Canoe paddling: Kai Opua takes winning streak into championships after edging Puna again

  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Puna Canoe Club's men's golden masters 55 crews wins its race Saturday during a Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta at Hilo Bay.
  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Kamehameha Canoe club members do a celebration tunnel as Luana Busby-Neff, front, and Pi'ilani Borges finish a race Saturday during a Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta at Hilo Bay.
  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald In the closest race Saturday at Hilo Bay, Kai Opua edges out Kamehameha in a women's 65 half-mile race during a Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta.

Kai Opua’s Mel Kelekolio spent portions of Saturday’s Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta advising paddlers as the club’s wahine coach, but in two instances the talk stopped so she could get on the water at Hilo Bay.

Her performance, like her message, was a winning one.

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With co-host Kamehameha serenading the crowd during the final race of the season’s penultimate regatta, the finish was familiar: Kai Opua’s mixed men and women, with Kelekolio aboard, held off Puna to clinch a five-point victory, Big Blue’s fourth in a row.

“Coming down to the last race of the day, it’s such a nail-biter, it kind of makes you stay accountable,” said Kelekolio, who also paddled on a junior women’s crew that finished second. “Sometimes it’s easy for me to preach, tell women what mindset they should have, but then I put myself out there and now it’s your turn to practice what I preach.”

Puna made its characteristic late-day charge and picked up 10 victories to Kai Opua’s seven, falling short 227-222. But even before Kelekolio and Co. hit the water to protect a slim margin for the second consecutive week, Kai Opua athletic director Mike Atwood felt a whole lot better about things when his men’s masters 50 crew finished second behind Kai Ehitu, stemming a tide that saw Puna take six of eight races.

Kai Opua has won the past three regattas at Hilo Bay by a combined 21 points, and in the process it’s kept four-time Moku O Hawaii Division I champ Puna winless on the season.

But is that a good thing for Kai Opua heading to the Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii championships?

“Yes and no,” said Atwood, whose club will seek its first crown since 2014 on July 20 at Hilo Bay. “I think it’s nice to feel confident on what you can do. We’ve seen when Puna puts it all together what they can do, and we’ve seen when we put it together what we can do.

“I kind of like momentum. I kind of like being able to carry that on.”

Co-host Puna (38 crews) was hurt by three disqualifications, while Kai Opua (41) recorded two. Keaukaha, which has an impressive 13 crews that hold top-five times in the state this season, made its presence felt by scoring 199 points in third place, while Paddlers of Laka remained undefeated in Division B.

Still, the main story line in two weeks will be can Big Blue finally break through against Green Pride when it counts?

“If Puna can iron out their mistakes, it’s going to be a really interesting regatta, which is what we’d like to see,” Atwood said. “We want to focus on getting our whole club here, which can be a challenge.”

Kelekolio said she’d get a better reading Monday on who is in for championships.

“Every week is different, we’re missing different women each week,” Kelekolio said. “This day and age in the outside world, you have bigger demands. It’s not like in the past, when I was growing up paddling everyone had Saturday and Sunday off. Nowadays, it’s different.

“But they come ready to take on the challenge. I’m really grateful for that.”

Winning isn’t everything

Kamehameha’s women’s golden masters 55 crew was undefeated until last week, and they were relegated to second again Saturday by Puna. Kamehameha’s women’s 65 and sophomore women also were runner-up – the 65s fell short to Kai Opua crew by 34 100 hundredths of a second – the best finishes of the day for the club.

“We love winning,” coach Stan Cann said, “but that’s not the No. 1 priority. It’s participation and the enjoyment and the perpetuation of the sport of outrigger canoe that we believe in.”

The club lost some paddlers and gain new ones this season while returning many veterans, he said, all the while staying true to it’s values and stressing an ohana-like atmosphere.

At the state championships, “We’re looking at seven crews,” Cann said. “A couple definitely are qualifying, some are one the bubble and we’ll sees how it goes.

“A lot of our senior women have been doing well, we’ve had a good turnout. Our sophomore women are really getting good. Came in second today and that’s a great race. They are coming on right now.”

Perfection in sight

The following 11 clubs remained undefeated through five regattas (Kai Opua’s regatta June 8 didn’t count in the standings):

• Kawaihae girls 12, boys 14, sophomore women;

• Puna’s men’s golden masters 55, senior women’s 50, mixed masters 55;

• Kai Opua’s men’s novice B, boys 18;

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• Paddlers of Laka boys 16 and mixed 18;

• Keaukaha’s men’s 65.

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