JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The women of Lanikai Canoe Club won the 55 division during the OHCRA Father's Day Regatta at Nanakuli Beach Park in June. Lanikai is the early favorite for tomorrow's state championships.
Lanikai may have Hawaiian outnumbered this year
As roughly 3,000 paddlers from 58 clubs converge on Hanalei Bay, Kauai, for tomorrow's Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association State Championship Regatta, the big question remains: Can anybody dethrone the juggernaut that is Maui's Hawaiian Canoe Club?
Hawaiian has won six consecutive state crowns, but the club faces an uphill battle this year, according to head coach Diane Ho. In addition to the pressures associated with being the reigning champion, the club will compete in the newly-formed AAAA Division (21-39 crews entered) with 31 crews.
"We're going to give it our best shot and come to compete, but we can't be considered the favorite; I think we're an underdog," Ho said. "Basically, we are coming in with 31, and we've got to congratulate and acknowledge the Oahu clubs for qualifying as many clubs as they did. They've done their work and put themselves in the better position."
Lanikai Canoe Club is the early favorite in the AAAA Division based on having a crew in 38 of the 39 races. Coming off an undefeated regular season and a win in the OHCRA championship regatta two weeks ago, the Kailua-based club from the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association will benefit from the state scoring system, which awards points to every boat that finishes, as opposed to just the top four crews earning points, as is the case in OHCRA competition. Kailua Canoe Club -- also representing OHCRA -- is expected to turn in a solid performance with 36 crews racing.
"Every year has been different, so it's not really the number of crews," said Ho. "The differential between the highest (club's) crews (and ours) has usually been two, but now it's seven. I think we're in uncharted waters, but this is actually going to be a lot more exciting because assuming that everybody who qualified has the quality, then it will boil down to performance at the race. It was our job to qualify, and it's our job to perform and let things fall where they fall."
Lanikai head coach Dave Smith is confident that his power in numbers will give his club an increased shot at the title, but is still wary of the other talented clubs in the mix.
"We certainly have a good chance considering we've been prevailing on Oahu," he said. "The fact that we've been able to win all year long gives us a good chance, and the fact that we have seven more crews than Hawaiian gives us a statistical advantage, at least in sheer numbers. I think it's pretty tough to overcome."
Kaneohe Canoe Club of Oahu's Na Ohana O Na Hui Wa'a leads the pack in the AAA Division (13-20 crews entered) with the maximum crews allowed. The club will look to ride its momentum stemming from an undefeated Hui Wa'a campaign into tomorrow's competition.
"In the state race, there are a lot of good crews out there," Kaneohe head coach Clint Anderson said. "Even though they have less crews (than us), we've still got to respect the other competitors. If our crews can come in the top five (in each race), we'll be happy that they'll keep us in it. Were going to take it one by one and try our best, and we'd be more than happy to bring home No. 1."
Despite his club's dominant regular-season performance, Anderson knows that the state championship regatta is a totally different beast.
"Being undefeated is one thing, but states is like a new start," he said. "We're at a different level, and just to be in states is a good step. No matter if we win or lose, as long as we do the best we can, that's the main thing. Every week is a new week. It's a new ball game; it's the playoffs.
Hanalei Canoe Club of Kauai's Garden Island Canoe Racing Association will compete in the AAA Division as well, and has the most crews entered from the island with 14. The club looks to use home waters to its benefit.
"I guess it is an advantage," Skip Forrest, president of Hanalei and coach for the men's team, said. "We get to practice on the course for the entire year, so it is somewhat of an advantage.
"We're definitely the underdog, and because we have 14 crews, we just broke in to the AAA Division," he added. "So the guys who have 20 (crews entered) already have six more points than us without even getting out on the course yet."
Eight clubs are expected to field the maximum of 12 crews in the AA Division (7-12 crews entered), including Hui Wa'a power, the Waikiki Beach Boys. The Beach Boys will rely on their women's program, which helped lead the club to the Hui Wa'a championship in the organization's medium-size class, and saw five crews finish the regular season undefeated.
The A Division (1-7 crews entered) should prove a toss-up as 29 clubs vie for the trophy. Three clubs are expected to field a division-high six crews including, Alapa Hoe and Kalihi Kai from Hui Wa'a, and Waikiki Surf Club, which represents OHCRA.
The state regatta is dedicated to Michael Tongg, a legend in the paddling community who died July 13 after a long bout with lung cancer. Tongg was instrumental in helping grow the sport of canoe paddling, and was on the winning Molokai Hoe crew three times (1966, '69 and '73) with Waikiki Surf Club, the club he later coached. He eventually became the president of the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association, a position he held for 19 years.
Tongg's ashes won't be scattered until an Aug. 12 ceremony at Waikiki Beach fronting the Royal Hawaiian Hotel near the surf break named after him, but the race should provide a tribute for one of the sports' pioneers.
"His thing was 'Let 'em paddle,'" current HCRA President John Kekua Jr. said of his mentor. "Any race there is, that's his recognition. He was president for 19 years before I came along, and the growth (of the sport) started with him."