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Paddling: Red Bull Wa‘a hungry to make history at Molokai Hoe

Updated: 
October 5, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — The members of Red Bull Wa’a are a humble bunch of paddlers. On the surface, the Kona based crew says all the right things about working hard, representing Hawaii, and hoping to compete with some of the toughest competition in the world.

However, the team’s modest approach is a good cover-up for a crew that is ready to steal the spotlight in the upcoming Molokai Hoe on Sunday — a race known as the World Championship of men’s long distance canoe racing.

A core group of the current members of the team — which includes, Daniel Chun, Kainoa Tanoai, Trey Cox, Keakua Nolan, Ikaika Hauanio, Tuarongo Cowan, Puni Freitas, Chevise Conte and Kekoa Kau — have been competing in the Molokai Hoe for the last four years. Over that span the team has finished in the top five three times, but the crew has not been able to finish higher than fourth, which in the scheme of things, is still pretty good.

But pretty good is no longer good enough. Team Red Bull wants to win and they are ready to win now.

“We always want to improve on last year’s position, but ultimately, the boys want to win,” said Red Bull Wa’a team manager Mike Nakachi. “We have had so much build up heading into this race and they are ready to roll now. They did not sacrifice all this time just to say they showed up and finished the race. They want to etch themselves into the history books.”

The Red Bull crew may be ready, but they have a big challenge in front of them. The Molokai Hoe is a 41-mile channel crossing that starts at Hale O Lono Harbor in Molokai and finishes at Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki on Oahu.

“It is pretty much the Super Bowl of Hawaii paddling,” said Tanoai, a younger member of the team who comes from a strong paddling family. “We have put a lot of time in together, in and out of the water, and we are excited to compete.”

This year, team Red Bull has done everything they can to avoid any burnout up to the 41-mile race. The paddling season is long, starting in January, and the team has had a slow build-up to this point.

“Early on the team focused on building a strong foundation and we had some early success, most notably in the Sydney Harbor Challenge in February,” Nakachi said. “But then we ran into a buzz-saw of teams coming fresh off the regatta season and it was a humbling experience.”

The team is really finding its stroke lately. After winning their division in the Queen Liliuokalani race, team Red Bull also claimed first in the Pailolo Challenge last month, edging out one of the best crews in the sport, Team Maui Jim/Primo, and breaking the race record with a time of two hours, 27 minutes and 1.93 seconds. Splitting its crew, Red Bull also had a team finish third in the 26-mile channel crossing from DT Fleming Beach in Maui to Kaunakakai in Molokai.

The crew of the Red Bull team hopes to carry their success into the Molokai Hoe, but they will have some tough challenges to overcome from the channel itself, to the 1,000-plus paddlers from around the world competing in the event, including the 10-time winning crew Shell Va’a out of Tahiti. In fact, traditionally, Tahiti crews dominate the podium every year.

“The race will be a huge challenge with a lot of amazing talent,” Nakachi said. “The channel itself shows a different personality every day. The number of crews entering races this year seems to be on a decline, but this race has actually seen an increase, which tells you all you need to know. This is a David vs. Goliath challenge and Red Bull Wa’a is David despite the nice logo on the side of the canoe. The team members believe in each other and they believe they can get it done.”

Na Kona Juniors

take on Molokai

Representing three west side paddling clubs — Kai Ehitu, Kai Opua and Keauhou — a group of nine paddlers ranging between the ages of 16 and 18 will compete in the Molokai Hoe as the Na Kona Juniors.

The team is coached by Lorelei Nakagawa, who has competed in the Molokai Hoe twice, finishing in the top 15 both times. She has used what she learned in those two races, and over her paddling career, to help teach the young men, who have been training for the event for the past two months.

“We have tried to drop them into as many conditions as we could,” Nakagawa said, who focused on heart over strength as the key to competing in the long distance race. “You can have the most endurance, or be the strongest guy, but if you don’t have the heart, the mental strength to push for all 41 miles, then you will not be able to cross the channel.”

The Na Kona juniors are comprised of two boys from Keauhou, three from Kai Ehitu and four from Kai Opua. While only nine members of the crew will compete, there are actually 11 member in all. The crew members are McKale Hill, Kawai Cho, Hanalei Akazawa, Jake Honl-DeGuair, Lamaku Kekaualau-Nacis, Jacob Dayton, Bailey Kreusling, Hunter Ellis, Makoa Ng, Thomas Depontes and Iokepa Perez. Nakagawa said the team could not have made it this far without every member.

This is the first year the west side clubs have come together to send a crew of junior paddlers to the Molokai Hoe.

Nakagawa said the team name Na Kona was chosen because it means unification of all the districts of Kona, “brought together by the winds, love and the respect of community.”

“This is a very spiritual race,” Nakagawa added. “Training and competing in this race helps teach responsibility and commitment, while also establishing a brotherhood between the paddlers.”

The Na Kona Juniors is sponsored by Kai Opua.

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