Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

Kai Makana
Donna Kahakui paddled 130 miles in three days
to draw attention to ocean pollution.

Kahakui proves
her dedication
to the ocean

By Pat Gee
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Barbed wire was reaching up to claw at her from the ocean depths as she thrust her paddle into its black surface. Moonlight made it easy to spot the garbage that knocked against her canoe, but when she reached over to pick it up, she found nothing there.

That's when Donna Kahakui knew she was hallucinating.

If ever there was a point she wanted to quit, that was it, right in the middle of the channel between Kahoolawe and Lanai on a beautiful, moonlit night.

But she kept struggling against the strong current until she finished all 130-something miles from the Big Island to Waikiki Beach three days later in a journey that she hoped would put a spotlight on the plight of Hawaii's ocean.

May 1st is Lei Day in Hawaii, but the fragrance of all the flowers in the state could not equal the sweetness of accomplishing the goal set by Kahakui and Kai Makana, the environmental group she formed more than a year ago. Their mission -- to encourage people to do their part to preserve the marine environment -- finally got people's attention.

"This time, the public really got it, from the feedback I've had. Everyone's saying, 'come and talk, come and talk,' " she said. Kai Makana has been asked to help groups organize clean-ups and reef education for kids.

Planning the voyage was worse than the actual physical exertion of paddling that far a distance, a first for a solo canoeist, she said.

Conditions were near perfect, and she met flat seas when they were least expected, such as in the Kalohi Channel, between Lanai and Molokai, where canoes usually get tossed like a salad. Although headwinds were light, and the full moon made traveling at night perfect for sight and safety reasons, a strong current is the downside of a clear night.

The first leg of her journey, originally planned for April 2, began at 6:30 a.m. April 29 from Upolu Point on the Big Island. An entourage of 17 on an escort boat included navigator/coach Nainoa Thompson of Hokuleia voyaging canoe fame and Kahakui's father, Kalani.

Nine hours into the voyage, she felt "totally wasted," said the 35-year-old federal law enforcement officer, who has been a competitive paddler for 20 years.

"My brain was fried. I was almost sleeping while I paddled," she said. The last two hours before reaching Kahoolawe she began to doubt whether she would be able to make it at all.

Finally in Honokanaia Bay off of Kahoolawe, she climbed onto the escort boat -- "cold, delirious, not quite coherent. I just wanted to sleep."

Instead of resting for two hours as planned, she stayed for four.

But the hardest part of the journey was still to come in the Kealaikahiki Channel between Kahoolawe and Lanai. Although she began this leg rejuvenated, an hour later she started hallucinating about "rubbish all over the ocean and barbed wire coming out of the ocean. I kept telling myself, I don't see it, keep paddling."

The only thing that kept her from giving up was remembering "the mission. This was my gift to the ocean. This is the only thing thing I can give to the ocean, the only way I can get people to listen," she said.

She credited the success of her journey to the escort crew.

Future plans with Thompson include doing a paddle in Alaska, making the same connections that the Hokuleia made a few years back, and retracing the route taken by the Hawaiians from New Zealand to Tahiti to settle in Hawaii.

To get involved in the efforts of Kai Makana, call 383-1013.

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