, even faxes, but we had a year to work on it. Toots had contacts and resources which he put to work, sending out feelers to the media and business community. The Honolulu Advertiser responded positively, figuring that sending a Hawaiian canoe to England was just the right splashy event to make interesting news, so they agreed to sponsor Wa’alele and its crew. The next months were a whirlwind, making contacts in England and France, exploring ways to ship a canoe half way around the world, figuring out how to pay for it and then replace Wa’alele with another canoe at home in Hawaii.

The crossing occurred in June of 1978 and was an enormous success. In exchange for British help once we reached Dover, Wa’alele was shipped to Captain Cook’s birthplace in Northern England as a donation to the new Cook museum, where she proudly sat at the entrance for many years until a group of English paddlers captured her with the aim of putting her back in the water to use for training in Hawaiian paddling techniques. We learned that she was cloned as a mold to make other canoes, went to Germany in a demonstration project, paddled across the Irish Channel and again across the English Channel. Some of those paddlers even came to Hawaii to race in the Molokai Hoe.

At home in Lanikai, Wa’alele II sat on the beach waiting for all the paddlers who would make her part of their lives in coming years. Fast forward 44 years to 2022 and Wa’alele is still on Lanikai Beach, still going out multiple times a day, bringing joy to all the members of her ohana. Her racing days are long past but she has been part of many adventures and participated in weddings (once featured in a double page spread in the Martha Stewart magazine) and funerals. During a fierce stormy night some 30 years ago she “ran away”. The high tide set her adrift and the north wind propelled her down the coast as far as Makapuu where she was finally spotted passing Rabbit Island, heading for Molokai. That was when we moved her from Kenny Olds’ ocean front to her current location. Naughty canoe!

Our hope is that she will continue to be a pleasure to recreational paddlers and with a lot of love and care, stay afloat for many more years.

Outside Captain Cook Birthplace Museum 1979

History of the Malia Canoe

The original Malia canoe was made from a koa (a tropical hardwood) log that was felled in 1933. The carver was James Takeo Yamasaki. She had a fine career, winning many races. At this time canoes were not mass produced and so were expensive for clubs to purchase.

After participating in one race the canoe was put into storage until shipping was arranged. A mould was taken by a team that could not afford to buy a koa canoe. They did not have permission and the Hawaiians were understandably unhappy. Gradually over time moer and more of these ‘Malia’ canoes appeared.

These fibreglass malias also have a proud racing record so the Wa’alele has a noble history to look to. Fibreglass Malia are now made and raced in many countries including: Samoa; New Zealand; Easter Island; Australia; Japan; Great Britain; Canada; America and Hawaii.

This type of canoe has introduced many people to the exhilarating pleasures of outrigger canoeing.

What is an outrigger canoe?

An outrigger canoe is defined by having the inclusion of a rig known as an outrigger, which acts as a counterpoise or balance. This is rigged out from the side of the canoe. A number of spars (iako), usually two but up to as many as ten depending on the canoe’s origin and purpose, are lashed across and to the canoe gunwales. They extend outwards for a given distance and end with the attachment of a floatation device (ama).

The single outrigger canoe has only one outrigger and usually extends out on the left or port side. A double outrigger canoe has outriggers extending outwards on both sides. Many variations of this system exist according to the waters the canoes are used in, their function, the size of the primary hull (ka’ale) and the materials available to the builders and designers.

Outrigger canoes are a very old form of canoe. We have no exact date for their development. We rely on oral history, cave paintings and petroglyphs (prehistoric rock carvings) to roughly estimate that they must be at least 3000 years old because this is when the early Polynesians left Samoa in large voyaging canoes to colonise the Pacific islands.