Tournament in paradise

HANALEI — Puuwai Canoe Club coach Luke Evslin has seen his fair share of Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state tournaments since he began paddling when he was 12 years old.

But this year was different.

Evslin, who has been with the Wailua-based canoe club for three years, secured his first tournament metals this year — one first-place and one third.

“It really did come as a surprise, because you truly have no idea how you’re going to do when you’re racing,” Evslin said after he finished in the men’s junior one-mile race on a hot and sunny Saturday.

Evslin said he was surprised his team swept the men’s freshman one-mile race and garnered a third-place in the men’s junior one-mile race with the same crew.

“We actually don’t paddle very much together as a whole team,” Evslin said.

In all, Garden Island Canoe Racing Association President Mia Pauletto said Evslin and his winning crew were among the nearly 4,000 paddlers who descended on Hanalei Bay for this year’s state tournament.

“This year was epic for us,” Pauletto said.

The tournament, which is held on Kauai every six years, brought together some of the best teams in the state.

“Trust me, on the water, it’s all competitive, but off the water we’re all one big ohana,” Pauletto said. “On the water, it’s always cutthroat, because it’s the best of the best. This is for bragging rights — if you win, you’re the best of 78 canoe clubs for a whole year.”

Niumalu Canoe Club paddlers Rizell Cabungan and Koleka Leong-Chow, who were apart of the club’s Girls 12 and under team that placed fourth in the tournament’s quarter-mile course, said they were surprised they won.

All of the training that went into preparing for that moment, the pair said, was worth it.

“I was so scared,” Cabungan said of her first state tournament. “I was shaking and just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

“Our paddles were shaking every time we put up our blades,” said Leong-Chow, a fellow first-time state tournament paddler. “Our stroker kind of slowed down in the middle of the race, so we were just pushing her to keep going.”

Even for other teams, like the Niumalu Girls 15 and under crew which placed last in their race on the half-mile course, getting to this point wasn’t easy.

Their coach, Kaimana Castaneda, said qualifying for the state championship is an accomplishment in itself, since they had to first upend all other island regatta teams throughout this year’s season in their respective divisions and age groups.

“I’m not disappointed in them at all, because they’re still 14th in the state,” Castaneda said. “Yeah, they didn’t come in first in this particular run but they were able to represent the Garden Island and are at the states, where a lot of teams didn’t even make it.”

“Hanalei Bay is probably the most beautiful, mystical and magical venues to come to,” HCRA Race Commissioner Lawrence “Uncle Bo” Campos said as he gazed out onto Hanalei Bay on Saturday. “Where else can you get such beauty? To sit here in this kind of place and watch koa canoes line up to race is what it’s all about. It’s a challenge to get to the island of Kauai — it’s a challenge to get in and out of stuff — but once everything clicks, it is a great race and a wonderful day.”

All of the 11 canoe clubs on the island, including the fledgling West Kauai, Kukuiula Outrigger and Hokualele Canoe Clubs, were represented throughout the day, including several individual races in which there three Kauai clubs racing at the same time.

But this year’s tournament, race officials said, is about more than claiming bragging rights, at least for one year.

“Being in a koa canoe is spiritual,” Pauletto said. “It’s all about teaching children how to malama the koa and make sure that they don’t disrespect it and just perpetuating that cultural spirit is so important.”

• Darin Moriki, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-3681 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com.

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