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Ira Kekaualua’s spirit lives on with Hui Wa‘a O Waiakea

One of the old guards of canoe paddling is gone, sitting on his big chair from high above, but Ira Kekaualua Sr. will always have an eye out for his Hui Wa‘a O Waiakea paddlers.

Kekaualua died Sept. 2, 2016 in Hilo Medical Center. He was 80 years old and lived a life dedicated to his family, canoe club and the paddling community at large.

The Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association’s Kailana regatta on Saturday kicked off the first of six events at Hilo Bay, where sunshine and calm water made for a postcard-perfect day as two-time defending champion Puna won for the second time in four regattas.

“He’s still watching,” said his son Ira Kekaualua Jr., who’s running the club now.

At the club’s halau, Ira Jr. reminisced about his dad, who was president of the Prince David Kawananakoa civic club, formed his canoe club in 1965 and named it after the third heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The club’s name was later changed to Hui Wa‘a O Waiakea.

“Nothing has changed,” Ira Jr. said. “He stays with me every day.”

Waiakea has only four crews: men freshmen, mixed 40, women open 4, and men open 4.

Ira Sr. was not concerned about numbers; he always put his focus on his paddlers, especially the keiki.

“We got crews in specials (unofficial races before the regatta),” Ira Jr. said. “They’re 8, 9, 10 year olds. They’re the future.”

When Ira Sr. started his club, his philosophy was a simple one, as he stated back in a 2015 Tribune-Herald interview.

“I wanted the kids to know the art of paddling,” he said. “It’s the only Hawaiian sport in existence today. With canoe paddling, I wanted to teach the kids to become outstanding citizens and learn about Hawaiian culture.”

It was talk-story time with Ira Jr. and Keauhou head coach Jerome Kanuha, whose grandfather Clement Kanuha was one of the founders of Kai Opua. The Kanuha and Kekaualua families go way back, so their olelo is always a history lesson.

“I’ve known Ira Sr. since he was a baby,” Kanuha said. “My family and Ira’s family is connected through Prince David Kawananakoa. Then after that it was Kai Opua, and Kawaihae came with Manny Veincent.

“In canoe paddling for me, there was Uncle Manny, Aunty Maile Mauhili, and Ira. Those three were my mentors. Besides them, it was Ray Bumatay (father of Doug Bumatay, president of Paddlers of Laka).”

Kanuha didn’t need to think long to describe Ira Sr., who was a retired truck driver and an Army veteran who served in the Korean War.

“That’s easy. He was true with no filter and about being real,” Kanuha said. “Those three, Aunty Maile, Manny, and Ira, were all from Keaukaha. They were, if can, can. No such thing as no can. You don’t say no can.”

Ira Sr. was a towering figure. He stood 6 feet 3, spoke with a bear’s roar and had a vise-grip handshake. He was the club’s authoritative president but second-in-command in his own household.

“It’s like Uncle Jerome said, he was straight-forward, and when he spoke everybody would shut up,” Ira Jr. said, setting up the punchline. “Everybody, except for my mom. She’s a firecracker. But he was a big Teddy bear.”

For years, Ira Jr. served as head coach of Waiakea. Ira Sr. didn’t just give the club’s control to his son. Ira Jr. had to earn it, but he also had help with a soft-hearted ally, his girlfriend Erica Talbert.

The old Bear took a liking to her and would often state “she’s a good one,” for anyone to hear. She’s a nurse, helped with his medications and became a valued member of the ohana.

“I was the only one with the club. My brothers all had families and kids to raise,” Ira Jr. said. “I was 48 and still not running the club. I’m 56 now. He wanted to test me if I had the patience and the drive to keep going.

“But Erica is the one to get that pono (righteousness) going. She’s the one who told me we should take videos from his stories that he tells. When he was a truck driver, he would tell stories and knew all the names of the bridges on the Hamakua coast. As a young kid, you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ But I’m glad we got some stories on video.”

When Ira Jr. thinks about his dad, there’s no sorrow, only fond memories. The son joked that his dad is complaining to wife Barbara about something from his big chair in heaven. The old Teddy bear is still roaring.

Ira Cho Kekaualua Sr. lived a good life. And Ira Jr. knows his dad is not gone — he’s still watching.

Puna back on top

After falling short of Kai Opua in two of the first three regattas, Puna distanced itself by winning more than a third of the races, using 14 victories (girls 13, men’s novice B, women’s novice A, men’s novice A, men’s freshman, men’s sophomore, men’s junior, women’s masters 40, women’s 65, men’s 65, women’s masters 60, men’s golden masters 55, senior women’s masters 50, mixed masters 55) to power past Kai Ehitu 212-181.

Kai Opua (176) was as close to fourth-place Keaukaha as Puna.

In Division B, Paddlers Laka outscored Keauhou 65-50. Each club has two wins this season.

 

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