Take a Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Adventure in Maui

December 12, 2013 5 Comments »

outrigger canoe paddling maui
Our paddling ‘team’ works their way out of the rough waters.

“Makaukau?” (are you ready?) Tim yelled from the back of the canoe.

I was ready I thought to myself.  In fact, I was feeling pretty confident. The sun was out, the water was pretty calm – it was a perfect day for rowing.

“Hoe Hapai!” (paddles up) he continued.

I raised the paddle as Tim had taught us a few minutes earlier on the beach. The analytical side of me was reviewing the stroke in my head hoping that as the only female in the canoe, I could hold my own.

“Imua!” (Forward) Tim shouted. 

Soon the 5 of us were off, cutting through the water in a somewhat synchronized fashion on a real Hawaiian outrigger.

Paddle Like the Ancient Hawaiians

I had always been interested in learning more about rowing, so I was pretty excited to be on this Hawaiian outrigger canoe adventure in Maui, learning how to paddle as the ancient Hawaiians did.

For a bunch of beginners who had never rowed together, we did okay. We seemed to quickly move away from Kapalua Beach and out into the waters surrounding Maui. As Tim shouted out instructions indicating what we needed to do, I tried my best to remember the form and process of using my core to get more energy in my stroke.

Hawaiian Outrigger canoe tour maui
Rowing in unison

An Intimate Hawaiian Outrigger Experience

Tim is the man behind Hawaiian Paddle Sports in Maui. He has created a really unique adventure, in fact, it was my favorite experience on Maui.  

Tim started the company after working for other large kayak companies and surf schools on Maui because he felt there had to be a better way than the “cattle call approach” (get as many in as you can on each tour/lesson). Instead, he wanted to create a more personal experience. He also wanted to infuse knowledge-building and culture into a traditional tour.

This meant he not only taught us how to row like the ancient Hawaiians, but he also taught us about the ancient Hawaiians, their culture, and their communities.

He taught us why they rowed.

paddle lessons maui beach
Learning the correct form of ‘air paddling’ on the beach to Tim’s instructions

Learning the Outrigger Canoe Paddling Form

The teaching began on the beach that morning where he lined us all up to practice the correct paddle stroke form. I thought we looked pretty good doing our ‘air’ paddling.

Next, he taught us about the historical outrigger canoe, or as he referred to it – the Ka manu o honokahua. The canoe we used was fiberglass, but the originals were of course wood. It was extremely narrow and long. I wondered if my hips were too wide to even fit in it as I looked at it!

We learned the parts of the canoe and the Hawaiian names for everything – including all of the rowing commands. I knew I’d never remember them all, but did try to pay close attention to the Hawaiian word for “stop paddling” – lawa.

Explore things to do on Lanai: not your typical Hawaiian island

Hawaiian Wisdom and Guidance in the Water

Before we took off into the surf, Tim led us in an oli (chant) which essentially asks for wisdom and guidance as we go forth into the water.

E hō mai
Ka `ike mai luna mai e
(Grant us the knowledge from above)
`O na mele e
(Concerning all the wisdom of songs)
E hō mai,
E hō mai,
E hō mai
(Grant, grant, grant us these things)

It’s Time to Paddle!

Tim blew into a conch shell to signal our departure and soon we were crashing into the waves and trying to stay in synch paddling while listening for his instructions.

Conch shell horn Hawaiian outrigger tour
With 3 blasts of the conch shell – we were off!

We swiftly and smoothly cut through the water; it was a really beautiful feeling to be working in unison on the ocean. We passed giant sea turtles as if they were in the slow lane. As I paddled along trying to keep in sync I imagined this canoe being made of all wood and our team moving in unison swiftly with the outrigger full of fish or coconuts.

However, I could tell that my arms and back weren’t used to this type of ‘real’ island life – and I knew I would be paying for this the next day.

Mokuleia Beach Maui

After a good long paddle, we made it to Mokuleia Beach for more cultural lessons. On the shore, Tim taught us about the Hawaiian’s ahupua’a system of land management and how the Hawaiians were able to thrive in the islands prior to western contact.

He also demonstrated the usefulness of coconuts for food and tools and even taught us how to use the husks to make rope. It was a hands-on learning experience. And the coconut water was refreshing after our paddling workout.

We cleaned up some trash on the beach and soon we were pointing the canoe back out at the surf.

cultural lessons maui hawaii outrigger tour
Learning how to weave rope out of coconut husks.

This Outrigger Canoe Tour in Maui Just Got Real

This time things were a bit different. The surf had changed pretty drastically while we were on the beach. The waves were crashing with more force and I wondered how we were going to get our little canoe past the break. Tim studied the waves as they rolled in; he looked at complete ease – clearly, a man who’d been in this situation before.

He got us ready and yelled out instructions that seemed really counter-intuitive to me when it came to the timing of actually dragging the canoe out into the waves. But I followed the lead and soon I was knee-deep in water with waves splashing up on me.

“Get in and paddle!” Tim yelled.

This was nothing like how we entered the water the first time – this was fast and furious. Before I knew it a giant wave came over the Hawaiian outrigger and landed right on me and in the boat. Tim yelled at me to start bailing out the canoe – so I began scooping the water out of the canoe while the rest paddled.

Then it all stopped. We were through the break and back in calmer waters. Yet I still had a great deal of bailing out to do.

ourigger canoe adventure hawaii
Water flies as we bail out the canoe, keep it balanced, and get out of the rough surf.

A Surfing Show at Honolua Bay

Due to the unusually tumultuous surf – we weren’t able to do any snorkeling that day in Honolua Bay – an area famous for its reef and snorkeling in Maui. However, we were treated to a different kind of ocean show – surfers.

The strong, rough surf was like a beacon to all of the surfers on the island that morning. There seemed to be hundreds of them sitting on boards off the rocky coast of Honolua Bay.

We paddled around and watched these talented men and women ride powerful waves. I found it fascinating since the day before I had done my first surf lesson. It allowed me to see how the ‘pros’ did it – and it was of course way more coordinated then my experience!

A Perfect Combination of Culture and Adventure in Maui

Hawaii Paddle Sports outrigger canoe tour
Our rowing ‘team’ – a great morning on the water!

After we had our fill of surfer gawking, we turned around and headed back to Kapalua Beach. We dragged the narrow outrigger canoe back up on the beach, helped clean it up, and washed off our gear. Sad to have the morning end, I reluctantly gave back my paddle to Tim. I had learned so much and felt like this was such a great active way to learn more about the island.

It was the perfect combination of cultural and athletic experience that I look for when traveling.

More Information:
Hawaii Paddle Sports Website
Offer private custom tours in order to get away from the crowds and offer a more local experience.
Honolua Bay Outrigger Canoe Excursion  – this was the specific Hawaiian outrigger tour we took. It normally includes snorkeling in Honolua Bay weather permitting.

All photos in this post are complements of Hawaii Paddle Sports.

paddlers in outrigger canoe Maui Hawaii


I was a guest of Maui Visitor Bureau  for this trip.  However all of the opinions expressed here are my own.  I was able to choose my own activities that were of interest to me and my style of travel.

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