By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
During the summer, there’s nothing better than spending time with long-distance family members, soaking up sunshine, and being on the water in a canoe, especially if you’re visiting from Texas like Jackson Gray.
When he goes back to high school for his junior year, Gray will have a nice “What I did for summer” tale to swap with his classmates. That’s because he’ll paddle in a canoe race for the first time, joining his cousin Adam Chong in Kamehameha’s boys 16 crew.
“I’m excited,” said Jackson, who’s been on the Orchid Isle the last three weeks. “It’s one of those experiences you can’t get in Texas or anywhere else on the mainland. It’s different and exotic.
“None of my friends have ever experienced anything like this. It’s something else that sets me apart from everybody else. I speak a good deal of Latin. I’m self-taught. My dad (Michael Gray) also knows Latin. He studied it in school.”
Gray comes from the land where football is king. Like any Texas schoolboy born with a football in his crib, he ventured to the gridiron, but stopped playing when he suffered concussions. He turned to cross country, track and swimming.
The cousins don’t see each other much. Jackson’s only other visit to Hilo was in 2010 when the grandfather of the two first cousins died. Their summer reunion highlight takes shape today in the 14th event of the Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta.
The boys 16 race has been dominated by the unbeaten Kai Opua crew. Last week, Kamehameha finished last out of six entries. Maybe Gray can add a little Texas muscle at the 3rd annual John Kekua Jr. regatta, which honors the long-time head coach who passed away at 62 years old in 2010.
It’s Chong’s fifth year paddling with the club. Last year, his boys 16 crew qualified for the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state championship. It was his first trip to states.
He enjoys the close-knit bond with coaches Jody Whitney and Mahea Stanley, who are also coaches at Waiakea High. The soon-to-be senior at Waiakea paddles for the school and plays no other sport.
“The close bond with Uncle Jody and Aunty Mahea sold it to me to be with this club,” Chong said.
Kamehameha’s boys 16 is fifth in the Moku O Hawaii standings with six points. Kai Opua has 26 points and Keaukaha is third with 14 points. The top three crews qualify for the state championship, which will be held Aug. 3 on Kauai.
There’s a chance that none of Kamehameha’s crews will paddle at states.
“Even if I don’t get to paddle, I’d like to be there for the boys,” Chong said.
Kamehameha treasurer Darlene Iokepa said Kauai is the toughest travel destination to book flights for states. There are no direct flights from Hilo to Kauai. (Oahu will host next year and it’s Hilo Bay’s turn in 2015.)
“The airfare is $400 round trip. It’s cheaper to fly to California,” she said. “I don’t know if we can go. Everybody is going out from Oahu and I don’t know if they’re going to add any new flights. Right now, we don’t know if we’re going. We only have three crews.”
If there are flights, Kamehameha would likely take the boys 14 and 15 crews and the senior women masters (50) or women four.
The club’s concession main dish is a teri beef plate from KTA. Every penny would be helpful because the bill for each paddler would run around $650, footing costs for three-night lodging, van and food. Then there’s the expense to send a 400-pound koa canoe to the Garden Isle on a freight ship.
At least, Hanalei Bay is a scenic stop.
“It’s a beautiful place and it’s the second best place to host. Here being first,” Iokepa said. “Hanalei Bay is like ours, where you can sit on the shore and watch the races. At Hilo Bay, you can stand at any place on the shore and watch the races go by.”
Iokepa is not only the club’s treasurer, but also Kekua’s sister. When it’s Kamehameha’s turn to host the regatta in her brother’s name, her heart glows, remembering all the good moments in his life. Her memory is her best friend when she misses her brother.
“Before he passed, he talked about wanting to hold a regatta,” she said. “After he passed, we met with the club members and his dream became a reality. Technically, we hold three races with two long-distance races.
“I miss him all the time. John cared a lot for the kids always. That carried on for him and he cared about paddling, the culture and the camaraderie. That you’re paddling against each other and being competitive, but still having camaraderie with each other.”
On a blissful day at Kamehameha’s halau, first cousins Jackson Gray and Adam Chong stood together for a photo. The picture will forever be a portrait of a summer spent together. Their camaraderie is seen in their smiles — something that would make John Kekua Jr. very proud. There is no price tag for that.