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Posted on: Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Paddling trip in Tahiti offers new goals for teens

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Donna Kahakui strokes hard even after five hours of paddling in sometimes choppy surf and sea in Tahiti.

She was giving a demonstration to 10 Hawai'i teenagers she took along on her Tahiti trip.

The one-week journey was to involve a series of environmental and athletic events, but it also ended up teaching the teens a much more valuable lesson: that each individual can make a difference.

The students will now launch their own community projects at home.

Mary Ann Changg

When outrigger canoe paddler Donna Kahakui took a trip to Tahiti last month with 10 teenagers representing all the main Hawaiian Islands, it was supposed to be the culmination of a series of environmental and athletic events.

Some things went as planned. Others didn't. The result: Instead of a finale, the one-week journey symbolized a new beginning for everyone associated with the nonprofit ocean environmental group Kai Makana. Especially the young people.

"I don't consider this a failure because (I) didn't reach our goal of paddling 200 miles," Kahakui said she told the students. "I consider the goal reached when I look into your faces."

Though she had originally planned to paddle more than 200 miles in a one-person outrigger canoe throughout the Society Islands during the week of Oct. 13-20, Kahakui ended up completing a little more than 60 because of dangerous conditions.

But the real purpose of this series of events which have included paddles from Maui to O'ahu, and from the Big Island to O'ahu, a circumnavigation of O'ahu and a treacherous trip down the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty was to teach kids that they as individuals can make a difference.

And it appears to be working.

Each student who accompanied Kahakui and a group of educators on the trip is now responsible for launching his or her own community project. Thus, every subsequent effort becomes less about Kahakui than the ripple effect her efforts have on everyone around her.

Students in Wai'anae plan to continue cleaning and planting in an effort to restore a nearby heiau.

Elijah Kalani Isaac, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Waimanalo Intermediate School, also wants to make a difference in his neighborhood. "I feel that I want to clean up the beaches," he said. "We have something called the back roads. There's rubbish back there. I want to make it a goal to (clean it up). I also want to learn to do more water-quality testing."

One of the activities in which students participated was teaching their Tahitian counterparts to test water quality. They also cleaned up rubbish all around Tahiti especially in Pape'ete, where a race of six-person outrigger canoes would take place. They traveled between islands on a motorized catamaran. Learned navigation in a different sky. Studied archeology. Acquired a few words in two new languages. Interacted with sting rays and sea turtles. And shared their culture by giving the Tahitians impromptu performances.

"Girls were dancing hula in the aisles," Kahakui said of the post-race performances in Pape'ete for 84 teams of six to 12 paddlers. "That was a cherished moment, when the kids stood up on their own to do oli mahalo (a chant giving thanks). They had no problem picking up the 'ukulele and just going for it."

Watching the students share their Hawaiian culture not because they were told, but because they wanted to, gave the trip a feeling of "purpose and meaning," Kahakui said.

"In one week," she added, "I think they grew years in their thoughts. They surpassed any kind of hope I had."

The students weren't the only ones to evolve. "For me, it was a trip of lessons," Kahakui said. "And I learned so many."

Safety on the ocean was one. The reason Kahakui did not paddle the entire 200 miles was not for lack of will. Only one escort boat was available on the dangerous, 100-mile leg from Moorea to Huahine. Kahakui and her crew felt that they needed at least three in case of an emergency.

So after much deliberation, they opted not to go. The choice was wise: That boat was found the next day, floating without a Global Positioning Satellite, out of gas.

The trek from Huahine to Raiatea was another problem. It was supposed to be only 24 miles. The crew set out at 3 a.m. so Kahakui could finish in time to sit in as a member of a six-woman team from Hawai'i in a 30-mile outrigger canoe race later in the morning.

But a 25-knot headwind blew against her, and a current battled her Tahitian one-person canoe.

"It was kind of sketchy," she said. "There was no lighting system, so the escort boat wasn't lit. You couldn't see a wave until it hit you."

At one point, she and the escort boat lost contact.

"It was like paddling Moloka'i in pitch black," she said, emphasizing that nothing was visible not even the distant lights of an island. When boat and paddler found each other after a frantic search, a crew member made the decision to pull her out and return to Huahine because of the danger.

"As much as I hate to say it," she said, "it was the right call."

Though Kahakui typically insists on finishing everything she sets out to do, she learned to avoid dwelling on what wasn't working, and instead make the best of each situation. And to look ahead.

The students have learned from her example. They brought home a bit of Tahitian culture and environmental knowledge, and will now pass along their passion for taking care of the ocean and its surroundings to young people in communities throughout Hawai'i.