Wright On: For the paddling community, the world is watching

  • Tribune-Herald file photo There will be many canoes in the water at Hilo Bay when the IVF World Sprint Championships come in August.

It’s one of those things that’s a little difficult to describe in words, because it’s more about the feeling that comes from deep inside somewhere, and then spreads out and tends to consume you, from head to toes.

That’s how it was, anyway for Mike Atwood, a Northern California transplant in 1970 who moved to Oahu to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa and never bothered to go back.


One day in 1972, he was surfing with a friend, saw an outrigger canoe go by and it caught his imagination. His friend told him what it was and Atwood recalls saying, “I want to try that.”

He’s been hooked ever since, to the point that he’s the 2020 president of the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association, the hosting association for an event that will completely overtake Hilo Aug. 13-23 when the IVF World Sprint Championships set up shop in Hilo Bay with paddlers and teams from all over the globe coming to compete on the Big Island.

He never foresaw anything like this when he got started in va’a (Polynesian for canoe), but he became entranced by the sport immediately.

“It was a combination of things for me,” said Atwood, who resides in Kona these days. “I played team sports in high school, so the kind of unity you recognize in working together to make the canoe move most efficiently was a neat thing, you get it right away, but even more, when you get that going and you feel the glide, it’s just a really cool thing. That flow, that glide sort of takes over and, yeah, it’s very cool to be a part of making that happen.”

There will be something in the neighborhood of 2,000 paddlers coming from around the world, plus families, friends and unconnected spectators drawn in by the lure of seeing the world’s best paddlers compete in a kind of Super Bowl, or World Series of the sport.

“That’s fair to say, it is, basically, the World Series of paddling, at least that’s how the competitors look at it,” Atwood said. “All of us are trying to get qualified and see how we measure up, if we qualify.”

That happens Feb. 29-March 1, here at Hilo Bay when clubs from all over the state will be battling to qualify for the Worlds, six months later.

Atwood has been involved with Kai Opua since 1972 and has seen the club grow, and grow and grow some more.

Let’s not discount that fact, because it’s something that’s happening all over world. While the number of high school football players declines with parental injury concerns, while baseball’s appeal on the mainland shrinks because of costs and the lack of facilities in minority communities, paddling is expanding, pretty much everywhere.

“It is the state sport in Hawaii, so it’s probably no surprise it’s growing here, since it has been an official high school sport since 2002, but it’s also growing worldwide,” Atwood said. “You can see why, there’s no cutoff in ages, for one. We have kids aged 8- and 9-years old, and we have people in their 70s and 80s who are competing in their age groups. Men, women, old, young, it’s something anyone can do.”

How good is it to know that the official sport of our state is growing wildly, everywhere, while other sports are shrinking, out of concerns for safety, cost and other factors?

It’s good to realize because it projects just the sort of image Hawaii has always represented.

“It sends a good message,” said Hilo’s Gwen Kekua, whose late husband John was deeply involved in the World Sprints the last time they were held in Hilo, back in 2004, “but now that we’re months away, it probably makes some of us nervous because there’s so much to do. That’s a lot of people coming to Hilo.”

She said John had worked with the International Va’a Federation for two years before the event was held on Hilo Bay in 2004, because he had a good idea early preparation would win the bid, and he was proven right. For the record, this is the third time it will be staged here, first in 1988, then 16 years later and now, another Sweet 16 years later.

There is no small amount of prestige attached to the global event that has been held in such locales as New Zealand, Tahiti, Brazil, Australia, Canada, California — you get the idea. The next one will be held in two years in England.

Attention will be drawn to Hilo Bay for the state championships in a couple of weeks, an opportunity for the local sponsoring group to begin to attract volunteers, and on April 5, a “Businessperson’s Race” will set a goal of attracting as many sponsors as possible, with a captured audience of potential customers that will be here for at least 10-12 days.

Before that all happens, Kekua and others will have organizational meetings to agree on a website and what to include on the new site, things like housing concerns, how to get around and a handful of other needs.

“We need to come up with some plans for groups that will be able to put people together — families, teams, whatever it might be — in homes of local people,” she said. “We understand some families will move into a relative’s house for 10-12 days, or visit friends on neighboring islands, whatever it may be, and that means we need a group coordinating all of that.

“We have time,” she said, “but we don’t have a lot of time to come up with an organization that can get the word out. We will develop a website that will be a clearing house for all of this, a place where people can go to find out whatever they might need.”

There will always be stumbling blocks, little things that weren’t considered that could cause delays getting word out to the public. These things happen every year at events such as the Super Bowl, the Master’s golf tournament, and other annual events that have long histories, yet there are always changes from one venue to the next, something that worked a year ago that won’t a factor this year, those kinds of things.

“Once you start thinking of someone just coming here for the first time, without a lot of advanced knowledge of who and what we are, you begin to realize how important the organization needs to be,” she said. “Somebody gets off the plane and wants to know where to eat, or how they get there, what they can do in down times, it’s a lot to do.”

The organization will be holding its first meeting, developing committees and such, getting the website going and then, in the next few weeks it will all be public and they’ll be looking for volunteers.

Who knows who you might meet and make friends with, maybe someone from Tahiti or Brazil who falls in love with Hilo and the Big Island and wants to return the favor by offering you a place to stay in their homes.


Stay tuned, the possibilities are wide open at a global event.

Send column suggestions, names of people and groups worthy of recognition to barttribuneherald@gmail.com

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