Say ‘Aloha’ to Paddling for Fitness

The world might be a better place if people simply followed what Hawaiians have done for centuries—paddled together.

A six-person outrigger canoe is all about unity. With each paddle stroke, you feel the power of laulima, the Hawaiian word for “many hands working together.”

“There’s an incredible healing aspect to being on the water,” says Mahe Keliipaakaua of Maui Paddle Sports, a company that offers guided outrigger canoe trips on West Maui.

It’s also a great workout that anyone—from children to senior citizens—can do.

During a spring visit to Hawaii, our crew hit the water in the Maui Paddle Sports canoe from the tourist center of Ka’anapali Beach. Along for the ride were a couple from Danville, CA—Joyce Fennessey, in her 70s, and her husband Jim, celebrating his 80th birthday.

After grabbing paddles, we took our seats and learned the basics, following the lead of our guide Lyndsay Greenan. The number one concept is to keep your strokes synchronized—many hands working together—to most efficiently propel the canoe. With a little practice, we quickly got the hang of it.

It was an amazingly smooth and stable ride despite the choppy, trade wind-whipped water, thanks to our outrigger, or ama, as it is called in Hawaiian. It’s easy to see how outrigger canoes have been used for centuries to travel amid the wild seas of the South Pacific.

Our tour took us up and down the scenic West Maui coastline, and after a couple of hours, we returned to the beach.

“It was a great workout,” Joyce said afterward. “And it was a challenge, but I got into the flow.”

Something about paddling also struck Jim.

“It’s a very meditative experience,” he said. “It felt kind of spiritual,” agreed Joyce.

That’s an apt description. As you paddle an outrigger, you can’t help but stay in the moment, quieting your busy brain with each stroke—and because you’re working as a team, it feels like you’re sharing that meditation.

In other words, you feel laulima.

While paddling is certainly good for the soul, what about the body?

“It’s a great core workout—you’re working your whole body, really,” Greenan says. It might look like paddling is all about arm strength, but you actually work your shoulders and latissimus dorsi, the muscles under your shoulder blades on your back. “The best paddlers have huge lats,” she adds.

Greenan, like many transplants to Hawaii, has embraced the paddling culture by joining a club team. “It’s an amazing way to get linked in with your community,” she says. Paddling clubs are part of Hawaii much like rec league softball teams are common on the mainland.

“Being a great paddler in Hawaii is like being a great hockey player in Canada. People here grow up paddling,” adds Keliipaakaua.

Iokepa Naoele, 56, is one such Maui paddler who has been on the ocean his entire life. As manager of ocean activities at Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, Naoele now revels in introducing visitors to the outrigger canoeing tradition and says there’s no better way to experience the islands.

“When I take people out in the canoe, I take them back in history,” says Naoele, who offers guided excursions in a brand new six-person canoe. “I want a family that comes to visit to be able to go home with this experience,” he adds. “It’s not just a ride—it’s rooted in our culture.” And once you try it, you might get hooked.

“It’s a lifestyle here,” Naoele adds. “It’s more than just a club or a recreational activity.”

Once you’ve experienced the outrigger canoe, you might want to try a much newer form of paddling. Stand-up paddle boards, commonly called SUPs, have exploded in popularity worldwide in recent years, and like outrigger canoes, they originated in the South Pacific.

Today, stand-up paddling is one of the most popular activities in Hawaii. Naoele says novices will want to take a lesson since standing up on a tippy board requires some practice before you feel comfortable.

But once you get the hang of it, you’ll get a great workout. “You feel it in your back, your legs and shoulders and abs,” says Naoele.

John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle.



Outrigger paddling

Several easy options for paddling are available in the Seattle area:

Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club (Lake Union)

Hui Wa’a O Wakinikona (Lake Union)

Sand Point Paddling Club (Lake Washington)

Kikaha O Ke Kai (Commencement Bay)


Stand-Up Paddling

Many outfitters offer stand-up paddle boards in the Seattle area:

Surf Ballard (Shilshole Bay)

Thunderbird Stand Up Paddling (Lake Union)

Alki Kayak Tours (West Seattle)

Dolan’s Board Sports (Tacoma)


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