There’s a special story behind the Tui Tonga team that won this summer’s running of the strenuous, 100-mile Na Holo Kai cross-Kaua’i Channel outrigger sailing canoe race.
Telling the story is Steve Baker, a long-time Hanalei Hawaiian Civic Canoe Club paddler and North Shore waterman. One of Baker’s best sailing buddies was the late Mark Brewer. Brewer was 47 when he disappeared in late May during a solo motorboat trip that would have taken him from Nawiliwili to Ko Olina Harbor in Leeward O’ahu. Brewer leaves behind his wife Mary and two sons. The family lives in Kapahi.
The 22-foot motorized catamaran was discovered about 16 miles off of Waianae with no one on board. Baker brought the boat back from Honolulu after extensive search efforts failed to spot him in the channel.
Brewer first came to Kaua’i in the early 1970s, Baker said, when at age 16 he sailed his 22-foot sloop single-handed from Newport Beach, Ca. “He put cases of Spaghetti O’s on board, and water, and sailed it single handed to Kaua’i,” Baker said. “I got involved with him when he started paddling canoes because of his wife’s Mary’s interest, he did it to support her.”
Baker and Brewer sailed frequently aboard the Tui Tonga sailing canoe, which Baker had built with the help of Jimmy Jasper, using a design for a fast hull sailing boat he had come across.
The two started sailing the custom hull in 1995. “We had a lot of success with it, won about four Na Holo Kai’s in row, at one point we won 11 channel crossing races in a row. From there, we needed to go to different boats to help other crews. Mark took a boat and put a women’s Na Holo Kai crew together, and they finished second in the 2001 race, a few seconds behind the winner.”
After Brewer’s mid-channel disappearance, Baker helped his family retrieve the boat, and helped them find closure to the tragedy.
“After Mark died I went over with Mary and Mark Brewer Jr. to get the boat out of impound in Honolulu from the Coast Guard. I brought the boat back to Kaua’i with them on board. We stopped in mid-channel and had a moment of silence. The thought came to me that I could do the race one more time, with a Mark Brewer on the boat. I talked to them to see they were interested, and Mark, Jr. and Mary were excited.”
The Na Holo Kai Race was first run in 1987 as part of the Year of the Hawaiian festivities; the concept for the race came from Hokulea sailor and Kaua’i waterman and musician Carlos Andrade.
Baker and other crew members from the winning team at the first Na Holo Kai are now working to perpetuate the sailing canoe skills they’ve learned over the years. In the 2002 Na Holo Kai four members of that crew – Baker, Nick Beck, Kawika Goodale and Joe Moranz – each sailed separately, helping to lead four different canoes to the finish line, including the winning Tui Tonga canoe with Baker on board.
Baker collected a young team, including Mark Brewer, Jr., who is 14.
“We put a rookie crew together and to have fun, and to honor Mark’s memory,” he said. “We took a steersman, Jason, whose a student in Windward Community College’s Polynesian sailing program, and Leimomi, the assistant coordinator of the program. We met them when they made a copy of the Tui Tonga, they wanted one for their program.
As a fundraiser for the Brewer family Baker arranged for Mary Brewer to use her husband’s boat as the safety escort boat for the 2002 Na Holo Kai race. Baker said the sailing canoe and outrigger canoe paddling communities have reached out to the family since Mark Brewer’s disappearance. “The whole paddling community all sent money, over $20,000 was sent to Mary,” Baker said.
Mary Brewer is a waterwoman herself, and has been successful in paddling the wahine version of the Moloka’i Channel outrigger paddling canoe race. Her husband Mark often coached her team, now Baker is stepping in to help them out, and will take up Brewer’s coaching role in the mid-September race.
Baker, Mark Brewer, Jr. and their team gathered at Hale’iwa on the North Shore of O’ahu the night before the Na Holo Kai and rigged up the Tui Tonga sailing canoe. The raced started at 7 a.m. in very light winds.
“Everyone left us behind,” Baker said. “We’re not strong paddlers, but we just held to our sail plan and our tactics and our course and had fun. We kept it at a good solid run, and didn’t paddle hard, just tried to be efficient, ride and rest.”
About three miles off Ka’ena Point the other sailing canoes in the race went north, hoping to find a faster line of sail, Baker said.
“We stayed south, and we never saw anybody, no escort boats,” he said. “The eight other boat were up above us, way above us. We maintained course trying to be efficient. Mark Brewer Jr. was on the sheet, just like his dad used to do. It was relatively a downwind run, we mainly let the sail out and to balance the boat.”
The Tui Tonga team made it approximately 20 miles out of Kalapaki Beach at about 1 p.m., and headed for a remarkable win.
“We see the island and we’re right on course and saw no other boats or sails,” Baker said. “We’re either far ahead or very, very far behind. We continued to sail in and we were first to the beach.”
“Mark Jr. was solid all the way, most of the crew was in tears when we hit the beach,” Baker said. “Mary Brewer, with her escort boat, escorted us in the last three miles. It was a good closure situation for the family on that. Mark Brewer, Jr., the youngest guy at 14 to sail the channel in the history of Na Holo Kai, and to win it was just a real special day for him and his family.”
Looking back on the race, and past Na Holo Kai crossings, Baker recalled Mark Brewer’s ability as a sailor.
“Mark was what I consider a total bluewater man,” he said. “A lot of us on this island are waterman, but being a blue water man, his water skills really come into play when he’s out of sight of land, where it’s the sea and the wind, there the sail tactics and navigation really come into significance. He was so relaxed and comfortable out there.”
“In the relationship between a bluewater man and ocean, the ocean doesn’t often give back a bluewater man, so we’re left with his essence, and two sons,” Baker said. ” The final thing I learned from Mark is that the ocean has no concept of remorse, and we all should remember that.”
Baker said the recent Na Holo Kai race is his last one for now. He plans to teach Polynesian canoe sailing at Windward Community College, and is “developing new people to come into this.” His wife Barbara is the principal at Hanalei School.
Editor Chris Cook be reached at mailto:email@example.com or 245-3681 (ext. 227).