Throughout the years of late-prehistory, AD 1400s – 1700s, and through much of the 1800s, the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi. Canoes were used for interisland and inter-village coastal travel.
Most permanent villages initially were near the ocean and at sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds, as well as facilitating convenient canoe travel.
The ancient Hawaiians also participated in canoe racing. When they wished to indulge this passion (including betting on the races,) people selected a strong crew of men to pull their racing canoes.
If the canoe was of the kind called the kioloa (a sharp and narrow canoe, made expressly for racing) there might be only one man to paddle it, but if it was a large canoe, there might be two, three or a large number of paddlers, according to the size of the canoe.
“The racing canoes paddled far out to sea – some, however, stayed close to the land (to act as judges, or merely perhaps as spectators), and then they pulled for the land, and if they touched the beach at the same time it was a dead heat; …”
“… but if a canoe reached the shore first it was the victor, and great would be the exultation of the men who won, and the sorrow of those who lost their property.” (Malo)
Then, another form of racing, rowing, debuted in Hawai‘i in the late-1860s. (Honolulu Rowing Club)
An early account of competitive rowing appeared in the December 16, 1871, issue of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser: “There was a race between two-oared boats, of which four were entered, Young America the winner … there was splendid rowing exhibited, and the winners became such by purely hard work.”
King Kalākaua’s birthday on November 16th, 1875 marked Hawai‘i’s first regatta with extensive rowing competition. The King, a rowing buff, viewed the event from his yacht along with other members of his royal family.
There were aquatic sports, including five-oared whaleboat races, canoe races, yacht races, and swimming. Capping the day were spectators who climbed greased poles extending over the water. (Honolulu Rowing Club)
“The Myrtle Rowing Club is the first boat club ever organized in this city, we believe. Last February some of the most energetic young gentlemen in town entered into the project of getting up the club, and it is now in a thriving condition.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 7, 1883)
“At present they number only ten, their ages vary from 16 to 22 years, yet, being very fond of boating they have built a boat house and purchased a four-oared barge, and a pair-oared shell. Unfortunately they have contracted a little debt, which it is at present out of their means to pay.”
“They are not starting their club with too much enthusiasm, and intention of letting their ardor cool down, for they intend to stick to it; but they want a little public encouragement and some pecuniary assistance to enable them to purchase better boats, either here or on the Coast, a good four-oared racing boat and a good shell.”
“They cordially invite people down to their bout-house that they may see for themselves what sort of a start has been made; and, knowing the generous support that is always given in Honolulu to encourage young men in athletic exercises, I hope that my appeal in their behalf may not be in vain. I am Old Oarsman.” (Letter to Editor, Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 7, 1883)
“Every evening the members practice in the harbor, and a laudable spirit of enterprise is manifested in the manly sport of rowing. The club owns two boats, one of which was donated to the organization by Mr. George Ashley. They also have a neat boat house down on the Esplanade, with racks for oars and other necessaries. “
“The club deserves encouragement. There is not enough life and enterprising activity among the young men in sporting matters, as a general thing, in Honolulu, but the members of this club have taken the matter of rowing in hand with the evident intention of making the sport popular, and we are confident they wili succeed.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 7, 1883)
“It would be well if another rowing club could be organized to compete generously with the Myrtle Rowing Club. Competition in sporting matters, as well as in matters of business, always promotes and invigorates, when it is entered into with a friendly desire to excel. But whether another club is organized or not, the Myrtle Rowing Club is bound to succeed, for it is very judiciously managed and has the best wishes of the whole community. (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 7, 1883)
Other clubs formed; in 1890 the Healani Boat Club, with president WE Wall, and the Leilani Boat Club, headed by David Kawānanakoa, were formed. Two years later the first regatta at Pearl Harbor was held, all three clubs raced at Pearl Harbor. (Honolulu Rowing Club)
“Rowing is very popular, especially at Honolulu, where the Myrtle and the Healani Boat Clubs have for more than twenty years been rivals in four-oared shell, six-oared and pair-oared sliding seat barge rowing contests.”
“Regatta Day, the third Saturday in September, a legal holiday, is the important rowing carnival day, but races are also held on July 4, and at other times. Occasionally crews from the other islands or from the Pacific Coast participate in these races.” (Aloha Guide, 1915)
In the 1920s, there were five rowing clubs in Hawai‘i. The men’s clubs were Myrtle and Healani from Oahu and Hilo from the Big Island. The Oahu-based Kunalu and Honolulu were the two women’s clubs. Kunalu was coached by Healani, while the Honolulu Girls were affiliated with Myrtle. (Honolulu Rowing Club)
In 1957, the Interscholastic League of Honolulu added rowing to its list of sports. Five schools competed for the inaugural ILH title: ʻIolani, Kaimuki, Mid-Pacific, McKinley and Punahou.
In 1964, ʻIolani became the first high school team in the nation to race in the finals of the Olympic Trials. “To reach the finals, we had to win a trial race (known in rowing as a “repechage.”) To do that, we had to beat the New York Athletic Club and the Penn Athletic Club. Those were all former college oarsmen and several had competed in the Olympics in the past. One of the boats was stroked by a former Olympic gold medalist.” (Rizzuto)
“Needless to say, we made it to the finals after a very hard-fought race.” (Rizzuto) The Red Raiders four-man crew finished a respectable sixth place behind winner Harvard. Despite ʻIolani’s success, the ILH dropped rowing in 1966 due to a lack of teams. ʻIolani continued their program another nine years before the sport was dropped in 1975. (Honolulu Rowing Club)