Remembering A Great Steersmen

Tommy Conner | Cindy Ellen Russell /Honolulu. Star-Advertiser photo

The pressure to execute was at a level I had never experienced before in a canoe and, paddling in seat five, I found myself repeating over and over in my head: “Watch your technique, concentrate on your timing and minimize your mistakes!”

I’m not sure if others in the canoe were experiencing that same anxiety, but I knew the man steering us in the seat behind me was not your ordinary paddler. Tommy Conner demanded excellence and had little tolerance for errors. He was a living legend, and I was humbled to be racing with him.

The race from Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore to Makaha Beach on the leeward coast is one of the more picturesque and challenging courses in long-distance canoe racing. There are downhill runs, headwind runs and in some areas, runs that make you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

Tommy was a fierce competitor who was blessed with the gift of reading the ocean. It was all business in his canoe, no unnecessary chatter. Everyone had a job to do.

“Ron, have you ever steered before?” he asked as we approached Kaena Point.

“Not in a race,” I responded sheepishly.

“Well, you will today. You’re going to help me steer us through this gap.”

There was no time to argue or even debate. Our canoe was racing toward what appeared to be a tiny opening between two large rocks. Tommy yelled out, “Now!” I took a deep breath and planted my paddle into the water. Our canoe zoomed through the gap and burst forward like it was launched out of a cannon.

“All right, let’s take this one home, gentlemen!” said Tommy.

Our crew would finish fourth overall – the first time I had ever finished in the top 10.

“It was an honor paddling with you today,” I said to Tommy on the beach at Makaha.

“You did well, Ron. Thank you.”

I couldn’t believe my ears: One of Hawaii’s finest watermen was thanking me. The man who steered 11 winning crews in the prestigious Molokai Hoe was expressing his gratitude for my hard work. “You’re welcome.”

Tommy was a man with great wisdom who was willing to share his knowledge with those who wanted to learn. He was the head coach at Outrigger Canoe Club in the late 1970s and would later serve in the same capacity at Lanikai Canoe Club. He often is credited with bringing the surf ski to Hawaii and was one of the leaders in canoe design and performance.

Two years ago, I got another chance to learn from the master. Tommy had volunteered to serve as our escort boat captain during the Molokai Hoe. He was calm, yet vocal when he had to be. For several intense hours I focused on everything he said, knowing his words came with years of experience and success. What I didn’t know is that crossing of Kaiwi Channel would be one of his last ones ever.

We later learned that Tommy was diagnosed with cancer. He would fight the disease head-on for months before losing the battle last month. He was only 68.

Mahalo nui loa, Tommy, for all that you did for the sport of canoe paddling. You touched many lives, and you will be missed.

Hawaii Ocean Expo

The annual Hawaii Ocean Expo is set for Saturday and Sunday at Neal Blaisdell Exhibition Hall.

“The poke contest has grown,” says Russ Inouye, one of the expo’s founders. “We do three categories: ahi, tako and vegetarian. The winner of each category wins a trip for two to anywhere Alaska Air flies!”

Inouye says this year the expo also will present an Ocean Award to individuals who are over 65 years old and have helped perpetuate some type of ocean activity over the years.

“We want to build this event and really make it the Oscars of the ocean for Hawaii!” says Inouye.

Hawaii Ocean Expo’s vision is to create an annual exposition where everyone who is “ocean-minded” can come together to share knowledge and experience of Hawaii’s ocean-centric culture through an action-packed weekend of activities and events.

For more information, go to