What sports paraphernalia do your kids cherish? Bat, ball and glove, soccer ball, football, hockey or lacrosse stick, basketball?

Here in Hawaii, kids have surfboards, of course. They tote them to the beaches on bikes, simply carry them, or are lucky enough to have cooperative parents willing to put racks on the roofs of their cars.

Less familiar to visitors is the canoe paddle. Paddling and canoe racing comprise one of the most popular activities in the Hawaiian islands. Hawaii has more than 60 canoe clubs and more than 5000 people are actively involved in the sport. Actually, the number goes far beyond that, as friends and extended families flock to paddling events.

Long-distance races continue to grow in popularity. The annual Molokai-Oahu race is a highly-promoted, grueling channel-crossing, and on the Big Island the Queen Liliuokalani Race on the west shore now is attracting canoes and their owners from all over the islands.

All paddlers, even the very young ones, know that the waves are capricious. A calm surface can change abruptly into a raging turbulence of foam. Every paddler must learn about the swell, wind, and vastness of the sea. Each is steeped in Hawaiian history, guided by the ancient Hawaiians, for whom the canoe brought life in the form of fish protein.

More than a millennium before Captain Cook arrived, a group of intrepid Polynesians braved the Pacific in search of land. They traveled by canoe at night, without instruments, and depended on the stars guide their way.

When they reached Hawaii, they discovered the giant koa tree, from which they could craft canoe hulls out of a single piece. Because they also discovered that the rough waters surrounding the islands made fishing challenging at best, the building of the canoe became a religious procedure.

A specially-trained kahuna (Hawaiian priest), alert to any propitious or disastrous signs, would search for the perfect site and tree. His guide was the elepaio, a Hawaiian bird attracted to rotting koa wood. If the bird liked the tree, the kahuna knew not to use it.The canoe’s final consecration, before its maiden voyage, included the sacrifice of a pig and a dog. The pig symbolized the ‘rooting’ of the canoe into the open sea, and the dog the tearing apart the billows of the ocean.

Today, a day at the races is a big deal not only for the paddlers, but for onlookers, as well. Pigs may be sacrificed for the inevitable tailgaiting, and family dogs are safe to circle the raucous, cheering throngs in hopes of finding dropped morsels. In the meantime, TV cameras capture all the action for the evening news.

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