Every 4th of July canoe paddlers from around Oahu join thousands of tourists at Waikiki Beach for the Outrigger Canoe Club’s annual Walter J. Macfarlane Memorial Canoe Regatta. The Macfarlane Regatta is the only wave race on the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association schedule and is the oldest outrigger canoe race in the world, getting its start in 1943.
The regatta is named after Walter J. Macfarlane, a part-Hawaiian Territorial Legislator, avid waterman, businessman and president of the Outrigger Canoe Club at the time of his death in June 1943.
The Club had held canoe races as part of water carnivals periodically since 1910 and was planning its 1943 Kamehameha aquatic carnival when Macfarlane passed away. The Club’s Board of Directors decided to honor its president by naming the races for him.
Canoe racing is Hawaii’s state sport and more than 2,000 paddlers compete in the Macfarlane Regatta in races from 1/4 mile to 1 1/2 miles. A total of 42 events ranging from Boys and Girls 12 and under to Masters Men and Women 65 make up the race program.
A special race was added in 2010 to honor the nation’s military. Service members from the island’s five branches Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard compete against each other on a 1/2 mile course to win bragging rights and get their name on the USS Arizona Award. The trophy features a relic from the USS Arizona which was destroyed on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan to start World War II.
While other OHCRA regattas are conducted in relatively calm seas, the Macfarlane Regatta features surf breaking across Waikiki’s Mamala Bay. Clubs select their best steersmen and women who try to get their canoe in a position to catch a wave to the finish line.
The most fun regattas are when the surf is from 2-4 feet and many canoes are on the same wave. On big surf days canoes swamp or huli, and canoes have even crossed the finish line completely filled with water.
Surf is unpredictable and some years the course is flat and crews have to paddle the entire way. In other years the surf has reached as high as eight-feet. That’s the thrill of the Macfarlane. And it’s what makes the course records so hard to break.
On every other day of the year Waikiki Beach and Mamala Bay are filled with surfers, outrigger canoes, stand-up paddleboards and swimmers all jockeying for space in the ocean. On Macfarlane Regatta day, the race course belongs exclusively to the outrigger canoes, much as it was in 1908 when Outrigger held its first outrigger canoe race in the same location.
Until 1979 all canoe clubs raced in their prized koa canoes, as required by OHCRA race rules. That year Waikiki Surf Club’s koa canoe Malia collided with another canoe and lost its bow. Beginning in 1980 OHCRA gave canoe clubs the option of using fiberglass canoes in the surf race. Ironically the only koa canoe in the 1980 race was the Malia. In 1981 the Malia was damaged again when another canoe rammed into her causing four 30-foot and three 20-foot cracks in her side. That was the last time a koa canoe competed in the Macfarlane. While it saddened many, clubs could not take a chance on losing their most prized possessions.The Macfarlane Regatta allows open steering, where a club can elect to have an experienced wave steersman replace the crew’s regular flatwater steersman. Steersmen are often the key to a club’s performance in the race. Based on their knowledge of the surf and the course, they move out of their lane to where they think they have the best chance of catching a bump or a wave. And then, of course, they have to get back and finish in their assigned lane. All of the jockeying is what makes watching the regatta so exciting for the spectators. And a wave can often decide who wins and who doesn’t.
There have been a lot of “interesting” things happen in the Macfarlane.
In 1950, there was a high summer surf and in the senior girls race, the winning canoe paddled by Waikiki Surf Club finished stern first. It had swamped about 100 yards off the finish line, and instead of giving up and bailing, the girls kept paddling with only the ama above water until they crossed the finish line.
In 1956 the races were postponed because of really high surf and held four days later when the ocean calmed down.
In 1969, the 4th of July was also First Break and at times the entire Waikiki Beach closed out. At least 30 canoes swamped during the day’s races. For those that got out through the surf, caught a wave and stayed dry, there were some spectacular rides to shore. However, few did. The OCC Junior Men caught the biggest wave of the day, an eight-footer, which wiped them out. “We were in the tube with no place to go,” paddler Henry Ayau was quoted as saying.
In 1977, 12 canoes swamped or capsized, or both, in the heavy surf and two of the koa boats suffered structural damage as well. Bailing buckets replaced paddlers in several events.
In 1985, Fred Hemmings Jr. was steering the Outrigger Boys 18 crew when he yelled at them to jump out of the boat just before they hit a big wave. The canoe suddenly some 1,000 pounds lighter, without its crew, eased over the wave. The boys scrambled back in and won the race.
The first regatta in 1943 featured nine canoe races, a sailboat race and a canoe tug of war. The main event was the Senior Men’s 6-man event which was won by a crew from the Outrigger that included Tom Arnott, Bob Bush, Jim Fernie, John Beaumont, Thad Ekstrand and was steered by Olympic Gold Medalist Duke Kahanamoku.
Outrigger also won the women’s 6 event with a crew of Greta Ross, Nita Hayes, Marcia Bowers, Anna Morris and Roselle Robinson. They were coached and steered by Bob Fischer, long an advocate of women’s paddling crews. The perpetual trophy for the Novice B Women’s race is named in memory of Fischer.
The Matson Navigation Company donated a perpetual trophy for the senior men’s race in memory of Walter J. Macfarlane. This trophy is the oldest of the perpetual trophies for the race, and has the names of all winning crews placed on silver plates on the pedestal of the trophy. In a tradition started by Macfarlane’s mother, Alice Kamokila Campbell, the winning senior men sip champagne out of the bowl, and then invite the second place crew to join them.
Other the years the Outrigger has added additional perpetual trophies for the race. In 1984, Walter’s sister Muriel Macfarlane Flanders, donated a silver trophy for the winning senior women to complement the men’s trophy. This trophy also bears the names of the winning senior women. In the same year, Mrs. Flanders donated milo bowls to be used as perpetual trophies for the winning masters and senior masters women.
Mrs. Flanders grandson, Walter Guild, crafted a magnificent koa racing canoe which he dedicated to his grandmother, to be used a trophy for the winning Boys 18 race. Other perpetual trophies go to the winning Boys and Girls 12s, the Girls 18, the Novice B men and women, and the masters and senior masters men.
The Macfarlane family has remained involved with the regatta since its inception. Walter Macfarlane’s mother participated in the awards ceremony each year until her death. Her daughter Muriel Macfarlane Flanders presided over the awards ceremony after her mother. Mrs. Flanders’ daughters Alice Flanders Guild and Mary Flanders Philpotts-McGrath followed in their mother’s footsteps. Now Muriel’s grandchildren participate in the award presentations.
Waikiki is always a colorful place with its blue skies and white puffy clouds, gentle surf and beach, colorful surfboards and canoes, and sunbathers, but never more so than on the 4th of July. The Macfarlane Regatta adds a touch of nostalgia as the tourists and locals enjoy the sport of kings and provide a glimpse of what Waikiki was like a century ago when the Outrigger Canoe Club was one of the only buildings on the beach, and its canoes and surfboards glistened in the summer sun as they gracefully slid down the faces of the plentiful waves.
The Walter J. Macfarlane Memorial Canoe Regatta is an Outrigger Canoe Club tradition founded in its mission of perpetuating the sports of old Hawaii for the people of Hawaii and the world.