It’s all about the ohana with the Keaau canoe paddling teams.
The Cougars made the lion’s share of noise at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation season-opener, a three-mile loop inside Hilo Bay, on Saturday, taking the boys and mixed divisions.
Pahoa, an experienced bunch of youngsters, captured the girls race in runaway fashion, beating the Cougars by more than 5 minutes — the only blight spot on Keaau’s golden day.
“We’re really all a family,” Keaau co-coach Anna Golden said. “They’ve worked really hard and the people in the canoe have good hearts. Their heart and teamwork brought them to where they needed to be.
“At the end of the day, we come together and say, ‘1-2-3, ohana.’ That’s what I feel makes them move forward, that mentality and love for one another to help each other. That helps them succeed.”
That family theme will be highlighted on Wednesday. After practice, Golden and co-coach Grant Kaaua will get married in a canoe on Hilo Bay’s water by Kamehameha-Hawaii coach Keahi Warfield. Kaaua has already checked the weather, which calls for slight trade winds.
During the Moku O Hawaii season, Warfield is the head coach for Keaukaha. Kaaua and Golden are also club coaches. She has paddled for Keaukaha for 17 years, and he has paddled for 25 years, starting out at Kawaihae under coach Manny Veincent, then the last eight years at Keaukaha.
Kaaua teaches a construction class at the school, and one project is building paddles. In his spare time, he is part of two bands, Mixjah, a reggae band, and Kuahiwis, an old-school Hawaiian-style band. Golden is a nurse at Hilo Medical Center.
Keaau’s boys captured first in 42 minutes, 29 seconds, with Kamehameha giving great chase and finishing a minute behind.
Last season, the Cougars finished eighth at the BIIF championships. The school not only has depth, competing in all three divisions this season, but also enthusiasm.
“It was a really good team effort,” Kaaua said. “But there’s another side besides paddling. The kids refurbish the canoes, make their own paddles, and those things play a big role. With the support of our athletic director (Iris McGuire), we’ve got supplies to make our own paddles. The class encompasses everything, especially the cultural side of things.”
It’s not easy being a paddler at Keaau. Transportation is an issue. Making practice can be a chore with paddlers coming from different neighborhoods.
“We have no transportation. The kids have to hustle for their own rides,” Kaaua said. “Some kids come from Volcano or Fern Acres or the Puna side. They’re getting out of the water when it’s dark, and then they have to get home. I give the kids a lot of credit. They’re really committed.”
Kaaua pointed to senior Travis Basford as a committed team leader and called him an MVP of the crew, leading the way in the weight room and in projects, such as canoe repair and paddle construction.
Basford started paddling six years ago, providing a strong motor in the power No. 4 seat. He likes the team’s chemistry and potential. And in terms of self-growth, Basford, who has a 3.5 grade-point average, already has his career path mapped out.
“We’ve got good kids with big hearts. They’re all easy to talk to and are motivated,” he said. “Our coaches are teaching us to be self-disciplined and mentally strong. That’s what paddling is all about, pushing yourself beyond your limit, both physically and mentally.
“They stress academics as well. You can’t get into the canoe if you’re short on grades. I want to join the Coast Guard, then become a police officer and then be a U.S. Federal Marshall. My dad (Steve) was a police officer in Oakland, where there was a lot of law breaking. But there were good people, too, and I want to protect them, like my dad.”
Keaau has won BIIF regattas before, but it has never claimed a spot in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships.
“The win felt really good because I thought another team would come in first,” senior stroker Lopaka Swope said.