Gathering Place
Bruce Benson

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

It’s all about the voyage,
whether by wind or paddle

Until a recent weekend, what I could never dial into my radar screen was why people paddle their Hawaiian canoes. I love water sports. I am a lifelong sailor, an avid swimmer, but I never got the canoe. Why would people dedicate so much time and effort paddling these impressive but difficult vessels? As a sailor, I always thought the sail was a better tool than the paddle to move across the ocean.

Then my teenage son joined a canoe club, and his club and 16 others staged a two-day campout and regatta at Haleiwa. So I went, and I am starting to get it.

I think the Hawaiian canoe is a metaphor for the Hawaiian nation. The clubs are its clans. The clubs have deep histories, reflect many personalities and, like clans from time immemorial, are complete unto themselves. They are distinct, comprehensive enclaves that collectively form a nation.

The clans know their protection at the core depends upon their strongest, the warrior class. These are young men whose physical prowess would give pause even to Arnold.

In our clan, the warriors were appointed the chaperones for the campout. One teen thought to stray away from the group to check out the playground after dark.

"You may start to go," she was told gently, "but I wouldn't hesitate to drive you all the way across the island back to your parents if you leave."

It was coming up on lights out and go to sleep at 11 p.m., and the warriors were sitting under their tarp on the beach, strumming ukuleles and guitars. They eased into each new song. "Yeah, it's G, G minor, A, then li' dat, then F." "Wait, wats li' dat?" They would play some bars tentatively, then break out into remarkable song and harmony. Here was another element of a clan, so close-knit as to allow tender moments even among members of its warrior class. Under an adjacent tarp, the teenagers sat and listened, transfixed.

Sailors rely on the wind. We use our boats to take us away. Going to sea, we explore new places, maybe just up the coastline or maybe across an ocean to another continent. Paddlers rely on strength and stamina. They use their boats to come together. Going to sea, they explore the depth of their community.

Sailors are unconnected to a larger whole, although they may belong to a sailing club or yacht club. Paddlers are connected to their clan, a canoe club. Sailors are driven by the wind and hook up with fellow sailors when and where they can. Paddlers are driven by their personal strength and are hooked up with their clansmen before, during and after their voyage.

What I learned on a recent weekend is that whether the sail or the paddle is better is a question that doesn't mean anything. Sailors and paddlers leave shore for different reasons. All of them are good ones. I am deeply satisfied that my son hooked up with a canoe clan and is becoming a part of its history.

A little bit, at least, I think I am starting to get the canoe.

Bruce Benson, a member of the Hawaii Yacht Club, lives in Honolulu.

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