HANALEI — The Hana Canoe Club from Maui brought one team to the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association State Championship Regatta on Saturday.
They came for one race.
“I feel awesome,” said paddler Nanea Morton, a member of the six-person boys and girls 12-and-under team.
They claimed first place in the quarter-mile race in 2 minutes, 14 seconds. And yes, it felt so good.
It was Morton’s first time at states.
“It’s pretty cool that we won,” she said.
Coach Kalena Aina was ecstatic, rushing to greet each paddler with hugs and smiles.
“Pretty stoked,” she said.
How did they pull off this win?
No secret here.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Aina said.
More than 50 canoe clubs competed in more than 40 races in six-person outrigger canoes under sunny skies and on calm waters in Hanalei Bay.
The championship, held here for the first time in six years, attracted an estimated 5,000 paddlers and spectators.
Keiki to kupuna competed in distances that ranged from a quarter-mile to two miles. Competition began early Saturday morning and stretched into the evening.
The aloha spirit permeated the shoreline as friends and family rooted for teams stroking their hearts out. Chants and cheers rose as paddlers headed out, closed on the finish line, and when they returned.
“Go boys, let’s go boys,” shouted a spectator.
“You got this,” shouted another.
Jeremy Padayao, a coach and a paddler with the Puna Canoe Club from the Big Island, said they were proud to be there.
“We know Hanalei has been through some struggles,” he said. “It kind of reminds of back home of what we’ve gone through in Puna. We just felt it was important to be here and support the community.”
The state championship, he said, “is everything for us. From the beginning of the year to now. Everything we do is meant for this race.”
Hanalei Canoe Club paddler Krystina Berry had this bit of advice for what it takes to win:
“Shut up and paddle,” she said, laughing but still serious.
That, and a lot of energy, discipline and spirit, is perhaps what helped the Hanalei Canoe Club’s mens’ novice B team win their half-mile race.
Coach Rick Ham Young and wife Denise were shouting and waving with absolute joy as the team returned to shore, where ohana anxiously awaited to congratulate them.
Ham Young said they got a late start on training, but they buckled down and worked hard.
“This is our waters,” he said. “We’re at home.”
Denise Ham Young said her heart was beating like crazy as the paddlers charged toward the finish.
“He worked really hard these last few months to prepare them,” she said. “I’m so proud of my husband and the team. I’m very proud of those boys.”
Paddler Konstantin “Dash” Dashkevich said they did what their coach told them and stayed together. It was that unity that gave them the power to surge ahead and stay.
“Our team was, I believe, the best,” he said.
An emotional Dash paused as he searched for the right words when asked how it felt to win.
“It was the best feeling ever I had,” he said.
Paddler Chris Zauner said Ham Young helped them become not just better paddlers, but better people, too.
“I was yelling to my boys out there, ‘This is for Hanalei, this is for our place, for uncle Rick and his family, for all the people here.’ That kind of drove us to the end,” Zauner said.
Paddler Matt Johnson called it an “incredible” race.”
“We just all pulled together and had a lot of fun,” he said.
Johnson said he never looked around to see where the competition was.
“You have a feeling of where you’re at,” he said. “I keep my eyes forward, eyes on the prize, just make sure I’m hitting my strokes.”
It’s in the second half of the race when “you start burning,” he said.
“You’re just powering strokes ‘cause you know it’s close. You can feel it,” Johnson said.
Kaulana Tihada, 13, is a stroker with the Napili Canoe Club that won its boys quarter-mile race. He said they came on strong mid-way through.
“We started to feel the power,” he said.
In the boys 14 division, the Kawaihae Canoe Club of the Big Island was fired up after winning over a quarter-mile.
“It feels good,” said Keva Hui. “I don’t know. All of the boys might not be here next year, so this is like a day to remember.”
It was a difficult race, said paddler Isaiah Woods, but they were determined.
“We just gotta show that we can bang,” he shouted as he and teammates laughed.
Their coach Manny Veincent was pleased.
“It’s been a long year for these kids,” he said. “They’ve been winning almost everything in sight this year. Coming here and winning, it’s icing on the cake.”
Likewise for the Hana Canoe Club.
Paddler Kanika Helekahi-Burns called their victory a win for the community.
“We have a lot of people supporting us,” he said.
Coach Blake Ho‘opai-Feliciano had no doubts coming all the way from Maui so one team could be in one race was worth it.
“Just coming over here, we didn’t know if they were going to have a place to stay, one of the aunties housed us, they had a blast last night,” he said.
“Coming over here and getting first place, that’s awesome,” he said.
Coach Ka‘anoi Smith was proud not just because they won, but because they were there.
“For me, it’s the joy on the kids faces, seeing them happy, coming this far, all the way from Hana,” he said. “Entering the event is already a win for me. To win the event and everything on top of that, it’s the frosting on the cake.”
Kaina Makua, coach with the Kilohana Canoe Club in Waimea, said paddling is about more than winning — it teaches life skills. It’s part of his culture.
“We should have all of our kids paddling,” he said. “It’s not only competitive, but it really sets the tone for life, discipline in the canoe, discipline outside the canoe.”
“These are values that our people have always had. That’s what makes Hawaii Hawaii.”
Makua briefly addressed the early talks that some didn’t want the regatta in Hanalei — and some clubs declined to come — because the area wasn’t fully recovered from the April 2018 flooding.
But as he looked around at the calm waters, the blue skies, the shoreline filled with the energy of keiki, the wisdom of kupuna and the history of canoes, he said it was wonderful to be there.
“If you look today, sun is out, light wind, no rain, this is the best venue this year to hold an event like this, with this type of capacity. Look how much people came out,” he said.
Then, he added, “The people make the place.”
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or email@example.com.