Just like old times: Kai Opua runs away with Kamehameha Day regatta

  • J.R. DE GROOTE/West Hawaii Today A Kai Opua crew paddles in after its Moku O Hawaii race Saturday in Kailua Bay.

KAILUA-KONA — Propelled by conch shell blows, cowbells and bellowing “Kai Opua” chants that rang through Kailua Bay, Big Blue looked unstoppable on Saturday — just like old times.

It was a performance that would have made Lawrence “Uncle Bo” Campos and Jerry Halverson — both former Kai Opua club presidents who passed away over the last year — proud.

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After losing by a single point last time out, Kai Opua left no doubt as the club played host for its annual Kamehameha Day regatta.

Big Blue recorded 242 points, finishing a whopping 52 points ahead of second-place Kai Ehitu. Atwood noted it was the largest margin of victory for the club in recent memory.

“You never want to lose your own regatta,” Atwood said. “Being the hosts brings up the level of intensity of the whole club.”

Kai Opua racked up 29 total medals — including 13 gold crews — blowing away the field.

“We didn’t like losing by one point,” Atwood said. “We feel like we have a much better club than that. We were able to put it all together today.”

First-year club president Doug Vera Cruz, who has the duty of filling Campos’ large shoes, echoed those sentiments and feels his club is hitting its stride.

“It was a reality check for us,” Vera Cruz said of watching Kai Ehitu win its first regatta in nearly four decades of Moku O Hawaii racing. “We are still trying to get our identity back. Losing Uncle Bo was a huge loss for us. But when we go through these challenging times, the club comes together. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The club dedicated the regatta to Halverson. Vera Cruz said Kai Opua plans to dedicate the Queen Liliuokalani Races on Labor Day weekend to Campos, who helped build the event into the world’s largest outrigger canoe race.

“Both did so much for this club,” Vera Cruz said. “We feel them with us everyday.”

It’s not often a regatta is decided by a single point. The last time Atwood could remember such a thing happening was at the 2016 Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii Championships. Kai Opua DQed in the final race of the day, allowing Puna to take home the title 201-200.

“That was a tough one,” Atwood said with a laugh, now far enough removed to have a chuckle about it.

Despite the runner-up finish, Kai Ehitu has plenty reason to celebrate. The Red Machine notched a win and two runner-up finishes at the three west side regattas, by far the best stretch of results the club has seen in its history.

“For the sport, it was great to see them win,” Atwood said. “They have always been nibbling at it, but they are building numbers and have shown they have what it takes to win a regatta.”

Two-time defending AAA state champion and four-time defending Moku O Hawaii champion Puna rounded out the top three with 164 points.

Paddlers of Laka cruised to the B Division crown for third week in a row, riding the efforts of five gold-medal crews.

The season now shifts to Hilo Bay for the remainder of the season. There are four regattas on the slate before the Moku O Hawaii championships on July 20.

Keeping the culture going

It’s not a coincidence that Kai Opua hosts on Kamehameha Day weekend. The club makes it a point to perpetuate the culture and traditions behind the sport.

“It’s huge for us,” Vera Cruz said. “Being here for 90 years with Kamakahonu Beach as our home, we have a sense of responsibility to maintain tradition and culture. It’s very important.”

The club hosted its Hoeamau camp this spring, which welcomed youth paddlers in an effort to help bridge the gap between sport and culture. Atwood said they also have some coaches that speak in Hawaiian to the paddlers to further the goal, among other things.

“We are bringing it all back to understanding the culture and tradition behind the sport,” Atwood said. “It won’t happen overnight, but that is important to us. We don’t want to lose it.”

Those are just some of the initiatives Vera Cruz is putting his weight behind as he settles into his new role as club president. He admits it’s a steep learning curve, but he’s having fun with it.

“There’s no handbook for this,” he said. “Uncle Bo had a lot of contacts. It’s been about being patient and waiting for people to reach out and putting myself out there to make connections. I’m just trying to have fun with it. That’s the main thing.”

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Vera Cruz also mentioned the new DLNR policies at the pier, but said there were no issues as the club worked efficiently and effectively with all parties to stage the regatta.

“Even though there might be some new sanctions happening here on the pier, we’ve moved past it,” Vera Cruz said. “Everyone is coming together to figure it out and we will persevere through. This is our home — we aren’t going anywhere.”

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