The crew from Mooloolaba Canoe Club in Australia crossed the finish line yesterday while putting up the second-fastest time ever to win this year's Na Wahine O Ke Kai race.

Australian team
cruises to win
Na Wahine O Ke Kai

Mooloolaba improves on
its third-place finish
of a year ago

The poet Robert Browning had it right when discussing an adventure. Those embarking on the journey begin empty-handed but are so much richer upon reaching the destination.

So it has been for the 25 years of Na Wahine O Ke Kai. The women's Molokai-to-Oahu outrigger canoe race has always been more about challenging oneself to cross the Kaiwi Channel than the amount of time it takes to go from Hale O Lono to Duke Kahanamoku Beach.

Yesterday's 40.2-mile race was no different for even the winning crew from Australia. The paddlers of Mooloolaba Canoe Club began their challenge right before they finished third in this event last year.

"We decided about 500 meters from the finish line last year that we were coming back," said team captain Lisa Curry-Kenny, a member of the Panamuna Riggeroos' 1997 and 1998 winning crews. "All of our training has been used toward today. We've won every open and masters race in Australia. We haven't had a lot of competition, except when we've raced with men's crews."

Mooloolaba didn't have much competition from the rest of the record field of 72 canoes. Despite the fairly flat conditions, the Australians were just two minutes and five seconds off the 1997 record, finishing in 5 hours, 25 minutes and 37 seconds.

The only mistake Mooloolaba made came after it crossed the finish line. The canoe the crew had borrowed from Kailua boatmaker Karel Tresnak Sr. flipped as they were bringing all 10 paddlers into shore.

Outrigger Canoe Club, a three-time past winner of the race, was second in 5:36:20. Kai Opua of the Big Island, the three-time defending champion, was third in 5:44:31 and first in the Masters-35 division.

"Off the (starting) line, they were gone," Outrigger steersman Kisi Haine said of Mooloolaba. "We couldn't read the back of their shirts.

"I'm pleased how we did. If we had stayed on their course, we wouldn't have been this close. We came in at Hawaii Kai and surfed in."

The crew of Australia's Mooloolaba received the traditional victor's welcome after winning the Na Wahine O Ke Kai.

Carleen Ornellas has been involved with the race since paddling in the first unofficial crossing in 1975. For the first time, she was not with Kailua Canoe Club but reunited with her former Kailua coach Beanie Heen at Kai Opua.

"The level has stepped up so much from the beginning," said Ornellas, who split steering duties with Nicki Enos. "To finish third is pretty good, especially since we didn't have the best start.

"It was a hot, flat race, exactly like we knew it was going to be. For the Aussies, it was their day, their water. We could see them, we just couldn't get them."

As a masters crew, Kai Opua used 12 paddlers instead of the open-division limit of 10. The average age of the Kai Opua team was 44, with seven of the 12 having belonged to the crew that won from 1999 to 2000.

The race's most impressive streak continued yesterday when JoJo Toeppner completed her 25th consecutive crossing, the only paddler to do so in the history of the race. The 49-year-old stroked for California's Newport Aquatic Club-Off Shoot, which finished 22nd in 6:10:53.

"The biggest difference from 1979 is, with so few boats (10), you got to meet everyone," said Toeppner, a member of Offshore's 10 winning crews between 1986 and 1996. "The love of the sea is why you come here. In '79, you had respect. Now you have respect and love."

Toeppner finished yesterday's race by doing a front flip out of the canoe, something she did on every water change yesterday. She said the NAC crew added "Off Shoot" to its name in honor of the late Hawaii waterwoman Rell Sunn, who had nicknamed Offshore "Off Shoot."

Toeppner wasn't the only one with a connection to the first race. Rosie Lum, who paddled in both the unofficial 1975 event and the 1979 inaugural race, saw her daughter Mahealani make her first crossing yesterday as part of the runner-up Outrigger crew.

"It's just awesome to see all of these women," said Lum. "Now you have people's daughters and granddaughters out there. It's great."

That was the overall feeling for the crew from Hui Pakolea, a club based out of Lanikai. Not only was this the first crossing for the majority of the 12-member Masters-35 crew, it was the first race ever for six of the paddlers.

The club does not compete in the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association regattas nor in long-distance events. Yesterday, Hui Pakolea placed 48th in 6:35:09.

"We had hoped to come in between 6 1/2 and 7 hours," said coach and steersman Alexis Freeman. "We did very, very well, better than I expected.

"Will we do it next year? Ask me tomorrow."


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