Monday, September 14, 2009

Fatal crash spurs another look at safe canoe towing

Fatal crash spurs another look at safe canoe towing

In the aftermath of the Sept. 6 fatal collision on the Big Island between a breakaway trailer carrying three fiberglass outrigger canoes and an SUV driven by a 49-year-old California man, paddlers across the state are wondering how the accident could have occurred and taking a closer look at the measures they take to safely transport their vessels.

"It's scary," said Kalani Irvine, president of the O'ahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association. "It seems like it was a freak thing — a rare and tragic accident. It's scary that someone lost their life because of something so simple."

Statewide, hundreds of canoes are routinely transported via trailer each week for races and practices.

As news of the accident spread, paddlers speculated about how the trailer was attached to the truck.

While some clubs make do with the standard set-up of a trailer receiver hitch connected to a ball mount or draw bar (secured with a locking pin), many others opt for the added security of safety chains or cables, which keep the trailer connected should a bump or other disruption unhitch the trailer from the mount.

Unlike some states, Hawai'i does not require safety chains or cables for towing.

Walter Vierra, head of the Hawai'i Canoe Racing Association, said it is up to individual clubs to decide whether to use such safety equipment when towing.

Vierra said that while trailers carrying canoes occasionally separate from the tow vehicle, typically causing damage to the canoes, the accident is believed to be the first in Hawai'i to result in injury or death.

The accident occurred just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 6, the final day of the Queen Lili'uokalani Long Distance Canoe Races.

According to the Hawai'i Police Department, the trailer was being pulled by a 1999 Dodge Truck heading north on Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway. The trailer became dislodged from the truck, crossed the median and struck a 2009 Ford Escape multipurpose vehicle heading in the opposite direction.

One of the canoes crashed through the windshield of the SUV, striking the driver. The man was transported to Kona Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later.

The driver of the SUV has not been identified.

Neither the driver of the truck, a 36-year-old man from Lahaina, nor his four passengers were injured.

The Police Department's Traffic Enforcement Unit has opened a negligent homicide investigation and ordered an autopsy.

Police have not indicated whether speed or alcohol were factors in the crash.

Paddlers at the site said the canoes belonged to the Kahana Canoe Club of Maui.

Kahana president John Kuia said last week that he was unaware that any of his club members were involved.

"I have no idea what happened except for what I read in the newspaper," he said. "I just know that the paddlers who went out there are just human. Everybody feels bad. It just happened."

Barbara Querry, president of the Maui County Hawaiian Canoe Association, would not comment on the incident.

"We're very upset, just like any community would be," said Lawrence "Uncle Bo" Campos, president of the Kai 'Opua Canoe Club, which hosted the race. "People are devastated. Maui is devastated."

Irvine, the OHCRA president, said the accident was surprising given the sophistication of modern trailers and how relatively light the load was.

"You take it for granted sometimes because it's so simple," he said. "These trailers are professionally built — some of them are even equipped with brakes — and the canoes are only 400 pounds. You can tow five of them and it's only a ton, which is less than most boats.

"Everyone is pretty knowledgeable about how to do this because we do it every weekend," he said.

Kai 'Opua member Mike Atwood, who served as race director on Sept. 6, was overseeing the start of the double-hulled canoe races when he got word of the accident.

"It definitely put a damper on the rest of the day," Atwood said. "Our hearts go out to everyone who was a part of that — the people in the vehicle that was towing the trailer and the family of the man who was fatally injured."

Atwood said Kai 'Opua uses a pair of safety chains when transporting its canoes, as do most other clubs. Still, he said he is mindful that any number of equipment failures could result in a trailer breaking away.

"Anyone who tows a trailer for a significant amount of time has had one break loose for whatever reason," he said. "We're such a close-knit community that when a trailer breaks loose, we always think, 'That could have been me.'

"When it involves an injury or a fatality, it's even more tragic and saddening. As a group, we're all trying to deal with that."

Reach Michael Tsai at

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