800 People, 38 Miles Of Paddling

Kaiola Canoe Club is among the favorites in the Na Pali Challengex

It’s billed as Kaua’i’s most famous outrigger canoe race and it’s about to take off yet again for the 13th time Aug. 14.

Led by the Garden Island Canoe Racing Association, the Na Pali Challenge spans 38 miles from Hanalei to Kekaha.

It’s a race that involves six-man and six-woman crews alternating in the boat, with changes taking place in the open sea. This year the wahine will begin the race.

Eight hundred people will brave the tricky waters along Kaua’i’s coastline, whether paddling or following in support boats. Race director Gene Lopez says it’s not only a well-known contest, it’s a beautiful one as well.

“It all has to do with the scenery,” he says. “Plus, there’s every possible condition out there, starting out flat, with intense tradewinds to follow. It’s pretty adventurous out there, with sidewinds at Polihale and then there are headwinds the last five miles.”

The favorites include Kaiola and Namolokama Canoe Clubs, but Lopez said anything can happen once out there in the open ocean.

The race isn’t limited to just local clubs from across the island and state.

“We have a dozen clubs from the West Coast, and all the way from Virginia and Phoenix,” Lopez says. “We have clubs from Seattle to San Diego coming down here.”

The first Na Pali Challenge was in the national spotlight, as ESPN took full control of broadcasting the race. But because of the high cost of producing such an event, ESPN bowed out.

Lopez says he’s hoping to get that type of attention back someday.

“I do want to get back to that point. I go to the East Coast and invite them to come down,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, but it’s worth the fight.”

The popularity of the Challenge is as high as ever. Lopez says this year’s field is one of the biggest in years, with around 40 boats lining up at the start line.

“It’s a fun race, but very competitive,” he says. “You paddle with 12 people and that’s what’s really fun about it, we always teach and even tease each other, either the women carrying the men or vice versa. You can’t beat the logistics, people go off on it.”

And many have been going off on this race since the beginning. Lopez said it all started when a Hawaiian sailing canoe club needed to raise funds. They chose to create a race along the entire island.

“Quite a few people know about it throughout the Mainland,” he says. “The guys in the Mainland really look forward to this – they love Kaua’i’!”

GICRA members also look forward to this annual race. Each club helps out with one aspect of the event.

“There are good awards, good food, we try to make it so the awards are earned and appreciated and leave with the concept that this is well-worth the effort,” Lopez says.

Come the second Saturday in August, each club will get the chance to come up big, but Lopez says it always comes down to the little details that’ll keep people racing in the Na Pali Challenge for years to come.

“It’s such a special race, and our main goals are to have everyone finish it with a sense of accomplishment and finding a new appreciation for Kaua’i,” Lopez says.

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