November 12, 2023

‘Perpetuating the Hawaiian culture’: Outrigger canoe teams bring sport, community to Arizona

Hawaiian outrigger canoeing is a sport where six people paddle a narrow, 40-foot canoe and compete in distance and sprint races.

Outrigger Canoe Tempe From the front, Hedy Downing, Laura Tallman, Alison Lee, Alicia Lin Kee, and Margaret Coulombe, practice paddling at Tempe Town Lake on Oct. 21, 2023. The group, including Na Leo ’O Ke Kai and Team Arizona members, prepares for an upcoming race in Parker.
Kevinjonah Paguio, Cronkite News

A piece of Hawaiian culture has transplanted itself into Arizona, a state not known for its aquatic sports and activities. Na Leo ’O Ke Kai (Na Leo) and Team Arizona (TAZ) outrigger canoe clubs are two Arizona organizations that provide an outlet for Hawaiian culture and sport to thrive.

Hawaiian outrigger canoeing is a sport where six people paddle a narrow, 40-foot canoe and compete in distance and sprint races. They assume different roles: Some are in charge of setting the pace, others are the powerhouses, while the person in the stern steers and gives commands.

“I kind of think of it like cogs in a clock,” Ryan Udarbe, president of Na Leo, said. “Everybody has to move at the same time, in exactly the same speed, or else you’re going to throw everything off.”

For Udarbe, outrigger canoeing was an integral part of his childhood.

“It’s just one of the things you do growing up,” Udarbe, who is from Maui, said. After moving to the mainland, Udarbe stopped participating in the sport because he wasn’t aware of any outrigger canoe clubs. He estimates he had been away from the sport for about 30 years before joining Na Leo.

“When you move here, you kind of, I guess, assimilate to the culture here,” he said. “I was missing being around my people and my culture.”

He then encountered the Na Leo outrigger canoe club during the Arizona Aloha Festival in Tempe, and it restarted his involvement with the sport.

While he enjoys the competitive aspect of outrigger canoeing, Udarbe said that it’s more about the people.

“All the different clubs, even though we race against each other, we’re all still one big family,” he said.

As Na Leo president, he wanted to bring the club and TAZ together and perpetuate the ’Ohana Wa’a, or family of the canoe, spirit he saw back in Hawaii. The two teams practice together, enjoy each other’s company, and support each other whenever they can.

Hawaii is a chain of islands surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Arizona is a landlocked desert state with little water. Hawaii has tropical weather that is consistently described as “paradise.” Arizona had 30 straight days of temperatures greater than 110 degrees this summer.

The Arizona desert could not be more starkly different from Hawaii, but outrigger canoeing found its way here.

Joey Kau, who is from Oahu and paddles for Na Leo, said he wanted his kids to have the cultural experience the sport provides. His reason for being in an outrigger canoe club in Arizona is “staying rooted and being in touch with my culture.”

Edward “Uncle” Martin, who is also from Oahu and paddles for TAZ, encourages anyone willing to learn the sport and its cultural significance to participate: “Come paddle.”

The members of Na Leo and TAZ outrigger canoe clubs showcase the resilience of Hawaiian sport and culture.

“Ultimately, it’s more about the people, just connecting and keep perpetuating the Hawaiian culture of ‘ohana,’ and just spread the aloha,” Udarbe said.

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