Making Aka Proud In Boston Regatta

Fred Hemmings in Boston with the canoe named for his brother ACCESSSPORTAMERICA.ORG PHOTO

Fred Hemmings in Boston with the canoe named for his brother

While thousands of Hawaii canoe paddlers were preparing for this year’s state championships at Keehi Lagoon, a group of paddlers was competing in its own regatta 5,027 miles away.

The 12th annual Mayor’s Cup Regatta in Boston has deep roots in Hawaii, and this year it had an even stronger Island presence.

“This year Fred Hemmings traveled to Boston to participate,” says William Yates, who was born and raised in Honolulu but now calls Boston home. “The regatta started with a dedication of a Hawaiian outrigger canoe in memory of his late brother Aka, who is the inspiration for adaptive outrigger canoeing throughout the world.”

“It was stunning to see and paddle a Hawaiian canoe on the Charles River in Boston,” says an excited Hemmings. “It is quite complimentary how Hawaiian canoe racing has become a gift to the world.”

Yates and Fred Hemmings were classmates at Punahou School before Yates moved to the Mainland to attend boarding school. Yates started paddling after he became a successful businessman in Boston, and did so because he was missing home. His passion for the sport quickly grew, and soon he started building four-man canoes for paddlers on the East Coast, giving some of them to adaptive athletes.

“This wonderful man, William Yates, redesigned the four-man canoe to serve those with disabilities,” says Hemmings. “The four-man canoe in Hawaii is made for surfing, but he took it and stretched it out, lassoed them together for safety reasons and now they’re racing them! Bill has contributed significantly to making a difference in people’s lives.”

In April 2012, we said aloha to one of Hawaii’s finest oceanmen in Aka Hemmings. He was a champion for the disabled and proudly founded Pure Light, an organization that provided outrigger canoe racing opportunities for those with disabilities.

“I remember when Aka first started Pure Light,” recalls Hemmings. “I remember helping with a young boy who had an absolutely graceful smile on his face and then seeing his mother with tears in her eyes. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

But like Aka, Yates wanted more. He too wanted to provide paddling opportunities for those with disabilities in Boston. In 2004, his vision became a reality when he founded The Mayor’s Cup Regatta. Today the event is sponsored by businesses throughout New England. Over the past decade, it has raised more than $2 million to fund AccesSportAmerica, a national nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for kids and adults with disabilities to participate with families and friends in high-challenge sports like outrigger canoeing.

“Aka left us too early, and it was heartwarming they dedicated a canoe in his name,” says Hemmings. “What was also special is there were several Punahou alumni on the East Coast at the time, so we had about 30 graduates at the race. We even brought water from the Punahou lily spring for the blessing. It was a traditional Hawaiian blessing.”

Thirty-three teams of amateurs paddled canoes, rigged catamaran-style, in order to minimize the possibility of flipping over. Every team included paddlers with and without disabilities.

“I’ve always said the best way to preserve our culture is to live it, whether it’s through hula, surfing or canoe paddling,” says Hemmings.

Aka would be very proud.