FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The sewage spill in the Ala Wai Canal has led to a more crowded Ke'ehi Lagoon, as nine clubs are now practicing there.
Canoe clubs coping with aftermath of Ala Wai sewage spill
Relocation leads to a drop in the number of paddlers, particularly at the youth level
The first regatta of the season is normally a time of celebration for outrigger canoe clubs. This year, it may seem more like an episode of "Survivor."
When Na 'Ohana Na Hui Wa'a starts its season tomorrow, the opening pule (prayer) will be one of thanks, safety and "Glad you're still here."
When 48 million gallons of raw sewage was diverted into the Ala Wai Canal in March because of a broken sewer main, the trickle-down effect it had on the paddling community turned into a flood. Of the 34 clubs in the two Oahu-based organizations -- the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association and Hui Wa'a -- 11 were forced to move from their traditional sites on the canal and relocate to Ke'ehi Lagoon, Sand Island, San Souci Beach or Maunalua Bay.
Ke'ehi Lagoon, site of tomorrow's Hui Wa'a season opener as well as the Aug. 5 state championship, has resembled a regatta Sunday for weeks. Where five clubs used the site for practice in past years, there are now nine.
The good news is, Ke'ehi could have been more crowded. The bad news is, Ke'ehi could have been more crowded.
Even though more clubs are there, clubs have experienced a noticeable drop in numbers, upwards to 50 percent. Some of it is by choice, with paddlers staying away because of fear of water-related illness.
Some of it is because of not having a choice. Youngsters who used to walk down to the canal for afternoon practice have no means of transportation to get to their relocated clubs.
"It's too bad that the state couldn't do what had been suggested, run a shuttle from the Ala Wai to get more kids out," Ka Mamalahoe paddler Denise Higgins said. "A lot of our rosters are low because of this."
Ka Mamalahoe was one of the clubs already using Ke'ehi Lagoon, which had its own problems with tiny stinging jellyfish that canceled regattas last year. When other clubs made the move to the lagoon two months ago, Ka Mamalahoe not only shared the space but also loaned its canoes.
"We work together when everyone is in a bind," Higgins said. "Ke'ehi is big enough to share, to handle what we have. Parking is a major problem. It's like having a regatta every day."
For paddlers affiliated with Waikiki Yacht Club, the move to Ke'ehi meant leaving the conveniences of the clubhouse such as showers, snack bar and the unobstructed view of the fireworks display put on by the neighboring Hilton Hawaiian Village.
"It's tough being away from our home," WYC paddler Shanan Kaholokula said. "We've lost about 40 paddlers from the 100 last year. This regatta, we pulled (entries for) 15 races, last year we were pulling 23."
WYC's loss was compounded by a cutback in funding by Palama Settlement for a community outreach program that bussed interested youths to the club.
"We lost all of our boys crews," Kaholokula said. "We had four boys come back. We told them we'd find another club for them to paddle, but they wanted to stay with us, even though they won't race.
"The one good thing that has come out of this is we've gotten to know the other canoe clubs. Kai Poha and Alapahoe have been very gracious to share their sites with us and we're very appreciative."
Tomorrow will be very interesting for Waikiki Beach Boys, which split its club when moving. The adult crews have mostly been at Maunalua Bay, while the youth crews are at Ke'ehi.
"It's been very challenging," Beach Boys representative Rachel Orange said. "We sent our canoes to Hawaii Kai (Maunalua) and had to borrow canoes from Imua and Ka Mamalahoe for our crews at Ke'ehi.
"Numbers-wise we're doing OK. We were a small club to begin with, mostly with adults. It's hurt the clubs with big kids programs the most."
Like Kamehameha, which estimates it lost 50 percent of its roster and is down to fewer than 50 paddlers.
"It worries me that we offered a place for kids to go after school that was constructive and good," Kamehameha's Barbara Vasold said. "I don't know where our kids went, but I don't think it was to other clubs. Some of them couldn't get to us and others had their parents forbidding them to set foot in the water.
"We're not the only ones affected by this."
Many point to the loss of the only flatwater venue for scullers, who house their shells at the Ala Wai Boathouse, as well as to athletic programs who used the canal for cross-training with surfskis and 1-man canoes.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I miss the Ala Wai," Orange said. "There's a lot of discussion about when we can go back, but a lot of people won't be comfortable about doing that for a very long time."