KAILUA-KONA — The Papa Kimitete Regatta started with a blessing, as is tradition. But on Saturday morning, the words that rang over the loudspeaker meant just a little more.
Paddlers bowed their heads as they were reminded to keep all the people who have been affected by the Kilauea lava flows in their thoughts, including more than a few who would be in canoes.
“I can’t imagine. It’s crazy, and it’s not over yet,” said Kai Ehitu head coach Richard Kimitete. “Our goal was for everyone to come out and be able to enjoy the beautiful day.”
Under nearly cloudless skies and just a light vog, that wasn’t hard, and the competition heated up in a hurry at the 36th edition of Kai Ehitu’s event, which kicked off the Moku O Hawaii Canoe Racing Association season.
It turned out to be a day where every race — from the break of dawn to sunset — mattered. Kai Opua took home top honors at Kailua Bay, amassing 178 points with 28 medal winning crews, edging Puna by just five points. Kawaihae (151) rounded out the podium with a third place finish, followed by the hosts, Kai Ehitu (132).
Puna might have come up just short in its season debut, but the east side club that proudly boats its bright green attire are still the team to beat as the four-time defending Moku O Hawaii champs.
“We have to throw out the window what we did in the past,” Puna head coach Afa Tuaolo said. ” I just tell them, what we do in practice, we have to do on race day. Never mind all the chit chat — just perform.”
Tuaolo has a tough exterior, and leads the club with his determination, commitment and workmanlike approach, all which have trickled down to the Puna crews, making them very tough to beat.
However, the Puna skipper has been dealing with some worries away from the water as of late. When the lava flows started, Tuaolo’s orchid farm in Opihikau was one of the first casualties, with the sulfur dioxide gases and ash killing his plants.
“There are lots of people over there getting beat up by what’s going on, but we saw some of the first impact,” Tuaolo said. “All my life I have had a farm, worked hard and did what I had to do. But when something like this happens, everything kind of becomes uncertain.”
There was an attempt to move the nearly 20,000 plants, but it still resulted in significant losses for the farm that Tuaolo has operated for three decades. As a result, a GoFundMe was established to help support Afa and his wife Bev. Within days, the fundraiser exceeded its goal of $10,000. In many ways, it was a testament to the character of the Tuaolo’s and the impact they have had on the Big Island community.
As many attest to, Tuaolo is never one to ask for any kind of handout. He admitted it was hard for him to accept the help, but seeing the support left him speechless.
“What can I say. It’s hard to put into words,” Tuaolo said. “For me, paddling is my life, and our club, and this community has shown us so much support. I love them for that. To come down here and feel that — it’s been real nice.”
Beyond Tuaolo, there have been thousands that the lava flows have impacted. Kai Ehitu collected donations and supplies during the event, understanding that every bit helps.
“The great thing about living in Hawaii is that everybody helps out each other. No questions asked,” Kimitete said. “We just wanted to do our part.”
Appropriately, it’s that kind of mindset that Bernard “Papa” Kimitete — the regatta’s namesake — would have been proud of.
When reflecting on 36 years, Richard Kimitete jokes that it’s all a blur. But still, he can’t go far without running into a familiar face.
“I just ran into a paddler that was with us 30 years ago when I was on a plane,” he said with a laugh. “Past, present and future paddlers have all helped build our history. Everybody has had a hand, and that’s why Kai Ehitu is still alive and well.”
This year, Kimitete is encouraged by his youth paddlers — routinely a forte of the club — and feels good about the improved adult program. On Saturday, the club had five gold-winning crews (women novice B, girls 15, mixed 18, mens masters and mixed masters).
“Our kids are always strong, but this year we feel like we have a really solid group of adult paddlers, too. We started a major rebuild about five years ago and they are coming around,” Kimitete said. “I owe it all to my coaches. They do a great job.”
Starting off with a bang might have be an understatement when describing Paddlers of Laka’s morning.
The club dominated the early youth races, reeling off wins in the first five events (mixed 12, girls 12, boys 12, girls 13 and boys 13). Those would be the only gold finishes of the day for the club, but all it needed to convincingly take home the Division B title with 73 points. Kailana Canoe Club followed in second with 43.
“Hats off to Laka,” Kimitete said. “They always manage to show up with some surprises. It was great to see.”