The Women Take On Kaiwi Channel

For more than two decades, Hawaii’s women canoe paddlers were told: “It can’t be done.”

Many considered the criticism as a lack of respect. But a handful of pioneers refused to sit back and sulk. These women were intent on proving that the Kaiwi Channel was not reserved for men.

“We always wanted to do it, but for us to paddle from Molokai to Oahu, we knew we needed the support of some of the guys who were willing to take the women across,” says veteran paddler Rosie Lum. “Someone willing to take a chance. Somebody who believed we were ready.”

The dream for a women’s race actually started in 1954. Two years after the first men’s race from Molokai to Oahu, a veteran women’s crew from Waikiki Surf Club proposed a similar race for women. Race officials and coaches thought they were out of their minds, saying women could-n’t handle the treacherous and unpredictable channel.


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A crew changes seats in mid-race. Ropati Hebenstreit photos.

It would take another 21 years before two crews made the first unofficial crossing. Donna Coelho-Woffe organized women from Kailua, Outrigger, Lanikai and Waikiki surf clubs and formed a crew called Onipaa. The other team was from Healani Canoe Club coached by Babe Bell. Rosie Lum was one of the trailblazers who believed it could be done.

“We trained like crazy and it was just awesome,” says an excited Lum. “Healani beat our tails that day, but when we got to the finish line at the Ilikai Hotel, we knew we had accomplished something very special.”

The women proved to the world that day that they could handle the Kaiwi. Hannie Anderson and the late Leinani Faria officiated the first crossing.

“Hannie was focused on making this happen,” says Lum. “Hannie would sell Portuguese sausage out of the back of her van! She did it all. Hannie was really the mover and shaker in fulfilling our dreams.”

In February 1979, the Na Wahine O Ke Kai Association was founded, and on Oct. 14, 1979, 17 crews took part in the first official women’s Molokai to Oahu canoe race.

“The women wanted to do this for so long, but it took 25 years before we had the first Na Wahine O Ke Kai race,” says Anderson. “Every year we sit down after the race and ask what can we do to make this a better event for the women.”

Anderson says she is grateful for the many sponsors the race has had over the years, but understands times and budgets change.

“That’s why we send out letters and ask businesses and community members every year for help,” says Anderson. “There have been years when we use our own money to make sure the women have this opportunity. That’s how much we believe in this race. That’s how much love we have for this sport.”

Today, the channel is no longer a proving ground for the women. Many who compete are world-class athletes and former Olympians who aim to shatter records.

“It’s not just crossing the channel anymore,” says Lum. “The women have developed rigorous training programs. They cross-train and they eat well. They don’t want to only compete – they want to place, some want to win! We want to help them accomplish all of their goals.”

On Sept. 23, more than 70 women crews from all over the world will take on the Kaiwi Channel for the 34th time, thanks to a group of women who dared to dream big and refused to be denied.

“You’re so blessed to be able to do something as special as this,” says Lum. “It’s not just a race, it’s a natural high. It’s euphoria!”