Explore Hawaii

Paddle Pros on the Big Island

Outrigger paddlers from around the world gather on the Big Island for a 3-day competition.

Crediting outrigger paddling as the official sport of Hawai’i is an understatement. We bring in Melanie Kelekolio, one of the top female strokers on an outrigger canoe in the state, to vouch.

Like most kids that get into the sport of canoe paddling, Melanie was 7 years old the first time she held a paddle and worked with five other little girls to make it move in the big ocean.

 “My dad was the coach for Keoua Canoe Club, and I remember watching the canoes go by in the bay and just seeing how graceful it looked all the time,” she reminisces. “I couldn’t wait to have my chance.”

 Nearly four decades of practice, strict exercise and diet routines and countless races with the Kai Opua Canoe Club (both local and international) later, Melanie’s chances has led her to a collection of trophies, including more than a few first places at the Queen Liliuokalani Race - her favorite race. Among the countless of others that happen in a given year, “the Liliuo has been my favorite race since I was a kid,” Mel says. Mike Atwood, Race Director of the Liliuo, knows exactly why.

  “The race happens when the sun is just about to come up, and all the different colors of the canoes are lined up along the Kona coast,” says Atwood. “It’s a real beautiful thing to be a part of.”

Big Island outrigger canoes
©HTA/Tor Johnson

 The kaleidoscopic turn out is made up of teams traveling from all over the world. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, New England, Brazil, Costa Rica, Japan, Hong Kong, Guam, Tahiti, Samoa, Cooke Islands and Rapa Nui are only but a few of the participating nations.

Special events like the welcoming torchlight parade, the scavenger hunt and the traditional luau, has turned the Labor Day weekend (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) event into a 3-day festivity and reunion.

“It’s more like a festival,” says Lawrence “Uncle Bo” Campos, President of the Kai Opua Canoe Club. As bighearted hosts of the race, “we put on a lot of fun things for our guests and the friends we made throughout the years. It’s probably the happiest race out there.”

 Although “the Iron,” an 18-mile long-distance race from Kailua Bay to Honaunau, “is only two hours long. It’s still pretty tough.” Melanie says. “It’s hotter than heck and there’s so much current. We’re usually going against all the elements that day.”

But none of the elements have ever been strong enough to keep these women from the finish line. Before the “quiet time” she takes to honor and remember her dad before the race, it becomes about the connection she has with her team, and the water. “It’s beyond just paddlers on a boat making it move,” she says. “It’s women that you connect with on a higher level, and the reassurance that we give each other that we’re gonna go out there and give it our all.”