Canoe paddling: Kai Opua closes deal, edges Puna by three points

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Puna's girls 16 crew returns to shore after winning its race Saturday at Hilo Bay.

His club’s lead was trimmed to a single digit, so Kai Opua athletic director Mike Atwood made a point of letting his final crew know it was win – or else.

“I just told them if you don’t win, don’t come back,” Atwood said in deadpan fashion.

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Kai Opua’s mixed men’s and women’s crew not only made it back to shore Saturday at Hilo Bay, but Melanie Kelekolio, Maile Leslie, Kristin Old, Michael Poerstel, Kekaulike Tomich and Jonathan Walsh were welcomed with open arms when they got there after Big Blue held off hard-charging Puna for its fourth Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta triumph in five tries.

“Winning never gets old,” Atwood said, “but it’s more exciting when the wins are close. You earn every win, but you feel like you earn it a little bit more when it comes out close and when you win those races that count.”

Rain made its presence felt at a regatta for this first time this season as the late afternoon crept in, which was just about the time Puna, the four-time island champion, looked primed to end its season-long victory drought before falling three points short, 244-241. Keaukaha was third at 179.

Green Pride picked up 14 golds to Kai Opua’s nine and was hurt by a disqualification in the morning and fielded three fewer crews. As usual, Puna finished strong with 10 wins in the final half of the regatta, including eight of 12 as its master crews dominated heading to the last race.

Kai Opua’s victory margin was 13 points the last time out.

In other words, it’s on heading to the stretch drive. Puna and Kamehameha host a regatta July 6, and the Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii championships are July 20 at Hilo Bay.

“We knew as the season progresses, Puna was going to get stronger, they do they every year,” Atwood said. “Just like they finish each one of their races with a sprint, when they come on and sprint at the end, we know in a regatta they do the same thing.”

But it was Kelekolio, Leslie, Old, Poerstel, Tomich and Walsh who made the decisive sprint, outtouching Puna’s crew by more than three seconds in a half-mile race.

Kai Opua probably had a close win coming its way. It lost the 2016 championships by a single point and its only loss this season was by point to Kai Ehitu on May 25 at Kailua Bay.

“Our kids stepped it up earlier on, but so did Puna’s kids, they are definitely improving,” Atwood said.

Strength in numbers?

The keiki at Paddlers of Laka were all the rage last season, as the club swept all three 12-year-old races at the Moku O Hawaii championships and both of the 13-year-old crews struck gold as well.

Laka’s youth numbers are up this season, way up, according to coach Doug Bumatay, though the win total is down.

“Having the same quality of coaching with a group that doubles in size instantly is tough,” he said. “That’s the challenge for us right now. The season is not over yet.”

Still, Laka has been a lock to win Division B (1-23 events) this season, going 5 for 5 as it looks to defend its title. On Saturday, it outscored Keauhou (23 crews) 102-83.

Of the 23 crews Lake sent out, boys 16 (Nainoa Gomes, Saire Iseri, Molae Liwis, Holu Lyman, Sam Mori, Phillip Vierra III) and mixed 18 (Gomes, Ihi Kamau, Lyman, Mori, Dejalei Pakani, Kaui Pakani-Tsukiyama) came back victorious.

“The chemistry within the crew is awesome,” Bumatay said of the 16s. “In that sense of the matter, those boys are a really tight bunch with a great attitude.”

Few were happier the regatta was pau than Bumatay, whose club hosted the regatta long with Na Wa’a Hanakahi, which fielded only four crews.

“As a whole what we did as club was awesome, from the kids setting up the course and helping with the food booth,” he said. “Na Wa’a Hanakahi helps out with manpower when they can. I don’t think any (other regatta) is going to touch it.

“I think next week we’ll be a lot more relaxed. Less pressure.”

Kauai, here we come

A pair of the big clubs on Oahu, Outrigger and Hui Nalu, made news recently when they decided not to compete in the state championship regatta Aug. 3 at Hanalei Bay on Kauai, telling the Honolulu Star-Advertiser they wanted to give the Garden Isle’s north shore more time to recover from last year’s flooding and this year’s landslide.

Moku O Hawaii race secretary Aloha Maile said Saturday she didn’t expect any Moku O Hawaii clubs to follow suit.

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“Everybody is in,” Maile said.

Maile’s counterpart, Kauai Outrigger Association race secretary Dana Miyataki, recently sent a letter to Moku O Hawaii officials that said, in part, that “all facilities used in previous state regattas in Hanalei Bay will be open and accessible for this year’s regatta. … The member clubs of KOA have committed to hosting the race as planned.”

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