Team Wahoo's is made up of paddlers from Hawaii, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. They are: Denise Darval-Chang, Malia Kamisugi, Sarah Uhl, Amy Robertson, coach Wyatt Jones, Megan Jones, Donna Kahakui, Corina Gage, Leanne Haronga and Serena Hunter. Traci Phillips is not pictured.
Team Wahoo’s tries to orchestrate right blend for Na Wahine
The blueprint is hardly unique in paddling.
Na Wahine O Ke Kai
» Sunday, 7:30 a.m.
» 41-mile race begins at Hale O Lono Harbor on Molokai and finishes at Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki
Top-flight competitors, all rarely having the chance to practice together and some never having met previously, join together shortly before race day and try to quickly blend their considerable skills and grab the biggest title in the sport.
It's the one Team Wahoo's will use on Sunday at the 29th annual Na Wahine O Ke Kai, a 41-mile race from Molokai to Oahu across the Kaiwi Channel that is considered the world championship of women's long-distance outrigger-canoe paddling.
And it's the one that Team Wahoo's hopes can take down another team that's already used the blueprint successfully and will try to do it again -- two-time defending champion Team Bradley.
"It's taking the basic paddling mechanics and applying them, even among recent strangers in the crew," said Team Wahoo's steerswoman, Denise Darval-Chang. "It's not strategy like with basketball, where everyone has to know their (particular team's type of) zone, or man-to-man. With paddling, you're doing the same thing over and over. So if you know the basics, and you're in shape, you can do this."
A record, international field of 77 teams is expected for Sunday's race.
Besides Hawaii, other U.S. states and countries to be represented include California and Maine, and Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Canada.
An international mix itself, Team Wahoo's is composed of five elite paddlers from Hawaii -- Darval-Chang, Megan Jones, Donna Kahakui, Malia Kamisugi and Traci Phillips; four from New Zealand -- Corina Gage, Leanne Haronga, Amy Robertson and Sarah Uhl; and one from the Cook Islands -- Serena Hunter.
Without the time to commit to an established club team, Kahakui gathered the other top Hawaii paddlers she could find in similar situations. She then relied on 13-time Na Wahine veteran Gage to rally the best she could find among the Kiwis, which turned out to include a detour to the Cook Islands for Hunter.
"I coach in New Zealand as well, so I'm familiar with who might be of the caliber to come into an exceptional crew and do well," Gage said. Among all Team Wahoo's paddlers, "I think there's a natural blend of personality and character. We're mellow in terms of team and group dynamics, and getting along well together, but once we're on the start line we're all business."
Said Hunter, who will be attempting the Na Wahine for the first time: "The Molokai (race) was always on my hit list. When Corina asked me, I jumped at the chance."
Most of Team Wahoo's Hawaii paddlers had never met their other teammates before -- much less paddled and executed open-ocean rotations together in the same canoe. All crewmembers were trusted to practice in one-person canoes and cross-train on their own beforehand.
But in their first practice together, the crewmembers surprised even themselves by leading for much of, and finishing a close second at, the E Lau Hoe, a 33-mile race along Oahu's shores that served as one of the final tune-ups before the Na Wahine.
Team Wahoo's was eventually overtaken in the homestretch after a bold course-line shift by Team Bradley, which picked up its only win so far this year after going undefeated the previous two.
Even though the mix-and-match formula is proven in paddling (a Hawaii/New Zealand crew also twice before won the men's Molokai Hoe world championship), the women of Team Wahoo's were surprised by their E Lau Hoe performance. They were also encouraged, knowing they would have at least a shot at winning the Na Wahine title two weeks later.
"Surprised would be an understatement," said Kahakui of the E Lau Hoe. "More like shocked, amazed. As a group, we just went out to have fun. We don't know how to exactly explain it, but hopefully we'll have something similar for Molokai. It's nice to be in the crowd of other great teams, and we're champing at the bit to race."
Darval-Chang steered Team Bradley to last year's Na Wahine victory while its regular and current steerswoman had a child.
Darval-Chang likes her new crew's chances this year, though she doesn't necessarily think Team Bradley -- with a single win going in -- is any more beatable this year, and acknowledges other favorites like Team Mooloolaba of Australia -- the 2003 and 2004 Na Wahine champ returning after a two-year break.
"Everybody's beatable, and it's been proven a lot so far this year," Darval-Chang said. The Na Wahine "is going to be a very interesting race. There's no secret (to success). Everyone trains hard and does the best they can to prepare themselves to perform. This year, unlike last year, I don't have any pressure, and that's a great feeling. But I think we have a chance (to win)."