By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Sunshine, a friendly on-shore breeze and blue skies highlighted a perfect day for paddling, setting the stage for 22 unbeaten crews to continue their streaks at the first Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta at Hilo Bay.
But at the end of a nine-hour drama on Saturday at Aunty Maile Mauhili’s Kailana regatta, the list of perfection was whittled down to 18 crews. Falling from the ranks of perfection were Keauhou’s men junior, and men masters 40; Kai Opua’s women 65; and Kamehameha’s senior women 50.
Keaukaha claimed the men’s junior, finishing the one-mile event in 7 minutes, 34.57 seconds. Kai Opua was second at 7:37.67 and Puna third at 7:39.38. Keauhou was fourth at 7:55.79.
“I’m a little surprised with the outcome,” said Eldridge Shay, who paddled alongside Malani Alameda, Adam Veloria, Kyle Keamo, Chad Cabral and steersman Nate Kaluhiwa. “But we’ve been working hard to perfect our timing and stroke.
“What won it was our consistency. We didn’t get too excited. A lot of times, you get too excited and you lose your paddling strength in the second half. We were able to stay consistent until the end. It was rewarding, having that trust in our crew.”
Keaukaha also took the men’s masters 40 in 7:54.21, ahead of Kai Opua’s 8:10.87 and Kai Ehitu’s 8:30.26. Keaukaha’s victory party was partly spoiled because Keauhou scratched.
Still, nothing was going to stop paddler Mark Panek from savoring the win. It’s his first race of the season, and likely the only one for the UH-Hilo English professor and author of a recently released book, “Hawaii.”
He and wife Noriko, a nurse at Hilo Hospital, will take a vacation to Japan, giving their young son, Kensuke, a chance to see his maternal grandparents and brush up on his Japanese.
“Ten guys could have sat in the canoe. We’ve got a strong bunch of paddlers,” he said. “It’s unique because guys who don’t race come down to support. We have good team chemistry and that starts with Keahi Warfield (club head coach).
“He wants to win, but he also wants us to understand about paddling, the teamwork and supporting each other. Our 40 crew is evidence of that.”
Albert Kawelu is one of those supporting guys. He didn’t paddle, but was at Hilo Bay, looking nothing like his former self. The former Hilo High football coach, from 1996 to 2007, once tipped the scales at 260 pounds. (Trivia note: the Vikings last won the BIIF title in 2003 under Kawelu.)
He paddled from 1979 to 1992. Then he got into coaching and enjoyed his team’s potluck dinners a little too much. Then a doctor’s visit in 2003 changed his course. Back pain from his playing days left him with two choices: undergo surgery or lose weight.
Kawelu chose the latter. Then he immediately went out and bought a surfboard. He’s about 205 pounds — healthy, fit and was in the same good mood as Panek, even though he wasn’t in the canoe.
Ryan Tanner, on the 40 crew with Panek, Terry Andrade, Creighton Litton, Louie Mendonca and Kaluhiwa, supports the club in another way. He builds paddles and his work is on display on Facebook.
“It took me 4 1/2 years to learn the hard way. It was reverse engineering,” said Tanner, no relation to Chuck Tanner, the manager for the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. “I came here to build homes and it’s slowly evolving into a full-time job. We’re standardizing the paddles, to have them all the same for the club, like what most of the other clubs do.”
One thing most clubs don’t have is the best steersman in the state. That’s what Litton and Mendonca called Kaluhiwa, who was on the men’s junior and 40 crews.
“If you poke the paddle in the water, you drag down the canoe,” Litton said. “He steers by paddling. He’s helping us and he always nails the turns.”
Added Mendonca: “He just makes the canoe feel like it’s on a nice glide.”
Kai Opua didn’t put in an entry for its women 65. Keaukaha also won that race. However, Kai Opua’s six other perfect crews — girls 14, boys 16, girls 18, women sophomore, women junior and senior men 50 — remained unbeaten.
“It’s a lot easier to run a streak through three regattas instead of eight,” Kai Opua athletic director Mike Atwood. “Our goal is to get as many points as possible, and being undefeated and getting points go hand in hand.
“We’re not quite as strong as before. In recent years, primarily our kids would win 50 percent of the early races. Now, were getting third, fourth and fifth. We’re not seeing our kids at their best, as of yet. It’s probably because of numbers. We don’t have a girls 15 crew.”
But Kai Opua is still pretty powerful. Even Goliath catches a cold once in a great while. The West Hawaii giant also holds a nice unbeaten streak, winning the last six Division A (15-40 races) championships.
And the club’s six gold medals were part of Kai Opua’s total haul of 13 first-place finishes, resulting in 206 points to easily win the Division A title. Keaukaha, with 10 golds, was second with 173 points and Puna took third with 131 points, grabbing four golds.
Puna zipped past Kamehameha in the senior women 50 race, clocking in at 4:36.79. Kamehameha bolted to a good start, but was slightly slower, especially down the stretch, in the half-mile event in 4:39.02, watching its flawless run end.
Paddlers of Laka captured the Division B (1-14 events) title with 47 points. Hui Waa O Waiakea was second with 32 points and Hanakahi was third with 22 points.
None of those top three Division B clubs won a gold medal. But Keoua, from the beautiful shores of Honaunau Bay, made sure the big dogs didn’t get all the steak bones, securing the mixed masters 60 title in 4:40.11, ahead of Kawaihae’s 4:41.71.
Keoua’s crew members were Mary Prevetz, Dan Abaya, Tim Sperry, Terry Harrison, Patty Eames and Kurtis Yamauchi. It was the club’s first victory of the season.
Old friend back
Hui Waa O Waiakea president Ira Kekaualua Sr. was back at Hilo Bay, his home away from home, after a two-year absence.
Kekaualua, 77, has emphysema and also undergoes kidney dialysis. When he wasn’t at regattas, his daughter Nani would text results, providing a small measure of comfort.
“When I was away, it broke my heart,” he said. “It’s the first time in two years I could talk to the paddlers and bless the club. When they see me, they get their confidence going. I just tell them to go out and paddle, and have good fellowship with the other paddlers.
“I like being here. The only thing I miss is I can’t go in the canoe. My birthday is April 11 and on the following Friday after I ate lunch and I went out cold and everybody thought I died in the house. Four hours later, I woke up and my whole family, nephews, nieces, were around me crying. They all thought I was dead. The Lord must love me. I’m still here.”
He and wife Barbara are parents to five boys and six girls. They have 48 grandchildren, 63 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
The Waiakea/Kona Athletic long-distance race will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at Hilo Bay, honoring Kekaualua and his wife Barbara.