Hawaiian Paddle Sports

The latest trend in water sports on Maui is called canoe surfing—and it’s just as fun as it sounds.

September 02, 2015

It’s hard to find something more Hawaiian than surfing an outrigger canoe. After all, it’s widely believed that the Polynesians invented the sport of surfing, and the outrigger canoe was their ancient mode of inter-island transport. Even when visiting Hawaii today, these are two of the Islands’ most popular water activities. People will spend their morning learning to ride a wave, and later study the proper strokes for paddling an outrigger canoe.

But thanks to a new offering from Hawaiian Paddle Sports, visitors to Maui can combine their surfing with outrigger canoeing—doubling down on the level of fun you can have out on the waves (from $119 per person). When canoe surfing, as it’s aptly known, you paddle into a wave while seated in an outrigger canoe, and then turn the boat to ride it in the same way you would on a surfboard.

It’s a salty dose of island adrenaline unlike any other on Maui, where the wave suddenly grabs your boat and slowly lifts you upwards—your paddle churning the frothing surface to quickly gain more speed. In the back of the boat, an expert steersman adjusts his paddle to move the canoe, and with hands raised above your head bracing for a splash, your shrieking crew races across the face of a breaking wave.

Unlike traditional six-man canoes that are used for transport and races, surfing canoes hold only four people and are wider, shorter, and stronger. By using a canoe—as opposed to a surfboard—paddlers can harness a wave’s energy much earlier than on a board, and enjoy a longer, smoother ride that’s akin to flying on water. Since the trained steersman handles the fine maneuvering, paddlers up front are free to do tricks or lift each other in the air.

If you’re feeling brave—and have perfect balance—ask to ride the ama the next time you catch a wave; if you pull it off, you’ll be riding the outrigger arm like a surfboard—tightly curling and flexing your toes in an effort to not fall off.

While canoe surfing is new to Maui’s visitor scene, the sport has existed in the islands as long as Hawaiians themselves. Historically, canoe surfing was an island sport exclusively reserved for ali‘i—the ruling class of nobles and kings who served as Hawaiian royalty. When the kapu system was lifted, however, beginning in 1819, commoners such as fishermen and farmers could join in the high-speed sport.

Now, thanks to Hawaiian Paddle Sports, visitors have a fresh new way to paddle, surf, splash, flip, and fly down the face of a wave. Best of alln photos are included—so your friends might actually believe it when you say you surfed a canoe in Hawaii.  

Kyle Ellison is on the Hawaii beat for Travel + Leisure. He divides his time between Hawaii and Asheville, N.C.

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