The Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association regatta season gets under way Saturday at Kailua Pier in Kailua-Kona, bringing together the island’s top paddlers for the Kai Ehitu hosted “Papa” Kimitete regatta.
Kai Opua has won the last seven A Division (21-42 events) titles. The West Hawaii club again enters the season in a familiar position as a heavy favorite, but is has not been immune to the many distractions the beginning of summer and the end of the school year bring.
“We have kids who are still in school, participating in other sports and some still coming home from college. We are still trying to see what we have,” Kai Opua Club president Bo Campos said. “There are a lot of distractions right now, but I’m hoping that we will be able to see what we have this weekend.”
Last season, Kai Opua entered the final event of the Aunty Maile Moku O Hawaii Championships — race No. 42, the half-mile mixed men and women — up just a single point on Keaukaha Canoe Club. Kai Opua won the race to capture the title, while Keaukaha settled for second place.
“We know that we are going to see some competition this year, so it will be interesting,” Campos said. “Last year it came down to the wire and I thought it was a good thing to give us a scare. I was proud of Keaukaha to be in that position. It came down to that last race and they ran out of steam. We just had more depth.”
After the Moku O Hawaii season, the clubs traveled to Kauai for the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association championships — the ultimate goal for the top tier clubs. More than 500 of the top crews from across the state competed, and the Big Island had a solid showing.
Keaukaha took home four gold medals and a second place finish — good enough for second in the AAA Division (13-20 events) — while Kai Opua captured two first-place medals, three silvers and a couple of third place finishes.
“States is a number game,” said Campos. “It’s all about depth.”
According to Campos, the Big Island will only have two lanes at states in each event at the HCRA championships this season — as oppose to the three in years’ past — making it even more of an uphill battle to compete with the outer islands.
A nice surprise at the state level was the work of Keauhou Canoe Club, which concluded the event with a trio of first-place finishes and five silvers. Keauhou finished fourth during the Moku season, behind Puna.
First-year head coach and athletic director Al Estencion is excited about the club’s potential and is using that success to build toward bigger goals.
“It is really coming along and the morale is very high,” Estencion said. “Overall, I see us being a lot stronger than last year. I’m very excited about our women’s crews. The program was smaller last year and we are seeing it really grow now.”
Estencion is a veteran on the paddling scene, having coached Tui Tonga and dominant distance crews in the past.
Kai Ehitu, the weekend’s host club, breezed to the B Division championship last season over the only other team in the division, Paddlers of Laka. However, Kai Ehitu will not be able to defend its title this season. The club’s roster of paddlers has grown by leaps and bounds in the offseason, forcing them to make the jump to A Division.
“I’m excited this year because we have a lot more kids and women paddlers coming out, on top of our an already great group of men,” said Kai Ehitu head coach Richard Kimitete. “The club has got so big we are in the Division A now, so it will be interesting. We have a lot more participants.”
Kimitete said a few of his crews have competed in preseason events and have done very well, giving him optimism going into the first regatta. When asked if his club is concerned about competing with the island’s traditional powerhouse clubs, Kimitete respectfully asserted the confidence he has in his crews.
“I think they are more concerned about us,” he said laughing. “We are the underdogs. We have no fear. The way we are looking at it is whatever happens, happens.”
The weekend is also a celebration for Kimitete and Kai Ehitu. The regatta celebrates the life of Richard’s father and Kai Ehitu club founder, Bernard Pierre Kimitete, known affectionately by many as “Papa” Kimitete.
“For me, this race it is out of respect for him,” Kimitete said. “He started this club and our family has done this for a long time. It is a big thing for us.”
The weekend’s regatta is the first of three consecutive on the westside of the island, with the crews then moving to Hilo Bay for five regattas, closing out the season July 19 with the Aunty Maile Moku O Hawaii Championships.
The HCRA championships are slated Aug. 2 at Keehi Lagoon in Honolulu.