It looks serene in the footage, the long slender fiberglass canoe and its outrigger slicing through sapphire water or filmed from below, silhouetted against the clear green of the shallows. The oars move in rhythm, the paddlers bend their broad backs to the task. And it is, in fact, quiet—if not exactly peaceful.
“There’s not a lot of talking going on inside the canoe,” says Santa Cruz paddler Matt Muirhead, a veteran of long-distance outrigger voyages and one of the featured paddlers in Family of the Wa’a, screening this Sunday. (Wa’a is the Hawaiian word for outrigger.) “There’s actually two teams of six, so while one team’s in the canoe the other’s on the support boat. And that’s kind of where all the dialog is: ‘I’m tired, my hands hurt, I need to eat, I need to sleep, we were off time, giant waves, it was absolute black’—all those things.”
In 2008, the Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society completed the final leg of a 1,750-mile journey from Oahu to the northwestern tip of the Hawaiian archipelago, a project begun in 2002. For those last 400 miles, a film crew came along. Director Alyssa Fedele and producer and cinematographer Zachary Fink—both of whom will attend Sunday’s screening—and other crewmembers documented the runup to the voyage and the trip itself. Interviews with Kimokeo Kapahulehua, the local man who provides the spiritual link to the old Hawaiian ways, and paddler Kendall Struxness, a stage 4 colon cancer patient at the time of the trip, set the tone for the story: the stakes are high. It’s a matter of life and death, both for the Hawaiians and their traditions, under relentless pressure from modernity, and for a man wishing to finish one task as he faces his mortality.
The voyage is grueling. For five days and nights, two teams of six take turns paddling in hour-long shifts. A Zodiac ferries them between the canoe and the support boat; footage of a nighttime changeover in rough seas gives us to understand that to slip off the Zodiac as it rises and plunges 10 feet or more in pitch black next to the boat is to be in very big trouble. On their off hours the paddlers, desperate for sleep and food, sprawl out on the deck or shovel calories into their exhausted bodies. Some of them ramble. Some seem to reach a trancelike state of bliss.
Muirhead, one of four Santa Cruz paddlers on the journey (all will be at the screening Sunday), helped form the Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society. He says it’s qualitatively different from racing. “Every voyage is like a lifetime that is condensed into small days,” he says. “And within those small days, all of us experience failures and successes. Everybody does it somewhat for their own voice and their own reason. But one of the things that’s obvious is that when you leave one shore and strive to reach a new shore, everybody arrives a little bit changed.”
FAMILY OF THE WA’A screens Sunday, Oct. 16 at 7pm at the Rio Theatre. Director Alyssa Fedele and producer Zachary Fink, along with Matt Muirhead and other Santa Cruz paddlers featured in the film, appear in person. Free.