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Becoming Cultural Paddlers – Queen Liliʻuokalani Canoe Race in Hawaii

When you fall in love with the ocean, you'll be willing to do many things for it.


Taiwan—a homeland of the Austronesian language family. The prehistoric inhabitants of the island had excellent navigational abilities, closely interacting with neighboring islands. The ancient Austronesian language from Taiwan spread as a result. The Taiwan Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society (TOCVS) in Taitung, Taiwan, by participating in international competitions, is like paddling through the blue ocean, tracing the origin legend of the Austronesian language family migration from Taiwan.


From the hazy night to the dawn's first light

In May 2023, in the predawn darkness of Taitung, a group of people gathered by the shores of the Flowing Lake, holding the paddles of the Outrigger Canoe. Facing the faint light of dawn, they calmly and passionately prepared for the canoe training. The "Taitung Austronesian" team, composed of 5 members from TOCVS, 11 hunters from the Lalauran tribe in Taitung, and 3 teachers from Junyi School of Innovation, is preparing to participate in the 50th-anniversary "Queen Liliʻuokalani Canoe Race" in Hawaii in September 2024. They invited Hawaii's cultural advisor Kimokeo Kapahulehua (Uncle K) and International Outrigger Canoe Federation IVS Commissioner and Canoe Academy Head Coach Denes Szaszak to come to Taiwan and prepare together with them.

During their usual workdays, they can only practice intensively before or after work or on holidays. Team members residing in places like Chenggong and Changbin, which are 1-2 hours' drive from the Flowing Lake in Taitung City, have to get up at two in the morning to start their journey. "To enjoy training, you also have to enjoy the competition," Coach Denes said.


Ohana Ka Waʻa – The Boat's Family

In an interview in "Art Perspective" No.94 titled "Outrigger Canoes in the Ocean of Islands," Uncle K introduces the hull and structure of the outrigger canoe: "The front end of the canoe is called manu ihu, meaning forward-leading, like a man responsible for leading the family. The hull, kino, represents our body, taking care of oneself first before taking care of the family. The internal support is called pepeiao, meaning to raise the ears and listen, listening to the sounds from the sky, ocean, and earth. The stern is manu hope, meaning to assist and signify 'results,' often metaphorically representing women supporting the family from behind, nurturing the next generation. The seats of the canoe, noho, must be sat 'straight' while paddling, signifying fairness, justice, and honesty in dealing with others, reflecting one's character and prompting self-reflection: 'Who am I? What am I doing? Where do I want to go hand in hand with my family?'"


These meanings are the reason why the outrigger canoe is called Ohana Ka Waʻa, the Boat's Family. Allowing the tides, water flow, waves, and natural forces to become their guide, the boat leads the family to one destination after another.

The family of the "Taitung Austronesian" team includes members from the Amis, Paiwan, Bunun, Rukai, Puyuma, and Han Chinese ethnic groups. Ray, the photographer for TOCVS and also the captain of the guard boat, explains the significance of each of the six seats on the outrigger canoe, "The crew member sitting in the first position commands the overall pacing of the boat, and they usually have the best understanding with the person in the second position. The power and stability of the boat depend on the crew in the third and fourth positions; they are the engine of the entire boat. The person in the fifth position has the best view, overseeing the entire boat and being vigilant to critical moments where a capsizing may occur. As for the sixth position, it is the steersperson, the soul of the entire boat. With rich experience, they are responsible for devising tactics for the entire boat, leading the fleet to find the best route through currents, waves, and wind." Each position plays an indispensable role, requiring cooperation and synergy to navigate smoothly and steadily through the waves of the sea.


Preparation of Body, Mind, and Spirit before the Rac

At the end of August, the "Taitung Austronesian" team joined over 2500 paddlers from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Tahiti, the United States, and more for the competition on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Due to the influence of the monsoon in Taiwan, they had limited time for training at sea before the journey. Upon arriving in Hawaii, they headed to the Kamehameha Canoe Club, where local members guided them in essential ocean observations for paddlers and ensured the team was mentally and physically prepared. They navigated approximately 8 kilometers in the open bay, marking their first collective practice on this journey. "The sea water is cooler, and not smelling the sea at the shore feels unique," said Rahic Sra, a teacher from Junyi School. The second practice took place at the Keōua O Hōnaunau Canoe Club, the actual competition venue for the “Taitung Austronesian” team. The club members introduced them to the local seafaring culture, boat types, and the unique art and methods of tying ropes to accommodate the local sea conditions.


Next, they visited the non-profit organization Mauliola Keʻehi, located on the historically significant Keʻehi Island. The founder's ancestors originally lived on this coast, but the arrival of the U.S. Navy disrupted the coral reefs in the sea. Despite efforts to restore native sea grass and shellfish and engage in environmental conservation such as beach cleaning, the organization also aims to rebuild the land and the lost integrity of the indigenous people through small actions. During their visit, team members encountered a woman in her 70s slowly paddling towards a small island to collect marine debris. Through conversation, they learned that she was a volunteer who frequently used her time to clean the beach, tirelessly collecting bags of marine debris, leaving the team both shocked and impressed.

The 50th-anniversary Queen Liliʻuokalani Canoe Race

Before the competition began, water motorcycles drew white lines on the sea as starting lines. Nearly two hundred boats stretched across the sea for a kilometer. Uncle K personally took the helm, and the team members, with one boat and one heart, synchronized their feelings with their lungs and muscles. With the unspoken understanding expressed through "ha" and "hoo," paddle after paddle... they set off!

"We tried to surpass each opponent's boat one by one, and, of course, were quickly overtaken as well. Honestly, we have to admit that our practice was not enough. Many discomforts surfaced in our bodies – the waist, back, arms, shoulders, thighs, calves, feet, fingers, and toes... our movements couldn't keep up with the rhythm. Around 18 kilometers into the journey, a sudden wave from the left rear capsized us. I quickly dove around the boat to the other side, exerting all my effort to flip the outrigger back in place. The hull was filled with seawater, and we began frantically bailing water. Every muscle in our bodies was bursting! After much difficulty, the boat began to gain some speed. We collaborated, and eventually continued the race on the course. However, by this time, the teams we had previously overtaken were catching up one by one. In the tension, I adjusted my mindset, remembering to enjoy the competition...”


Participating in the 28-kilometer race, Scott Huang, a teacher from Junyi School's Outdoor Education program, wrote down these passionate moments after the race, "The moment the boat crossed the finish line was truly moving because we wholeheartedly completed the race. The cheering and encouragement from our shore partners, the shouts of 'TAIWAN!' from paddlers of various countries – I also unfurled the prepared national flag. Taiwan finally appeared in this significant event, and so did we!"

The coexistence of modernity and the past without conflict

During the athlete's night event, participants from around the world are invited to perform on stage. The “Taitung Austronesian” team, in particular, presented a traditional indigenous pottery pot crafted by team member and ceramic artist Ching-Che to the mayor of the Big Island of Hawaii. On the day of the competition, various traditional cultural booths emerge, featuring items such as traditional handmade taro paste, plant weaving, accessories made from natural materials, and even units dedicated to sharing traditional navigation techniques, allowing athletes from different countries to engage in mutual exchange.


Lin from the hunter's school remarked, "When I saw people on the starting line, ranging from those in their twenties to those in their seventies, with boats made of carbon fiber, glass fiber, and traditional wooden boats," from a functional perspective, wooden boats are far from matching the performance of boats manufactured with modern technology. However, the organizers still included a wooden boat category. "I deeply feel their respect and pride for traditional culture."

On the competition field, there's no discrimination based on race; whenever help is needed, there are always people ready to assist. When the team encountered a problem with knotting the boat, high school and college students from San Diego stepped in to help. Amis weaving artist Akac Orat said, "Weaving is a daily part of life for us indigenous people, like our hands crossing together. Knotting the boat is crucial for whether a boat can sail smoothly. At that time, with 180 six-person canoes on the same beach, that skill is something you must know." He emphasized, "The art of knotting boats is beautiful; it can be art or a profession. But when everyone is doing it, it becomes a way of life."


We Should Be Closely Connected with the Ocean

Although everyone was awe-inspired by the mountains and the sea in Hawaii, what left a profound impression on them was the Hawaiians' love for the ocean. Even more unforgettable moments came from their interactions with their "Austronesian family." Despite the language differences, there were many cultural similarities. Whenever messages were conveyed in native languages or ancient songs were sung, it felt as if they were traversing through thousands of years, returning to the origin of spirituality.


During a visit to the Ocean Education Center, Junyi School's teacher Shine Juang asked the locals, "How can we teach everyone about environmental conservation?" The locals responded straightforwardly, "If you fall in love with the ocean first, there's no problem. Go surfing, go paddling, fall in love with the ocean, and you'll be willing to do many things for it."

"In Taiwan, for most people subconsciously or through the education process, the 'sea' is considered a dangerous forbidden area that should be avoided if possible," said Teacher Rahic Sra. "Rowing the outrigger canoe in the vast sea of Hawaii, imagining our ancestors from a thousand years ago without modern technology, relying on the knowledge passed down by their forebears, extraordinary courage, and unwavering beliefs to navigate the ocean. And now, coming from Taitung, we seem to embody such a past."


Upon returning home, the three Junyi School teachers incorporated what they heard and experienced in Hawaii into extended activities within the curriculum. Under the guidance of Teacher Huang, the seventh-grade Outdoor Education program at Junyi School added an introduction to outrigger canoes. The students had the opportunity to experience both single-person and six-person outrigger canoes on Flowing Lake. They believe that education should not only focus on immediate learning but also incorporate concepts of water safety, celestial navigation, and harmonious coexistence with nature. They aim to make Junyi School an active participant in Taiwan's Austronesian and maritime culture.

In the 1970s, a group of people in Hawaii constructed a ship, replicating the ancient voyaging canoes that once sailed across the vast Pacific. They named the vessel Hōkūleʻa, meaning "Star of Gladness" after the zenith star of the Hawaiian Islands. Their dream was to revive the legacy left by their ancestors: the spirit of exploration, courage, and resourcefulness. Hōkūleʻa symbolizes the shared aspiration of the people of Hawaii, the Pacific, and the world – to protect the precious values of the Earth and prevent the disappearance of unique places.


In 1976, Hōkūleʻa embarked on its maiden voyage. The crew learned to navigate without modern instruments, relying on observations of stars, ocean currents, migratory birds, and wind directions. They successfully sailed 2,400 miles back to the ancestral island of Tahiti, proving the wisdom of their ancestors. This achievement not only showcased ancestral intelligence but also fostered connections between the Hawaiian and Polynesian communities, marking a milestone in the revival of voyaging culture. At this historical juncture, the Asia-Pacific voyage of Hōkūleʻa is planned for 2026, and it is expected to visit Taiwan, hailed as the homeland of the Austronesian language family.


The events in which the "Taitung Austronesian" team participated included the 28-kilometer Women's 9-person team, Men's 6-person and 9-person team races, 8-kilometer 12-person double-hull boat Men's and Mixed teams. The competitions covered various types of boats and age groups, testing the athletes' stamina and boat control skills. Due to a shortage of team members, with the call from Uncle K and TOCVS founder Yvonne Chiang, local paddlers rallied together and joined the team for the competition.


Those who embarked on this journey with the athletes included artists, educators, government officials, retired military officers, marine professionals, and writers from Taitung. After the competition, during the two-week stay, everyone delved into visits to important local cultural and artistic institutions. The aim was to gain insights that could assist in the future promotion of outrigger canoeing. They visited places such as Imiloa Astronomy Center, Kamehameha Schools, the culturally rooted green technology company Purple Maiʻa, Polynesia Voyaging Society, Honolulu Museum of Art, Bishop Museum, and participated in workshops with local artists, sharing their respective cultures.

In the Christmas Cup Friendship Regatta of 2023, friends from Taromak, Jhihben, Luye, Dulan, Longchang, Chenggong, and Changbin all gathered at Flowing Lake to celebrate. Whether craftsmen, hunters, Orchid Island residents, or foreigners, they became one family on the boats. The TOCVS family, whether on the international stage or in daily life, are cultural paddlers. Every gathering is a wonderful adventure, and every interaction is a profound experience.


(Photography | TOCVS, Ray Wang, Mauli)


*Special thanks to TOCVS founder Yvonne Chiang and Assistant Researcher Yu-lun Huang from the National Museum of Prehistory for their assistance in proofreading.


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