A Celebration On The Ala Wai

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - January 28, 2009
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The opening of last year’s Ala Wai Challenge

It’s hard to visualize a party on the Ala Wai Canal, but for the past 24 years that’s exactly what’s happened in Waikiki.

Each January, residents and businesses celebrate Hawaii’s rich canoe paddling history with a day of outrigger canoe racing and Hawaiian makahiki games. They did it again Jan. 25 while honoring two of Hawaii’s living legends, Bobby Puakea and Clyde Aikau.

“How could we pass up paying tribute to two men who’ve made a difference in our ocean community?” asks Jeff Apaka, event director of the 24th Ala Wai Challenge. “This event keeps growing every year while benefiting community members in Waikiki. Honoring Uncle Bobby and Clyde was a natural.”

The cultural event is a fundraiser for the Waikiki Community Center, which serves about 15,000 people each year. Since 1978, the center has provided services and programs for Waikiki residents and the homeless.

Quarter-mile canoe races down the Ala Wai are open to all skill levels, as are Hawaiian games featuring ‘ulu maika (bowling a round stone through pegs), o’o ihe (spear throwing), moa pahe’e (dart sliding), pohaku ho’oikaika (stone throw) and huki kaula (tug of war).

“The canoe races take center stage,” admits Apaka. “Crews line up at McCully Bridge and race to the event site at Ala Wai Neighborhood Park and Playground. Businesses, corporations - it’s quite a sight, and those who participate enjoy every second of it.”

Each year the event also honors two watersports legends of Hawaii.

“We started honoring Hawaii’s heroes in 1993 when my dear friend Tommy Holmes died,” says Apaka, who serves the community center’s director of community relations. “Tommy made such a difference in our community, and I wanted to honor his memory while staying true to the center’s mission.”

Over the next few years, Hawaii said aloha to more heroes, including longtime Waikiki beachboy Turkey Love in 1997 and, in early January of 1998 the Queen of Makaha, Rell Sunn.

“There were many more who made a difference: Kala Kukea, Blue Makua Sr., Pinky Thompson,” recalls Apaka. “And, of course, there are other leading men and women in our water community who are still here with us, like Nainoa Thompson and Rosie Lum. We thought this was the perfect event to highlight what they’ve done for all of us.”

This year the center honored Bobby Puakea and Clyde Aikau, legendary canoe paddlers and surfers who’ve perpetuated Hawaiian canoe racing around the world. Puakea is a master canoe builder who has coached many canoe clubs over the years.

“He has coached hundreds of people and is still a master at his craft,” says Apaka. “He is still repairing canoes and teaching keiki at Heeia State Park.”

Aikau is a big-wave surfing legend and brother of the late Eddie Aikau, who continues to give back to the community.

“Clyde has been a champion surfer and a lifeguard, and he’s still out there working, manning Duke Kahanamoku Beach,” says Apaka. “He is truly a living legend.”

This year’s event also featured a variety of handmade Hawaiian crafts, free entertainment, food vendors and a chance to create a green and sustainable community.

“Participants made their own smoothies by pedaling a bicycle-powered blender, courtesy of Sustainable Saunders Initiative at UH-Manoa,” says Apaka. “It’s a different way to give back to the community.”

Organizers are already thinking about 2010, when the event celebrates its 25th anniversary.

“That will be the big one,” laughs Apaka. “I’m open to suggestions on who we should honor and how.”

Let the planning begin.

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