Kona canoe clubs discuss permanent moorings to prevent coral damage at regattas

Listen to this Article
5 minutes
Loading Audio... Article will play after ad...
Playing in :00

The Founders Regatta in Kailua-Kona was placed on temporary hold on May 27, 2023, after 16 cinder blocks, used as mooring for course markers, were found resting on the coral reef. (Photo courtesy: DLNR)

Under the surface of Kailua Bay, the turquoise waters are teeming with vast marine life, including at least nine different types of coral scattered about the sandy sea floor with native algae growing on them.

Yellow tang can be seen rolling with the surf. Spinner dolphins, humpback whales and manta rays are regular visitors to the waters fronting the touristy Ali‘i Drive in Kona on the Big Island.

Kailua Bay also is home to some of the state’s iconic outrigger regattas. The Kamehameha Day regatta is the longest standing race in the bay and the Lili‘uokalani long-distance race draws paddlers from around the world.

But now there is concern that regattas will no longer be allowed to be held in Kailua Bay after 50 to 60 coral colonies were damaged on May 27 during the Keauhou Canoe Club’s Founders Regatta.

West Hawai‘i canoe clubs pull up cinder block weights used to hold markers during a May 27 regatta in Kailua Bay. (Photo courtesy of Kai ‘Ōpua Facebook page)

Divers from the Hawai’i State Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources documented that 16 of the 28 race markers attached to cinder blocks were placed on coral, causing damage.


Terry Trinidad, president of the Keauhou Canoe Club, said learning of the damage “took everybody by surprise.”

Mike Atwood, Vice President of Kai ‘Ōpua Canoe Club, said the cinder blocks likely were lowered into the water with rope. Due to the lack of visibility because of the depth — ranging from 35 to 85 feet — he thinks its likely the blocks were unintentionally placed on the coral.

For decades, the regatta course was the same. But in 2019, the clubs decided to change it because race officials were getting wet. In 2022, the Hawai‘i Island’s Moku O Hawai‘i Outrigger Canoe Association finalized the new certified course, which was first used in the May 27 regatta.

With the new course, new weights had to be put on the ocean floor to hold the markers in place. This was done the day before the race, Trinidad said.

State officials came to the by the morning of the regatta to check these temporary moorings. Trinidad said he didn’t know what was going on because its the first time the state has done that in the 25 years he’s been participating in regattas.


The state’s Division of Aquatic Resources discovered the cinder blocks were on coral and delayed the start of the regatta. Ultimately, the state agency allowed the canoe races to take place, but required all the temporary moorings to be pulled out of the water after it was over.

Canoe clubs Kai ‘Ehitu, Keauhou and Kai’Ōpua worked together to bring up all 28 cinderblocks used for the regatta. Jack’s Diving Locker provided the dive tanks. They used a double-hull canoe to bring the blocks back to shore, Atwood said.

The Division of Aquatic Resources’ investigation continues, with the state declining to comment about it at this time. When the investigation is completed, recommendations will be submitted to the State Land Board.

While there are records of regattas occurring in the 1930s, Atwood said there were no official races until 1972. To conduct a regatta in Kailua Bay, the clubs need to apply for a marine event permit from the state. Part of that permit allows them to set weights for race markers, Atwood said.

The permit requires that all things placed in the water must be picked up. But Atwood said while the clubs always grabbed the lines and flags, they left behind the weights to be used for future regattas.


“Some of them had become part of the coral,” Atwood said.

Throughout the years in Kailua Bay, weights used for regattas also included five-gallon buckets filled with concrete or a milk jug filled with concrete.

They hold floating flags in place during the short-distance races. Twenty-eight flags are needed to set up a regatta race in Kailua Bay. With two different quarter-mile regatta courses, there are 15 lanes that are required to be 85 feet apart.

“There is so much stuff down there besides what the clubs put down,” Atwood said. “There are engine, blocks, tires and transmissions.”

The Kamehameha Day regatta almost didn’t happen this year because the state required that all the weights used on the course be pulled up. Atwood said the race ended up shifting to a long distance race.

Sen. Dru Kanuha said the state has been working with the clubs for years to find a long-term solution to the temporary weights. Since the regatta season is now over in Kona, he said it will give everyone involved time to figure something out for next year.

There have been informal discussions in the past with the Division of Aquatic Resources about how to address putting down temporary weights. The idea of some kind of permanent mooring system has been floating around for years.

Whatever is decided as a result of what happened at the May 27 regatta in Kailua Bay will have statewide implications. Canoe races also take place on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i.

While Kanuhu said he thinks the least amount of moorings in the bay, the better, he also is a paddler who supports permanent moorings and the regattas.

“Paddling is one of our state sports,” Kanuha said. “It’s who we are as a people.”

Kanuha said the cultural practice of paddling outrigger canoes in regattas in Kailua Bay is important to continue for the next generation.

According to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Kailua Bay has four permitted moorings, which are used by boats, and five swimming buoys that were installed by Jack’s Diving Locker.

Three more mooring requests are waiting final approval by the state, but the state did not specify who requested those moorings or what they would be used for.

Teri Leicher, a managing partners at Jack’s Diving Locker, said her company has helped maintain permanent moorings in the bay for decades. Their personnel also help set up moorings during the Ironman Triathon. 

Leicher said their divers physically take blocks down to the bay’s sandy floor.

The dive company also establishes, installs and maintains approximately 90 day-use moorings in West Hawai’i waters. With heavy drills, two pins are put into rock or sand, and then a massive chain is secured to the pins and a floating underwater buoy so boats can easily tie up — and not drop anchors on coral.

Atwood said he has been in discussions with Leicher as well as the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources about the potential of permitting day-use moorings to create a permanent mooring system for regattas.

Leicher said a permanent mooring system in Kailua Bay would require the involvement of the Army Corps. of Engineers to survey the bottom to determine the exact locations for permanent moorings.

Greg Asner, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, said Kailua Bay is unique because the coral is extensive.

Asner, who also is a supporter of paddling and regattas, said he’s for fixed moorings, but they need to be extremely well marked and enforced by the divisions within the Department of Land and Natural Resources. 

He said they need to be located by the Division of Aquatic Resources, administered by the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation and enforce by the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.

“Simple as that,” Asner said.

The outrigger canoe was an essential part of Polynesian life. The vessels were used as voyaging canoes. The iconic Hōkūle‘a sailed from Tahiti to discover the Hawaiian Islands, and now it is part of an epic four-year journey around the Pacific.

Canoes were used in warfare and fishing. But most important, Atwood said the canoe created a connection between the land and the sea.

“As a culture, we a have right to be part of the water of Kailua Bay, he said. “But we don’t have a right to damage the coral.”

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a full-time reporter for Pacific Media Group. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.

Tiffany can be reached at [email protected].
Read Full Bio

Sponsored Content

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay in-the-know with daily or weekly
headlines delivered straight to your inbox.


This comments section is a public community forum for the purpose of free expression. Although Big Island Now encourages respectful communication only, some content may be considered offensive. Please view at your own discretion. View Comments