The canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi. Canoes were used for inter-village coastal and interisland travel, while trails within the ahupuaʻa provided access between the uplands and the coast.
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)
Today, canoe racing continues. “Canoe paddling is one of the things that our ancestors did, and a lot of people look at it as something they can do that is truly Hawaiian,” says Oʻahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association president Luana Froiseth.
During races, canoes are manned by six paddlers at a time, each with a specific duty. Practices are designed for the novice paddler to understand the fundamentals of paddle form and stroke cadence. Races seasons include sprint and long distance. (Honolulu)
But this story is not about paddling; this is about rowing.
Here, a handful of Hawaiʻi high schoolers had hopes of representing Hawaiʻi and the US in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Their boat (called a ‘shell’) was long, narrow and broadly semi-circular in cross-section in order to reduce drag to a minimum. In the rear is the coxswain (cox,) and ahead of him are four sweep rowers (different races have different numbers in the crew.)
The sweep rower sits facing toward the stern; each rower has one oar fixed in an oarlock, held with both hands (as opposed to sculling where each rower has two oars (or sculls,) one in each hand.)
In sweep or sweep-oar rowing, each rower is referred to either as port or starboard, depending on which side of the boat the rower’s oar extends to; sometimes the port side is referred to as stroke side and the starboard side as bow side.
Back in the 1960s, four Hawaiʻi high schools — ʻIolani, Punahou, Kaimuki and McKinley — had crew teams. The expense of the shell, lack of coaches and other obstacles deterred most schools from rowing. (Today, no Hawaii high school offers crew as a competitive sport.) (ʻIolani)
The ʻIolani Red Raiders (today it’s just Raiders) captured the ILH rowing crown in both heavy- and lightweight divisions for four consecutive years (1962 to 1965.)
Once, ʻIolani practiced with a visiting team from New Zealand, which had stopped in Hawaiʻi on its way to the Royal Henley Regatta in England. The New Zealanders were humbled after ʻIolani beat them soundly in some practice races.
New Zealand was so shaken by their defeat they considered abandoning Henley and returning home. But they journeyed on to England and won the four-oared event, spreading the word about those boys in Hawaii. (ʻIolani)
Then, the fateful day …
ʻIolani received an official invitation to compete in the 1964 Olympic Trials and was encouraged to participate. The event was held at Orchard Beach Lagoon, adjacent to the New York Athletic Club boathouse.
Their shell was badly handled during shipping and arrived in poor shape. In addition, the crew also arrived with problems.
Several contracted upper respiratory infections immediately upon arrival. They had to slack off on their training to give the crew a chance to recover and the boat repairs a chance to set. (It is hard to row and bail!) Things were not looking good. (Rizzuto)
“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)
Rowing for ʻIolani and representing Hawaiʻi were: Bow Oar – Ric Vogelsang ’64; Number 2 Oar – David Mather; Number 3 Oar – Donald MacKay ’64; Stroke – Charles Frazer ’64; Coxswain Ronald Reynolds ’64 and Alternates Bruce Facer ’64 and John Leeper ’65. (ʻIolani)
“We stayed competitive in the finals for the first mile. With a quarter mile to go, all of the outside crews ran into eddies and back currents and it was like hitting a wall. Lanes three and four jumped way out in front and the rest of us were left to battle for respect.” (Rizzuto)
Their coach was Jim Rizzuto, member of the varsity crew at Rutgers University from 1957 to 1960. (He later taught at Hawaiʻi Preparatory Academy and was one of my Math teachers, there.)
ʻIolani became the first high school crew to reach the finals in US Olympic Rowing competition. ʻIolani failed to win the Olympic berth, finishing sixth with a time of 6:55.4 in the Trials finals, which were won by Harvard, perennial powerhouse in crew, in 6:30.5. (ʻIolani)
Here’s a link to the 1964 Olympic Eights Trials (not ʻIolani and not their crew size – but a race in the same place at the same time:)
In 1986 the State of Hawaiʻi designated outrigger canoe paddling as the State’s official team sport. Outrigger canoe paddling became a State-sanctioned high school sport in 2002.