Hawaiian tradition lives with a blessing of Kai Wai canoes

“We ask for the safety of people in the canoes,” Naomi Leinala Kalama said.|

A bright spring morning smiled on a group of paddlers and family gathered at the Petaluma Marina on Saturday for the blessing of a fleet of six torpedo-shaped canoes, the property and pride of the Kai Wai outrigger canoe club.

The blessing was in keeping with a Hawaiian tradition that ties the three-year-old Petaluma-based club to the centuries-old Hawaiian sport of outrigger canoe racing, and was an important and spiritual festivity for Kai Wai Club members who put an emphasis on respecting Polynesian, and specifically, Hawaiian culture.

In keeping with tradition, the local club brought in Naomi Leinala Kalama, a kuma (Hawaiian teacher or priestess) from Sacramento to preside over the blessing. She is the daughter of Noah Kalama, the founder of Newport Outrigger, and is regarded as the originator of outrigger canoe paddling in California and the United States mainland.

“We ask for the safety of people in the canoes. “We ask that they (the paddlers) have strong backs, strong arms and sharp minds,” she said.

The blessing allowed the local club members to practice another strong Hawaiian tradition – community and family. The short ceremony was followed by an afternoon of socializing with food and a performance of Hawaiian Hulu.

Kimo Garrigan, one of the club founders, said the Kai Wai has held blessing ceremonies in previous years, but Saturday was different.

“This was the first time we brought in an official Hawaiian priestess,” he said. “Because of COVID this is the first time we have had a full year together as a club, and we wanted to do it right.”

Practiced on its highest level, outrigger canoe racing is a strenuous and physically demanding racing sport that can be as far as the 41-mile Molokai to Waikki race that is Hawaii largest sporting event.

Six-person teams from Kai Wai race in events up and down the Pacific Coast in the 42-foot long narrow canoes made of fiberglass. The club also has much more moderate practices and events for kids and beginners on the Petaluma River.

The club is rapidly growing. Even with COVID-19 disrupting lives, it has increased from an original 10 to now more than 60 in just three years.

This year, club officials are focusing on getting more kids involved.

“We want to introduce kids to Hawaiian culture and show them how to enjoy their environment whether it is in the ocean or on a lake or in the river,” explained Kai Wai club president Carlos Perez.

“Because of COVID we haven’t really promoted the club,” explained Garrigan. “We want to let families know we’re here. A lot of kids may not be into organized sports and this might be right for them.”

He said Kai Wai has partenered with Mentor Me, Friends of the Petaluma River and Petaluma River Float House to help introduce youngsters to outrigger canoe paddling, and plans to hold youth camps on the river.

Noting the club’s clubhouse with room to store the canoes at the Marina, Perez said, “We are very grateful to be in the position we are in.”

You might say they are blessed.

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