Hawaii's Rowing History
View of the Ala Wai (Kalakaua) Boathouse, looking mauka. Source: Hawaii State Archives
Excerpt below is from Hawai‘i Sports by Dan Cisco, pp. 490-493; ©1999 University of Hawai‘i Press:
Rowing debuted in Hawai‘i in the late 1860s. The first account of competitive rowing appeared in the December 16, 1871, issue of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser: “There was a race between two-oared boats, of which four were entered, Young America the winner. There was splendid rowing exhibited, and the winners became such by purely hard work."
King Kalakaua's birthday on November 16th, 1875, also marked Hawai‘i's first regatta with extensive rowing competition. The King, a rowing buff, viewed the event from his yacht along with other members of his royal family. The Oahu celebration featured rowers who vied for top prizes ranging from $20 to $25. There were aquatic sports, including five-oared whaleboat races, canoe races, yacht races, and swimming. Capping the day were spectators who climbed greased poles extending over the water. Whoever held on the longest was the "winner." The regatta was popular over the next two decades. Government representative A. G. M. Robinson supported the event and persuaded other lawmakers to establish Regatta Day. The legal holiday was observed on the third Saturday of September.
Many clubs were organized by the end of the century. The first organized group was the Myrtle Rowing Club, formed in 1883 and headed by M. D. Monsarrat. The Honolulu Rowing Association was formed during this era and helped organize competitions. In 1890 the Healani Boat Club, with president W E. Wall, and the Leilani Boat Club, headed by David Kawananakoa, were formed. Two years later the first regatta at Pearl Harbor was held, all three clubs raced at Pearl Harbor. Interest in rowing spread to Maui, and the Puunene Rowing Club was formed in 1912.
In the 1920s, there were five rowing clubs in Hawai‘i. The men's clubs were Myrtle and Healani from Oahu and Hilo from the Big Island. The Oahu-based Kunalu and Honolulu were the two women's clubs. Kunalu was coached by Healani, while the Honolulu Girls were affiliated with Myrtle. There were two regattas a year, one in Hilo and the other in Honolulu.
In 1957, the Interscholastic League of Honolulu added rowing to its list of sports. Five schools competed for the inaugural ILH title: Iolani, Kaimuki, Mid-Pacific, McKinley, and Punahou. In 1964, lolani became the first high school team in the nation to race in the finals of the Olympic Trials. The Red Raiders four-man crew finished a respectable sixth place behind winner Harvard. Despite Iolani's success, the ILH dropped rowing in 1966 due to a lack of teams. Iolani continued their program another nine years before the sport was dropped in 1975.
After languishing for 20 years, the sport was revived in 1994 with the Royal Hawaiian Rowing Challenge, organized by Canadian Robyn Johl. The U.S. Rowing Association sanctioned the event and some of America's best collegiate teams participated, including Harvard, Yale, and UC Berkeley. Eight-person crews competed in 500- and 1,000-meter races from the Diamond Head end of the canal to Palolo Stream. The U.S. women's national team won both of their races, while on the men's side Cal and Harvard won the 500- and 1,000-meter respectively.
The five-day event...continued to grow each year, attracting elite crews from Princeton, Stanford, and Washington State. Strong international teams from the University of British Columbia, Kyoto, Japan, and Brisbane, Australia … also participated. However, the RHRC [did not reach] its potential. International-standard 2,000-meter races have not been held because of sandbars and debris in the canal.