Kaanapali canoesMay sunshine has been warming West Maui's Kaanapali Beach for hours now, and the sand is a bit too hot for bare feet. I've joined a group gathering in the shade of a large beach canopy not far from a line of sailing canoes. The bright, angular sails twist and rustle in a gentle breeze.

Folks have come from all over the Kaanapali Beach Resort to sign up for a short ride on the canoes and the chance to mingle with their crews.

Although the boats, known as waa kiakahi in Hawaiian, are made of contemporary components such as cotton rope and fiberglass, they were built following traditional ancient Hawaiian design.

The previous afternoon, nine of the canoe pros had completed the four-hour, Kahului-to-Kaanapali leg of an annual series of interisland races. Today is a chance to introduce visitors and residents to the unique vessels and to boost understanding about Hawaii's extraordinarily rich history of sailing. Tomorrow, it's back to racing and the 30 miles or so separating Maui from Molokai.

"These people are so devoted and purposeful when it comes to their love of the canoe culture, so it's great to hang out with them and listen and learn from them," said Shelley Kekuna, executive director for the Kaanapali Beach Resort Association. "And guests at the resort have the opportunity to take as little or as much away from it as they want."

I don't wait long under the canopy before it's my turn to scamper over the hot sand and take up a position near the canoes.

A briefing on how to push the boat off the beach and beyond the shore break follows. Six of us first-timers are then lined up at regular intervals along the vessel -- I'm next to the front seat -- and with the signal, we're all pushing.

It's lighter work than I expected, and I'm waist deep in the warm Pacific in no time. From there, I hoist myself up into the canoe and grab a paddle waiting beneath the seat. A few off-rhythm strokes follow, but I'm rowing in unison with the team shortly after.

Ten minutes or so later, I've gained a profound respect for the people who actually race in these canoes. My arms are burning, my back is a wreck and I'm skipping strokes at a shameful rate. Even so, the ride's been spectacular, especially the rhythmic sound of the paddles on the water and the stunning views not so far off Molokai and Lanai.

Visit www.kaanapaliresort.com.

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