Hawaiian Hoe (Hawaiian Paddle)


History of the Hawaiian Hoe

The Hawaiian hoe (paddle) has just as long of history as the wa‘a.  Without the hoe how would you propel the wa‘a?  The ancient Hawaiian hoe like the Hawaiian wa‘a had no ornamentation like those paddles found on other Polynesian islands.  The Hawaiian hoe was strictly utilitarian and primarily fabricated from koa wood.  The Hawaiian paddle with a long broad oval shaped blade was called hoe nanue/nenue named after a large fish found in Hawaiian waters. These paddles had long thick shafts and wide oval blades seldom seen on other Polynesian Islands.  It is hypothesized that such paddles were required to propel heavy koa canoes through rough waiters.

The Hoe Nenue was thought to be the only style of Hawaiian paddle until 1979. In a cave near Kiholo, which is located north of Kailua Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii historians made an important discovery: a paddle that was long and thin with an oval blade, completely opposite to the Hoe Nenue. It is called the Hoe Kala (which means to remove or release), and is lighter and easier to paddle with than the Hoe Nenue. Historians debate on whether it was used for messenger canoes, races, or in battle.

Another paddle with similar features as the Hoe Kala, is called the Hoe Oeoe.  The hoe kala and hoe oeoe had long narrow blade styles and were much lighter and easier to paddle with then the hoe nenue.  Most of these paddles regardless of style were about 4 to 5 feet long from the point on the blade to the top of the shaft.

Another interesting thing about the Hawaiian paddle is the Io. The Io is a small bump or projection on the tip of the blade, about 2-3 inches long. Historians have tried to figure out what it was used for, but have no real answer. Some think it improved the hydrodynamics of the paddle, making paddling easier and faster. Others say it simply protected the blade when pushing off rocks or reef.

The personal relationship between the paddle maker or the owner was often a special one.  This was particularly true for steering paddle. In ancient Hawai‘i the people often gave their paddle an inoa (name).  It was also common in ancient Hawai‘i to ho‘omaika‘i (bless) your paddle since it played such an important role in your safety at sea.

Up until the early 1900s most of the paddles in Hawai‘i nei were hand-shaped from one piece of wood, usually Koa.  Occasionally other woods were used to fabricate the Hawaiian hoe such as hau, ‘ahakea, kāwa‘u, naio, and breadfruit but primarily from koa.  In the 1940s, a few beach boys like George Downing and Wally Froiseth began experimenting with paddle designs and sizes. Soon, paddles went from long and heavy to short and light. Instead of being made from one piece of wood, they were made from several pieces laminated together.  Paddle blades slowly became shaped like pears and teardrops instead of just big ovals. Today’s contemporary paddles still average about 5 feet in length with narrow, thin blades, and weigh less than a pound. In fact, some of today’s paddles are made from man-made high tech materials such as carbon fiber. However, I would argue that nothing functions or looks as nice as an all wood hoe.