Outrigger Canoes Tackle the Liberty Challenge

Paddlers compete against each other in the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge.
Photo: Ken Missbrenner 


When the starting horn sounds on Pier 26 on the Hudson River this June 20, it’s safe to say that a single thought will occupy the minds of roughly 360 paddlers in their six-man
outrigger canoes: “Anybody seen the Staten Island Ferry?” 


That’s because racers in the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge, a 15-mile round-Manhattan race, have just 20 minutes from the start to clear the ferry terminal. “And, while paddlers in Hawai‘i have the right of way, there’s no stopping the Staten Island Ferry,” says Brent Aukai Beck, president of New York Outrigger, hosting the event for the 19th year. Originally from Niu Valley and now a lawyer in the Big Apple, Beck heads up a volunteer effort that includes a two-day Hawaiian and Polynesian festival of dance, music, food and  culture.


“Last year we drew 6,000,” he says. “This year’s goal is 10,000.”


Among those drawn to what resembles an obstacle course—New York Harbor is the busiest on the East Coast—are crews from all over, Australia, France, New
Zealand, Singapore, the U.S. Mainland. And, of course, contingents of expatriate kama‘āina and teams from the Islands.     


One new entrant this year is the  Keaukaha Canoe Club from Hilo. Team members slaughtered two pigs and sold the smoked meat to raise money for the trip. They’re excited to conduct a clinic on youth paddling, based on their own highly successful program back home. 


But most exciting is the prospect of what awaits them under the gaze of Miss Liberty:  9-knot currents that can tug a canoe backward, invisible monofilament fishing lines, wakes and backwash from 1,062-foot Norwegian cruise liners, and a machine-gun-mounted patrol boat from the Department of Homeland Security that will launch a boarding party if you drift too close to the Statue of Liberty. 


Author Mark Panek says Keaukaha got involved “when my auntie invited us to come stay in her apartment and do the race.” In February, the crew got priority on a canoe supplied by New York Outrigger. Now, he says, “I’m going to paddle under the Brooklyn Bridge!” 


The Liberty Challenge takes place on the Hudson River on June 20, libertychallenge.org