The annual Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii Canoe Racing Association championships could not have had a better ending, or for that matter, any more drama or suspense added to the last race of the day.
This was the scenario on Saturday at Hilo Bay: race No. 42, the half-mile mixed men and women. Kai Opua, the heavy favorite, up by one point over longtime rival Keaukaha. In a nutshell, a mad sprint for all the marbles.
Veronica Fields is 24 years old and the steerswoman for Kai Opua’s mixed crew. She was also on the silver medal junior women’s crew. She’s been paddling since she was 11 years old for Ocean Cloud, Kai Opua’s Hawaiian translation.
She had no clue her club was ahead by a slim point. In almost every movie, there’s an antagonist. Kai Opua was its own worst enemy with two disqualifications: its boys 13 crew for being over the starting line and mixed novice B for an ineligible paddler.
The boys 13 crew went on to finish second, and the mixed rookie crew took fourth. The two DQs wiped out those points. To make things all square, Keaukaha also had a pair of DQs: its novice B women and novice A men.
Before the last race of the day, Kai Opua’s club president, Bo Campos, had a flashback: 14 years ago at the championships at Kawaihae Pier. Nearly the same thing: Kai Opua up a point over Puna, and the men’s 40 was the last race of the day.
“I think I was going to have a heart attack,” Campos said to everyone in blue and white, setting the background music.
There’s nothing like a good sequel, even if it’s nearly two decades later. Kai Opua beat Puna and won the championship long ago, and it duplicated the last-race heroics on Saturday, zipping to first in 3 minutes, 49.16 seconds.
Puna was second in 3:49.53. Keaukaha was seventh in 4:13.62. Kai Opua earned 12 points for the race while Keaukaha picked up five points.
And for the seventh straight year, the Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii overall championship belongs to Kai Opua, which pocketed the A Division (21-42 events) title with 191 points.
Keaukaha, like Kai Opua, entered 42 races and placed second with 184 points, followed by Puna (150), Keauhou (148), Kawaihae (98) and Kamehameha (97).
Kai Ehitu (20 events entered) captured the B Division (11 to 20 races) with 87 points. Laka (19 events) had 41 points.
Waiakea (nine events entered) took the C Division (one to 10 races) title with 33 points, followed by Waikoloa (19), Keoua (17), Hanakahi (15) and Kailana (three).
Kai Opua repeated its gold haul total from a year ago. The club collected a lucky 13 first-place finishes again. (The club also secured 10 silvers). Keaukaha was right behind with 11 golds, and Keauhou seized 10.
The difference in the standings was seven points, the same number in the last race between Kai Opua and Keaukaha.
“I knew it was a stressful position,” said Fields of the last race. “I asked them not to tell me. I didn’t know we were ahead by one point. I’m thankful I didn’t know.
“It’s a tough race. There are a lot of canoes. It’s the most entries (11 canoes). A lot of times clubs save their good paddlers for the last race, so you go up against heavy competition. Our club is huge, and to win our seventh straight title is awesome for the kids to the men and women and coaches. It just goes to show how well everybody works together. It takes a lot of work, a lot of hours away from your family. But at the end of the day, you’re still paddling with your family.”
After his blood pressure got back to working order, Campos appreciated the good fight Keaukaha put up. In fact, after 26 races, Kai Opua led Keaukaha 119-116.
“It was a rough day,” Campos said. “Keaukaha is an outstanding canoe club. They’re great competitors. But it’s a nice feeling to walk out with the Moku O Hawaii championship.
“I’m proud of our club. I’m proud of our people. They make me who I am today.”
While Campos fills the role as the club’s emotional teddy bear, athletic director Mike Atwood is a numbers cruncher. He knew from all the comparable times that the Moku O Hawaii championships would be no walk in the park.
“In the beginning of the season, I thought that Keaukaha would be a threat,” he said. “Hats off to them. They paddled one heck of a race. We definitely had to work to win this regatta.”
Atwood is a savvy tactician, but he rules with his heart.
“We wanted to win the championship, but we wanted to put as many people in races as possible,” he said. “We wanted to give everybody in our club a chance to have success.
“Some races we didn’t get the results that we wanted. We lost some battles but we won the war. I’m very proud of our club. We hung in until the end.”