Star-Bulletin Sports

Sunday, December 16, 2001


Nappy and Anona Napoleon, right, head an ocean-loving family. They have five sons and three daughters-in-law -- Joseph (not pictured) and Tammy, Aaron and Tasha, Darryn and Starlene, David and Jonah. They also have 11 grandchildren -- Taron, 13; Sepa, 13; Joshua, 13; Jaysha, 12; Nalani, 11; Shayla, 11; Ui, 10; Tekahi, 8; Mahea, 8; Riggs, 4; and Anona, 2.

Water is the basis
for this family’s life

A day away from the ocean is never
a completely happy one for a family
that has excelled in water sports
for more than 40 years

By Cindy Luis

It's a marriage made in heaven because, to the Napoleons, heaven is being in the ocean.

Canoe paddling, surfing, bodyboarding, canoe sailing, paddleboarding, kayaking ... the water has always been home to Joseph "Nappy" and Anona Napoleon. They raised their five sons on the beach and have watched their 11 grandchildren play in the sand and the water.

"All the credit goes to my wife," Nappy Napoleon said of his partner of 36 years. "To me, the wife is the one who makes the family and I guess I was lucky.

"The happiest time of my life was when the boys were growing up and we did water sports together. Surfing, paddling ... that's what we did as a family."

The close-knit ohana has floated away a little bit as the boys got older and made lives of their own.

Joey, 35, is a journeyman in ceramic tile on the Big Island. The other brothers live on Oahu: Aaron and Darryn, 34-year-old twins, are electricians; David "Kawika," 31, is the coordinator for the Hawaiian Language department at Kapiolani Community College; and Jonah, 25, is an auto mechanic.

But, whenever they can, the family takes a "Napoleon Holiday." They call in sick at work and school and head for the beach for daylong fun.

"We do it now with the grandchildren," said Anona. "Whenever I'm stressed out, the first thing I want to do is go to the beach."

It's something that the married couple has been doing since small-kid times at Waikiki. It's where the pair, now both 60, learned to love the water.

The water has loved them back.

Nappy Napoleon has done 44 of the 50 Molokai Hoe races, going back to his first crossing in 1958 when he was 16. His Waikiki Surf Club crew won that year, beginning a run of six straight first-place finishes and 11 overall as the most dominant club of the 1960s and early 1970s.

"I started paddling for a club when I was 8, but I was even younger when I started fooling around," said Napoleon, considered to be one of the finest steersmen in the world. "I tried football and track, but I wasn't too good. With paddling, it seemed like I knew what I was doing and I stuck with it.

"I think I do it (the Molokai Hoe) every year because it keeps me going. If I stop, maybe I will stop (living)."

Anona Napoleon was in the crew of the original women's channel race in 1976, an event to prove that women could paddle the Kaiwi Channel. Three years later, Na Wahine O Ke Kai became an official race and she has steered in a number of them.

But her water prowess goes beyond paddling. She just missed making the U.S. Olympic team in K-2s in 1960. A year later, she won the Makaha International Surfing Championship.

It was an amazing feat considering that Napoleon was paralyzed for three months after coming home from the Olympic trials. She spent a year in a body brace.

"We went out to the North Shore to surf, but there was no surf," said Napoleon, who began surfing at age 8 with her brothers and father. "We went to Waimea Falls. I jumped and landed wrong, compressing the muscles in my spinal chord.

"The minute they took the brace off, I got my board and went surfing. It felt so good to get back in the ocean. My two doctors said for me to stay in the ocean, it was healing for me."

Some 10 years ago, she was inducted into the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach, Calif., as one of the women's pioneers in the sport.

Son Aaron has had the most success on a surfboard, winning local and international meets. He also starred in two surf movies in the late 1980s, "Surfers Paradise" and "Mad Wax."

He's excelled in OC-1 (solo canoes), winning his age-group division in last year's Molokai Challenge, and was among the leaders in last year's Molokai Channel paddleboard race before pulling out with cramps. Aaron was also part of Team Hawaii that finished fourth in the Hawaiki Nui Wa'a canoe races in Tahiti last October.

During a recent Molokai Hoe, Nappy, Anona and all five sons were out on the water at the same time. Father and four sons paddled, son Jonah drove the escort boat and mom was the support crew.

"It was hard being together because we're all steersmen," said Kawika Napoleon. "We all had our own ideas about which way the canoe should go.

"I think the hardest part was the expectations of being Nappy and Anona's son, but you realize it's in your blood and it gives you confidence in the canoe.

"You know how some people bury their children's umbilical cord? I think ours were thrown into the ocean and we followed it there. That's why the ocean is home."

It's becoming home to the 11 Napoleon grandchildren, who range in age from 2-13, with another one on the way. The older ones have begun to paddle and surf competitively.

Nappy and Anona Napoleon continue to paddle and have traveled to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and California to compete. They've also been to Japan for dragonboat racing.

Their most ambitious endeavor was in 1970, when they were part of the Waikiki Surf Club crew that retraced Kamehameha the Great's journey when he conquered all the islands from Hawaii to Oahu. It took 13 days "and we hit all the islands except Kauai," said Anona. "But Kamehameha didn't get there either."

Lately, the couple has been pursuing separate interests. Nappy Napoleon has gone into film, the latest being the paddling instructional video "One Paddle, Two Paddle." It's available at Island Paddler on Kapahulu Avenue.

Anona Napoleon, a college lecturer, is working on her doctoral thesis in education at the University of Hawaii. She was also recently featured in the documentary film "Surfing for Life."

In the film, she gives her reasons for surfing and why her love affair with the water and with her husband have remained strong.

"It's a sense of being one with all of creation, being one with the ocean, being one with the heavens. There's a feeling of completeness."

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