She Paddles Her Own Canoe

By Kelly Moran


“It didn’t start out as a business,” Kealla Zoll insists.  “I was just looking for uniforms for my canoe-paddling team, and couldn’t find them.”  But that’s how things turn out, sometimes, when a hobby morphs into an opportunity: in her case, to open a shop called Hilo Bay Paddler.

If you haven’t seen them, outrigger canoe races are a marvelous spectacle on Hilo Bay.  Looking old-fashioned, but built with modern materials, they’re launched from a park near the Wailoa River bridge, and race along the bayfront, parallel to Hilo’s huge black sand beach.  The short races – called regattas – start in April; long-distance races start in August.  Those typically have teams of twelve, with six paddlers in the boat at all times; three paddlers get “refreshed” every 20 minutes: the new ones jump into the water from a support-boat, and swim to their canoe, climbing in just as the paddlers they’re replacing jump out.

Photo credit: Puna Canoe Club
Photo credit: Puna Canoe Club

Keala is a local girl (“I’m a St. Joseph’s High School Cardinal”) who – like many others –  went to college on the mainland; her degree in Physical Therapy helped her to care for her dying mother-in-law at home.  After that, Keala took a much-needed vacation in Tahiti, to join some Kawaihae friends in a canoe race; but she has done far more racing back home on the Big Island.  For the past 20 years, she has paddled with the Puna Canoe Club,  working her way up to the key position of “steersman.”  Like the coxswain in a rowing match, the steersman not only maneuvers the boat but serves as de facto captain, calling out encouragements and keeping the paddlers in rhythm.

Photo Credit: Puna Canoe Club

In that capacity, she went looking for uniforms, but couldn’t find what she wanted in the only shops in Hilo – for surfers or divers – that might have carried them.  She contacted a sales-and-marketing man in California for the Patagonia brand of outdoor gear, obtained some at a discount, and started selling uniforms and other paddling accessories, mainly those designed for women, like sports-bras, shorts and tops.  Especially important, here in the tropics, are shirts whose fabrics are sun-blockers, filtering out 98 percent of ultraviolet rays.  Her “shop,” however, was the trunk of her car.

Keala Zoll
Keala Zoll

In early 2004, though, came an incentive to have a retail store: the World Sprints paddling competition would be held in Hilo that August.  By then, she was selling sportswear and (of course) canoe paddles; so she had much more merchandise than her trunk could hold.  Wanting to be close to the bayfront, she went looking all over downtown Hilo, and found that a bike shop was moving out of a storefront on tiny Furneaux Lane, just off Kam Avenue, one block from the Farmers’ Market.  She rented the space, repainted the walls, put in a new floor, and built racks for her merchandise; a local artist made a logo for her signage.

Hilo Bay Paddlers opened shortly before the World Sprints, with gear not only by Patagonia but the Xcel brand too.  “Customers lined up outside, and I sold almost everything I had in two weeks.”  Business grew, over the years, as canoe-racing became more and more popular, and expanded again as the craze for stand-up paddling came along, although Keala notes: “I still don’t sell surfboards.”

Feeling restless, she started working part-time at the Hilo Veterans’ Home on Waianuenue Ave., drawing upon her physical-therapy skills much as she had done for her late mother-in-law.  She’d intended only to volunteer there, but they hired her; and when a full-time job opened up last year, and she took it.  “I knew many of the vets already, through family connections.  I loved their stories of Hilo in the old days, and I felt it was important to give something back to them.”

So although she has some regrets about leaving Hilo Bay Paddlers, she’s ready to sell the business – I’m representing her in the sale.  But she still paddles every chance she gets.  “It’s a great sport,” she says, “and anyone of any age can do it.”

Hilo Bay Paddler
HIio Bay Paddler

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