By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kai Opua paddler Eddie “Piki” Hayward had a good day, collecting gold in the men’s freshmen and sophomore races at a Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta that felt like a championship.
It was a pleasant Saturday at the 3rd annual John Kekua Jr./Kamehameha Canoe Club regatta at Hilo Bay, the second-to-last island race of the season.
But the atmosphere resembled a fierce point-gathering competition, much like squirrels fighting for every last acorn for hibernation.
The Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii championship will be held on Saturday, the last chance to earn points and secure spots to the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state championship Aug. 3 on Kauai. The top three crews in each event in the Moku O Hawaii standings qualify for states.
After Keauhou’s girls 12 won the opening race, cross-island rivals and fellow heavyweights Keaukaha and Kai Opua captured the next seven races, setting the scene that Uncle John’s motto of “Paddle hard but have fun” would be followed to the letter and down to the final race.
The competitive fire matched the morning’s searing sunny conditions. Then with 16 races in the books, Kai Opua was ahead of Keaukaha, 81 to 75 points. It was quite helpful that the West Hawaii powerhouse just came off four straight golds: men novice B, girls 16, boys, 16 and girls 18.
In the end, Kai Opua pulled away with 211 points to take the Division A (15-40 races) title. Keaukaha was second with 169 points, followed by Puna, 138; Keauhou, 128; Kawaihae, 108; Kai Ehitu, 104; and Kamehameha, 81.
Laka won the Division B (1-14 events) title, followed by Waiakea, 30; Hanakahi, 20; Waikoloa, 17; Keoua, 5; and Kailana, 0.
“The mindset was that this week we would try to secure state spots and not worry or have unwanted stress next week at the Moku O Hawaii championship,” said Hayward, who’s more than a paddler.
He’s also teacher at Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino, a Hawaiian language immersion school. Hayward is also the school’s paddling coach. He’s more than willing to throw the spotlight on someone else.
“Our men’s 60 crew shocked the entire club,” he said. “They’ve been trying to find their blend. When we practice, 11 canoes go out and most times they’re the 11th. So they can’t really see their progress.
“But the guys hit the turn first and after they won we were excited and it got our club to make a tunnel for them.”
The Kai Opua men masters 60 crew members are Don Kirby, Pete Pellolio, Ed Tseu, Dale Kerrigan, Al Gustavson and Gary Medina, the steersman. They won their first half-mile race in 4 minutes and 11.48 seconds, ahead of Keoua’s 4:26.04.
Two weeks ago at the Keaukaha regatta, Kai Opua was the length of a spam musubi behind Keoua, which won in 4:23.14 to 4:23.74.
Gustavson is a first-time paddler with a pretty good sense of humor and a better sense of community. He owns several Tesoro Hawaii gas stations and has sponsored the club the last four years. He also is a prominent sponsor to others organizations, like a fishing team, Kealakehe High School and Hawaii Island Food Bank.
“Gary is our steersman and captain. He’s got over 40 years of experience,” Gustavson said. “I’ve got nine months. We’ve got over 140 years of experience in our crew and then there’s me. Without them bringing me along and without them, there’s no way I would be in seat 4.”
He’s been living on the Big Island for 28 years and acknowledges he had no clue how much fun paddling would be. Club president Uncle Bo Campos convinced him to paddle and Gustavson, the late-bloomer, got his first gold.
“I honestly never knew how many people paddled. It’s a great way to advertise because there are so many participants and it’s generational,” said Gustavson, sounding like a public relations honcho.
For the record, there were 982 paddlers, including 657 adults, at the Uncle John Kekua Jr. regatta.
Then what Gustavson said next, about sending charitable donations to others, made it a great day for everyone involved in the paddling ohana.
“You know how it is. You’ve got to give back to the community,” he said.
The host club didn’t win any gold but team harmony is always a bigger prize under head coach Stan Cann.
“We’re doing all right. We’re a medium-sized club, not necessarily big but not small either,” he said. “We’ve been placing third and first a few times. We’re trying to be more consistent in our placing.
“As usual, I like our good unity within the club. Everybody does their share, outside of paddling, like setting things up. But we’ve always had that.”
He also noticed a strategic shift during the regatta. None of the Division B clubs pocketed a gold. Paddlers are allowed to compete in a maximum of two events, and it was pretty obvious that the bigger clubs went gung-ho to gather as much points as possible.
“All the clubs, especially the big clubs, moved their stronger paddlers in other divisions to help qualify for state spots,” Cann said. “There was a lot of strategy going on. It pays off when you have lot of good paddlers. You can do that.”
The list of unbeaten crews diminished from 16 to 14 with Kai Ehitu’s mixed novice B, and Keaukaha’s women masters 40 going down to Puna and Kai Opua, respectively.
Puna’s crew (Theo Hiro, Kekoa Yockman, Lauren Russert, Cat Spira, Erik Jul, Josh Kalima) won the quarter-mile race in 1:47.45. Kai Opua was second at 1:49.02 and Kai Ehitu third in 1:51.21.
Kai Opua’s crew (Dani Ho, Lauren Turnbaugh, Kim Kimi, Nicki Lacey-Enos, Cheryl Villegas, Sarah Egan) captured the 1 1/2-mile race in 8:56.52. Keaukaha was second in 9:03.77.
The remaining undefeated crews are Kai Opua’s girls 14, girls 18, boys 16, women sophomore, women 65 and senior men masters 50; Keaukaha’s mixed 12, girls 13, girls 15, women novice A; Puna’s boys 18, women golden masters 55, and mixed; Keauhou’s men masters 40.
Kai Opua’s crew (Daniel Legler, Melanie Kelekolio, Tiapepe Ulufaleiupe, Winstanley Fukumitsu, Jsen Napihaa, Kim Kimi) established a new mark in the mixed masters (40) half-mile race in 3:52.99.