Island Life Inside


Posted on: Friday, November 24, 2000

Paddling to save the ocean

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

It was an act of courage, strength, and, to hear witnesses tell it, sheer stubbornness, that few of us could ever imagine.

In 1999, Donna Kahi Kahakui paddled solo from ĎUpolu Point on the Big Island to Waikiki, covering 140 miles in three days.

Now, when I say "solo," I donít mean that Kahi was all by herself out in the open ocean. She had an escort boat captained by Nainoa Thompson to make sure she stayed on course. She had a medic to check her vital signs, look into her eyes when she got delirious, and run an IV when she got to the point where she couldnít keep liquids down. She had friends and supporters cheering her on, telling her that she had it in her to finish, reminding her of why she set out on this journey in the first place.

But the paddling part, she did that all by herself. It was her strong arms, her powerful back, and her huge spirit that made the crossing.

I love Kahiís story because itís so full of lessons for the rest of us couch-sitting, TV-watching, Cheetos-eating mortals. I like to think that weíre all on journeys. Some are brave enough to set out on their own. Others sort of get pushed out by the tide or pulled out by the current.

Doesnít matter if youíve never been on a boat in your life; at a certain point, you understand on a very deep level what itís like to be so far out to sea that you arenít even sure where youíre headed. And sooner or later, you realize that though there are people around to help point the way, youíre the only one with the paddle, and you gotta do the hard work yourself.

It helps to have a higher purpose.

Kahiís purpose is to save the ocean. She founded Kai Makana ( an organization that puts muscle, money and leadership into marine environmental issues. Itís a cause that burns so bright it keeps her going when every inch of her body is yelling at her to stop. This mission first led her to paddle solo from Maui to OĎahu three years ago. Earlier this year, she paddled around OĎahu, covering 113 miles in three days and nights, not sleeping much, not eating much, hardly resting at all. The long-distance journeys are meant to draw attention to Kai Makanaís work.

What sets Kahi apart from the rest of us isnít just her athleticism or her dedication to a cause. Itís her willingness to go through these ordeals over and over again. After her grueling paddle from the Big Island, the only thing on her mind as she touched the sand at Waikiki Beach was, "What am I going to do next?" Next for Kahi is always something bigger, something even more difficult.

Next time around is Tahiti, up the island chain from Papeete to Bora Bora, a total of 200 miles, by invitation of the people of Tahiti.

Kahi doesnít realize the lessons sheíll share will go far beyond stream restoration, debris removal and water-quality monitoring. She doesnít quite see how her brave voyages are inspiration for a courageous life.