In The Cursed Canoe, Professor Molly Barda’s best friend Emma Nakamura practices with her crew for the “Labor Day Race.”

Emma’s big race was Saturday morning. I wasn’t actually planning to attend in person. If I wanted to catch Emma and her crew before they left, I’d have to be down at the water before dawn. The dark beach would be packed with team supporters and tourists, and, of course, plenty of little kids careening through the crowd. There would be a live Jawaiian band, or a noisy DJ setup. After their registration and last-minute checks, the paddlers would pile into their various canoes and stroke out to sea. Emma’s canoe and dozens of others like it would disappear over the horizon before the sun was even up.

The women’s crews would leave the bay, paddle the tough eighteen miles down the coast, and disembark. The women would get out and the men’s teams would climb into the same canoes and paddle back up the coast, where they would arrive at the starting point many grueling hours later. A spectator on the beach wouldn’t see anything after the canoes sped off. I’d be staring out at the empty blue water.

The Labor Day Race is a big deal—so much so, that all seven women on Emma’s crew want to participate. (Unfortunately, the canoe has only six seats…)

Man in Outrigger, Hawaii by Charles Bartlett 1923-27
Man in Outrigger, Hawaii by Charles Bartlett 1923-27 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Labor Day Race is inspired by a real event: The Queen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race, which takes place every Labor Day weekend in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Started in 1972 by the Kai Opua Canoe Club, and named in honor of the last queen of Hawaii, the Lili’uokalani Canoe Race now welcomes over 2,500 paddlers from all over the world. The big day is Saturday, when the teams paddle 18 miles between Kailua and Honaunau. The women’s teams start first, racing the canoes from Kailua south to Honaunau.

Saturday's canoe race on the west coast of the Big Island. Source:
Saturday’s canoe race on the west coast of the Big Island. Source:

The men’s teams meet the women in Honaunau and race the canoes back up to Kailua. Tiny Kailua’s hotels (the town’s population is less than 12,000) are packed with paddlers the entire weekend.

Even if you’re not a canoe paddler, or much of an outdoorsy person at all, the Queen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race is worth a trip. Canoe paddlers are easygoing, hard-partying, and fun to be around. And the Big Island is a world away from the more touristy parts of Hawaii. Check out the schedule for the upcoming Labor Day weekend here!

Featured image oil painting by Arman Manookian, c. 1929.

Originally published on Brooke Blogs