By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
For so long, Kai Opua’s overwhelming strength has been its combination of depth and numbers, the best one-two punch to subdue the rest of the Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association canoe clubs.
The stage is set for the West Hawaii powerhouse to continue its reign at the 8th annual Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii championships, which has been futile ground for others hoping to take the overall title.
Kai Opua has captured the last six Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii championships and is a heavy favorite to expand its trophy case. There have been seven regattas so far and except for the shortened season-opener none have been close.
Club president Uncle Bo Campos and athletic director Mike Atwood run a smooth operation, putting paddlers in crews where the fastest times are achieved, not only in certain races but a wide net that provides balanced points.
So it is that six crews are still unbeaten: Kai Opua’s girls 14, girls 18, boys 16, women sophomore, women 65 and senior men masters 50, the most of all the Moku O Hawaii clubs.
Keaukaha is next with four: mixed 12, girls 13, girls 15, and women novice A. Puna’s boys 18, women golden masters 55 and mixed men and women are undefeated. Keauhou’s men masters 40 is the only other flawless crew.
Kai Opua’s crews are also peaking at the right time. The mixed masters 40 crew set a new record in the half-mile race in 3 minutes and 52.99 second at last week’s 3rd annual John Kekua Jr./Kamehameha regatta. Also, the club’s women masters 40 crew knocked off previously undefeated Keaukaha in the 1 1/2-mile race.
That’s all encouraging stuff for Atwood, who crunched numbers and figured he’s got about 30 crews qualified for the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state championship set for Saturday, Aug. 3 on Kauai.
“Our priority is to win the championship and we’re also trying to qualify crews to go to the state championships,” he said. “Whether or not we take all the crews remains to be seen. It’s a challenge to get people to Kauai.”
Uncle Bo is the HCRA race commissioner and Atwood is the first vice president, so both have plane reservations to the Garden Isle and job duties at Hanalei Bay.
If there is a no-man’s land number of qualified crews to have at the state championships, it’s 30. That’s because 30 crews is too small a number to contend for the state’s Division AAAA (21-43 events) title, but too much for Division AAA (13-20).
“You don’t have the number of crews to win. Lanikai, Kailua and Hawaiian are up there with 37, 39 crews,” Atwood said. “If you don’t take people and drop down to Triple A, a whole bunch of people will miss an opportunity.”
It’s sort of a double-edged sword with a really sharp blade. Compete in Division AAA at states and a big club always runs the risk of incurring the wrath of forgotten paddlers. There are no five-year contracts obligating a paddler to stay with a club.
If anything Kai Opua carries not only a healthy tradition, but also a king of the jungle pride. The last four years Big Blue has competed at the state’s Division AAAA level, finishing fourth with 33 races entered last year; fourth (29 crews) in 2011; fifth (34 events) in 2010; and second (36 races) in 2009.
The last time Kai Opua didn’t compete with the state’s big sharks was 2008, when the club captured the Division AAA title.
As a point of smaller-fish pride, Moku O Hawaii has pocketed the last five Division AAA titles — Puna in 2009 and Keauhou the last three years. (HCRA added Division AAAA in 2007.)
Kai Opua is the island’s Goliath, but the club has lost off its fastball. Big Blue doesn’t have a girls 15 crew, something of a shocker because its girls 15 crew placed fourth at states last year; the girls 14 (the upcoming paddlers) were seventh.
Still, the way the sporting world works is no one sends a sympathy card to the favorites. The underdogs — like “Rocky” and little Irish “Rudy” — get the biggest roars of approval.
Dealing with the undertow pressure of being the decided favorite is a bug on Atwood’s windshield.
“Sometimes it puts pressure on you, but it’s more of an incentive,” said Atwood, who’s also Kealakehe High’s paddling coach, mindful to steer his ship in the right direction. “It’s what you can do and you have a chance to make the most of it.
“It also helps us draw a better caliber of paddlers. They want to be a part of a club that does well not only in a crew, but as a club as well and have the opportunity to do well at the state level.”
Swimming with the state’s sharks is a whole different animal, at least for Moku O Hawaii clubs. In HCRA’s 63-year race history, no canoe club from the Orchid Isle has ever won the state’s largest division.
Oahu will host next year and Hilo Bay will hold the HCRA state championships in its back yard in 2015. Moku O Hawaii clubs don’t have to worry about booking flights, only about qualifying for one of the three lanes in each race.
“I think we’re a little ways away from challenging for the Four A title,” Atwood said. “But something could happen. It’ll take numbers and depth. You need a whole bunch of paddlers and depth.
“I’d like to think we could make a run in 2015, especially with the championship being here. The home-course advantage, so to speak, is a low price to drive to Hilo instead of flying to another island.”
Walter Vierra, who’s from Maui, is in his fifth year as the HCRA president. He’s been on the board for a decade. And he’s been around the paddling scene long enough to know why his Valley Isle’s Hawaiian Canoe Club is such a threat, winning the Four A title in 2009 and 2011.
“They’ve got a very strong kids program. Typically, they win a lot of medals and the adults carry over,” Vierra said. “They win on the strength of their kids. If you look at the results, the last couple of times they won the championship, they amass a large lead in the kids races and are able to piece together enough points in the adult races.
“The kids program is not only paddling, but the kamalii (children) program is also a cultural arm. They do a lot of things with the kids, take them to Kahoolawe, Lanai, different cultural things. They’ve got a large turnout, 12 to 18 kids in a race. It’s a big draw to be part of a No. 1 program. The program feeds off itself.”
As the club’s AD, Atwood is a savvy tactician, coordinating with his coaches to figure out where to put his best pieces to trump the competition’s fastest times.
The guy is pretty perceptive, too. He sees the big picture. Hilo Bay’s turn to host in 2015 is just around the corner.
“We have to keep building the kids program and adults, too,” he said. “We have to keep that continuity and have everyone want to be a part of it. Kai Opua has been around a long time. The club is community based and community supported.
“We want people to know that an opportunity is there and we encourage them to be a part of it and help build it. We’re all kids at heart and it’s good to see kids enjoy themselves at any age.”