As many moons pass and the years fly by, some things never change — like the spirit of the Puna Canoe Club.
Puna was rounding into form Saturday at the second annual John Kekua Jr. regatta at tranquil Hilo Bay, scoring valuable points in the Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association standings.
There are just two regattas left — Puna’s hosted event on July 7 and the Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii championships on July 14 — to qualify for the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association state regatta.
Moku O Hawaii will have three lanes in each of the 40 events at the state regatta, which will be held Aug. 4 at Keehi Lagoon on Oahu.
Puna’s boys 14 and senior women 50 grabbed gold, while a host of other crews piled up points with second- and third-place finishes. The club’s boys 14 is sitting in second in the standings, behind Keaukaha. The senior women hold first, but Keauhou and Kamehameha are tail-gating.
The 50 crew is composed of Maude Gooch, Aloha Mauhili, Carmen Bowman, Debra Cheever-Follett, Betty Johns and Marcia Johansen, several who are long-time paddlers.
“It feels good coming in first, especially after all the hard work,” said Gooch, the lead stroker. “It was a nice, beautiful day, and that made the victory even more pleasurable.”
The crew started the season on a crawl, placing second-to-last in the first regatta. But from there, it’s been nothing but gold and silver. They’ve won their event in the last three regattas.
A good powerful start led to an early lead. The crew ripped around the flag, gained steam and headed home with a nice kick at the finish line. It was a well-earned gold.
“For me (as the stroker), I’m only as good as everyone behind me,” Gooch said. “They trust me, and we do it together. That makes it easy. You’ve got to have trust in the stroker.
“We win together, and we lose together. That’s what the coaches always say.”
And quite simply Bowman noted that teamwork is technical, too.
“There has to be one pull, one blade. When you feel that, the canoe will glide easy,” she said. “Paddling together makes it easy.”
She and Mauhili are veteran paddlers going back to the early days of the Prince David Kawananakoa Canoe Club, one of the original clubs of Moku O Hawaii. Both have more than 40 years of paddling experience.
Mauhili paddled with Kamehameha back in the day and was Bowman’s rival. Mauhili has been with Puna since 2008. They’re sisters in the same canoe now.
“We’re finally paddling together,” Bowman said.
Johns is another veteran, too. She’s been paddling on and off for 18 years. Gooch has 23 years of paddling experience. She spent eight years with Kamehameha before joining Puna.
“The women are experienced. They know how to paddle,” Puna head coach Afa Tuaolo said. “They’re doing really good. Our 14 boys coach Grant Kauhi is doing a good job with the boys.
“He’s mixing them up. Today was a nice day. The past couple of regattas the ocean was rough. It made a big difference. Everybody can compete on flat water. We’re doing pretty good with 28 crews. Everybody is placing and doing well. We’re hanging in there.”
The boys 14 pulled a mild upset. Keaukaha won gold the last three regattas, and Puna took second. But in the season’s third regatta, it was vice versa.
Last season, Puna captured the Division AA (7-12 events) state title. The club’s only state champion was the men open four crew of Nick Agorastos, Chris Marlow, Jeremy Padayao and Gerard Pila.
The men open four is in grave danger of not defending its state title. Puna is fourth, behind Keauhou, Kai Opua and Keaukaha, stubbing its toe with a disqualification last week. A DQ is zero points and a dagger when point separation is so slim.
“We’ve got a good amount of crews that qualified,” Tuaolo said. “It’s critical right now. There are only two regattas left.”
But as Gooch knows, Puna’s spirit is unchanging, and there’s always work to do.
“What I like about the club is we train really hard, and after the race we celebrate whether we win or lose,” she said. “There’s good friendships, and we train hard.”