Fridays with the Alaka‘i Nalu

Preface: I have thought about the Alaka‘i Nalu quite a bit this week as we’ve talked story about what it means to “Nalu it” [When Managers Say the Right Things] for if there ever was a group of people who taught this manager to “go with the flow” it was them! The story which follows was originally shared on within the first year my book was published, for this very special group of Hawaiian watermen and women had starred in a few of my chapter stories, and many readers had asked me to share more about them. My Fridays at the Hualalai Resort with the Alaka‘i Nalu have come back to mind for me with all the warmth and joy our best memories hold within them — how could they not turn out that way, when you work with people who live their lives with Aloha? So here once more, is,

Fridays with the Alaka‘i Nalu

Every Friday my alarm went off at 4:30am. After a few weeks, my body’s rhythm adjusted, and I could naturally wake up just 5 or 10 minutes before the buzzer sounded, clicking it off before it woke my husband and children too.

My Friday mornings were for Hui Wa‘a, a weekly paddling program our resort did for residents and guests, so they could get a beginner’s taste of what it’s like to be part of a traditional Hawaiian canoe club. The paddle started at 7:30am, and so by 5:30am I’d meet my Alaka‘i Nalu to get their read on the morning’s surf conditions. As they stood on the beach and watched the wave sets come in, sensing the mood of wind and water in intuitively trained habit, I waited for the rising sun to light their faces. They read what the morning would be like in their way, and I read it in mine.

An Alaka‘i (spoken as noun) is a guide or leader. Nalu is the word for waves or surf. The Alaka‘i Nalu were my watermen (and women), my leaders of the waves, and guides in the surf. I was their manager, and they my staff, and never would I think of going into the ocean’s arms without them. Neither would I want any of my guests to. When the ocean called, the Alaka‘i Nalu listened, and they became her appointed teachers and coaches. The rest of us were their students. They would teach us: Nānā i ke kumu, “Look to the source” and the ocean was their source. She was their everything, their inspiration. As their manager I did only one thing: I brought both groups together, teachers and students. I wouldn’t have it any other way, for I trusted my Alaka‘i Nalu completely, and I myself would never be one.

As usual, we’d start our Hui Wa‘a paddle with a briefing we called our ‘ōlelo. Guests were taught about the canoe and how best to paddle her. They were always reminded to respect the ocean, and we would offer a pule, a short prayer to keep us safe in her arms during our paddle. Then, being sure everyone had tabis to protect their feet on our rock strewn beach, we’d prepare to launch the canoe.

On this particular morning, I watched Ikaika’s eyes settle on a teenage girl during our ‘ōlelo. In the day’s group were several return guests, anxious to skip the preliminaries and add an extra ten minutes stolen time to the paddle. However the girl was new, a first-timer, and Ikaika carefully watched her for any sign of nervousness or apprehension. I didn’t see these things in her, instead recognizing the almost haughty I-don’t-care attitude I’d seen dozens of times in a teenager’s demeanor, and I let my own attention return to the other guests.

However Ikaika knew better. He was assigned to be a steersman that morning (the steersman would be the captain of each Hui Wa‘a, the single authority we all deferred to), and in making his canoe assignments, he sat the girl in seat 5, just in front of him. Ahead of her, in seat 4 he put Aaron, the Alaka‘i Nalu who normally would have been the stroker (the pacesetter) in seat 1. His decision thrilled another return paddler who was given the privilege of stroking the canoe. The girl’s parents were put in Na Maka Eleu, a different canoe. I wondered why Ikaika chose to split them up, but I respected his decision and said nothing.

The sea was calm, glassy and welcoming. It was a perfect morning for a paddle, and conditions couldn’t have been better. As we ventured beyond the protective bay of Uluweuweu, the soft creamy blue of the water suddenly changed to a brilliantly intense marine color: deep beneath us, the ocean floor dropped away at the shelf. Skipping off the water’s surface, the breeze picked up a slight chill, and rolled gentle surges beneath us. Just as suddenly, the girl panicked and bolted up in the canoe in desperate fear, looking for a way out.

Ikaika had kept his canoe, one of four that morning, in the back of our hui. Paddling ahead of him, the rest of us never saw what happened. I’m told that the other three guests in Ikaika’s canoe sensed a fleeting change in their rhythm, but eyes ahead, kept paddling. By the time we’d all come together again on the beach, the paddle over, all we saw was a girl transformed, with exuberant joy on her face, the joy one sees when their child first learns to walk, or comes home from school to tell you they made starter on their soccer team. In the weeks which followed, the girl and her parents would become our self-appointed Hui Wa‘a ambassadors.

What happened?

Aloha and Mālama (the value of caring, compassion, and stewardship) was in that canoe that morning. Aloha was in Ikaika. And Ikaika was bound and determined to share it, in his mālama, his care for another who had come to Hawai‘i hoping and dreaming she might find it. And thankfully, because of the Aloha and respect which I had for Ikaika, I didn’t get in the way of it happening, despite all the good intentions most managers have with safety, liability, and just plain needing to know everything themselves so they can control it.

In normal workplace talk, that last paragraph may read a bit differently: “There were talented paddlers in the canoe that morning. They had been trained well. They had a job to do, and they did it, making sure their guests were safe.”

All of that was in place, but mostly, it was Aloha. It was just another story of how Aloha makes a difference in people’s lives and in their work, and it happens in our islands every day. It was another story of how the unique character of Hawai‘i, our Hawai‘i, our home, is shared in someone’s workplace all the time when that someone loves the work they do, and understands work brings meaning to life. Life brings meaning to work. The work we do is personal; that’s just the way it is.

We are currently living in an age where the need for reinventing work has never been more pronounced. We all want to bring meaning to what we do, and in our world we have the many blessings of paradise to inspire us; Aloha is not reserved for Hawai‘i alone. There are more stories to be shared, to be learned from, and to be multiplied. Our stories, all stories of Aloha.

I hope you will tell us yours.

Postscript: This was a true story in the worklife of Ikaika Kanuha, one of the Alaka‘i Nalu who are the watermen of the Hualalai Resort at historic Ka‘Å«pulehÅ«. Ikaika’s dream, is that the wonder of Hawai‘i’s ocean environment is respected and loved by all who live in and visit our islands. He has chosen to make his work his life. He understands he can make a difference, and dreams can become one’s legacy.

North KÅ«ki‘o Beach
North KÅ«ki‘o Beach, at the shoreline of Uluweuweu Bay
Looking toward the Hualalai Resort at low tide, gentle low surf, 6:45am.

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Talking Story is the blog home of those who are learning to be Alaka‘i Managers — those committed to managing and leading with Aloha. Read a preview of the book which inspired this movement, and visit our About Page.

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