Duke’s race all set

By Cindy Luis

It all began as a way to honor Hawaii's first Olympian, who had died seven months earlier. Thirty-five years later, the Duke Kahanamoku Long Distance Canoe Races are still going strong.

Traditionally the start of the long-distance outrigger paddling season, the event is held on the nearest Sunday before Kahanamoku's birthday on Aug. 24. Tomorrow, the races kick off a week-long celebration highlighted by next Saturday's unveiling of the Kahanamoku stamp on what would have been his 112th birthday.

"It's always been a real competitive race," said Hoppy Smith, the race registrar and longtime member of sponsoring Lanikai Canoe Club. "We've had mainland crews in the past but we aren't expecting any this year. However, we will have several neighbor island clubs, possibly a Maui club for the first time.

"It's been a special race."

Before her death in 1997, Kahanamoku's widow Nadine used to attend the awards ceremony and help present trophies and medals to the top crews.

The course has changed several times since the inaugural event in 1968, which was for men only and held on Aug. 24. Seven canoes participated in the race from Kailua Beach to Waikiki, with Outrigger Canoe Club winning in 3 hours, 44 minutes.

In 1985, with the 22-mile course reversed -- Waikiki to Kailua -- Outrigger set the record of 2:51. It was an amazing mark, considering crews going around the south shore of Oahu have to battle against the surf and tides until rounding Mokapu.

The record stood until 1997 when Lanikai smashed it by 10 minutes as the race reverted back to the Kailua-to-Waikiki course.

"I think the guys like this course better," said Smith. "It's tough battling the currents and surf the other way."

Lanikai is the defending men's champion. The nine-member crew includes most of the club's senior crew which saw its 10-year state regatta winning streak end two weeks ago in Hilo by Kai Opua.

Smith said she wouldn't know if Kai Opua was entered until the end of today's registration deadline. One Big Island crew is definitely competing: Puna, with former Lanikai paddler Alan Lipp.

"It's always nice to come back and paddle this race," said Lipp, whose father George was one of the race's organizers in 1968. "I love the water, it's where I grew paddling.

"Hopefully we can win the masters (35-years). That's realistic for us. A top-8 finish would be good."

The race

What: 35th Duke Kahanamoku Long Distance Canoe Races

When: Tomorrow

Where: Women's race, off Kailua Beach, 7:30 a.m.; men's race, Kailua Beach to Duke Kahanamoku Beach, 9:30 a.m.

Smith said she expects nearly 50 crews this year, including Kukui O Molokai, the club that won the first men's Molokai Hoe in 1952. The race will have a staggered start with the top 15 crews from last year's race giving the rest of the field a 20-minute start.

Both the men's and women's races will use a LeMans start. Each canoe is held by several paddlers in shallow water with the rest of the crew jumping in after a short sprint on the beach.

The women's 6-mile event has no crew changes and is a figure-8 course from Kailua Beach to Mokulea Island around Popoia Island and back to the beach. The first women's race was held in 1979.

Outrigger is the defending women's champion. The club set the record several years ago of 44 minutes.

"The women's race is a fun-on," said Smith, who has previously competed in the masters division. "For people who have never gone out in the open ocean, it's a chance to see what the swells are like."

Although there is a division for koa canoes, none have been entered since 1995 "which is sad," said Smith.

The races have awards for open, masters-35, masters-45 and masters-55.

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