The Department of Land and Natural Resources has relaxed COVID-19 rules on ocean recreation, but paddling clubs are hesitant to begin racing again. 

In May, the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association canceled its two biggest races of the season, the Molokai Hoe and Na Wahine O Ke Kai, in response to social distancing orders that prohibited six-person canoes. 

However, on June 29, DLNR eased restrictions on commercial and recreational boats, allowing vessels that can hold up to 10 people — including six-man canoes — back into the water. This allowed some clubs to begin practicing again and encouraged paddlers without privately-owned vessels to get back in the water. 

The Kumulokahi Elks youth club competes against other teams from across the island in the Hu'i Wa'a canoe paddling league at Ke'ehi Lagoon on Saturday, January 12, 2019, during the Na Opio winter racing season.
Paddlers are anxious to resume racing, but this season may be shot. Here is Na Opio winter racing season of January 2019. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat




As restrictions lift and races remain canceled, many paddling clubs are looking to pivot towards different ways of generating income. 

Jim Foti, Kanaka Ikaika race director and a member of the Lanikai Canoe Club, transitioned the Kanaka Ikaika into a virtual race in March. 

Virtual racing allows paddlers to race a predetermined course in any body of water on the globe through the use of GPS-tracking devices. Each racer’s time is determined by location data recorded by the device, which logs when the paddler started and finished the course. 

Foti’s first four virtual races were held for free, so no revenue was generated outside of sponsorships and donations. 

“Most of the money from sponsors has already been spent or budgeted so money’s been pretty tight,” Foti said. 

This weekend, Foti and the Lanikai Canoe Club are preparing to hold the club’s first outdoor race as a test to see if in-person races are still possible for clubs. 

Per Oahu’s social distancing guidelines for outdoor sporting events, only the first 100 applicants will be able to race — in only single or double canoes. The race will also be available virtually for those who wish to participate but were not able to register. 

While clubs like Lanikai explore different means of staying afloat, the HCRA is still hesitant to move forward with reopening any races at all.

“It’s mostly about everyone’s safety,” Na Wahine O Ke Kai President Carleen Ornellas said. “There’s just no guarantee that we can give everyone the proper medical attention that they would need during a practice or a race.” 

In order to resume activities in six-person canoes, clubs must verify with the HCRA that they are abiding by social distancing rules, maximum group sizes, sanitation and face mask usage. 

Since the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association represents 8,000 paddlers across the state, HCRA President Mike Atwood has instructed everyone to also follow all government directives from their respective counties. However, since each county’s situation is different, directives for paddlers have very little cohesion from county to county. 

“There are so many different approaches to how to go about this,” Atwood said. “I understand it can be hard to follow exactly what we’re supposed to be doing sometimes.”  

Since Maui has only 128 out of the 1,030 COVID-19 cases in the state, paddler Delphine Berbigier often doesn’t wear masks when out on the water. 

“I feel pretty safe going back out in the water because we’re out in the open and we’re not super close to each other,” Berbigier said. “Wearing masks while paddling would be very hard; it’s a very tough sport.”

However, on Oahu, which has the bulk of the state’s cases, paddler Jane McKee says that she and her peers are very wary of spreading the virus to others when on the water.

“My friends and I wear masks at all times in the canoe and on the way to the beach,” she said. “Some of us may have at-risk family members at home, so we try to be cautious and considerate.”

Both Berbigier and McKee were disappointed to hear that the season was canceled due to the pandemic, but both agreed that the decision was necessary for the safety of the community. 

“At this point, I think a full reopen would be pointless anyway since we’d only have three months left in the season,” said McKee. “I’d rather just have a full season next year and take this summer off.” 

Berbigier similarly thinks that a season reopen would be unlikely.

“You never know,” she said. “And people are still training like there will be.” 

Waikiki Surf Club canoes along Ala Wai Canal on August 21, 2014
With restrictions on how many people can paddle at a time, it’s hard for clubs to break even financially. Here are Waikiki Surf Club canoes along Ala Wai Canal in 2014. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

According to the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association race director Luana Froiseth, a season restart will be difficult to achieve, especially since the OHCRA doesn’t qualify for some of the permits necessary to even hold a race. 

The current regulation for outside sports on Oahu allows only 100 people in a gathering and 10 people to a vessel. According to Froiseth, since a traditional racing canoe carries six people and Oahu only allows 100 people per event, that would limit events to 19 crews at most. 

“Nineteen crews will not pay the expenses of a race,” Froiseth said. “And that doesn’t even include the members of each crew that aren’t racing, such as a coach or substitute racers.” 

Froiseth says navigating this pandemic will be a teachable moment for paddlers, clubs and race officials alike. But ultimately, if a profit-generating solution is not found by the end of this season, then the 2021 season may be at risk too. 

Ornellas says that, even if the season reopens, the financial impacts may be so great for some clubs that a 2021 season would still be impossible. 

“Entries would have been way down if we did hold races this year, and since you need so many to break even on expenses, it would be hard to make any sort of profit,” Ornellas said. 

Like many other HCRA-affiliated clubs and organizations, the OHCRA mainly generates profit through HCRA membership registration fees, race events and sponsorships. But with the cancellation of all HCRA events in May and little chance of a season reopen, profit streams have almost completely dried up. 

“If we don’t make any expenses, we should be fine for this year, but we won’t have the expenses to support our paddlers like we used to,” Froiseth said in an email. “But paddling is our state sport, so we’ve really got to find a way to make it work.” 

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