Female Junior and Senior Paddlers Will Race in Nā Wāhine O Ke Kai for the First Time


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The Hawaiian Airlines Nā Wāhine O Ke Kai race will have two new divisions this year.
Diamond Head beckons the women of team Wa‘akapaemua, paddling from their home island of Moloka‘i. They placed 10th out of 66 crews in last year’s race.
Photo: Johann Meya

 

Blustery sea spray blasts sun-kissed cheeks. Salt and sweat crystallizes on skin. Muscles pound and fingers blister. Diamond Head comes in view; it’s the homestretch. The paddlers forge ahead: nā wāhine o ke kai—the women of the ocean.

As many as 80 crews are expected to participate in the 36th annual Hawaiian Airlines Nā Wāhine O Ke Kai race from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu on Sept. 21. This year, for the first time, two new divisions include seniors and racers as young as 16.

Until 1979, women were excluded from the cross-channel race. “Some of us had spouses or boyfriends who were racing [in the original Moloka‘i hoe], and we could go across as [crew] helpers, so we decided, ‘We could do this,’” paddler and race committee
member Carleen Ornellas says.

She can’t recall how many times she’s crossed the Ka‘iwi channel—“I think it’s more than 30 times,” she says with a laugh. Women come back every year, building strong bonds with their teams, Ornellas says. “For many of the women, it’s a lifetime of friendship.”

 

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