If Red Bull Wa’a is turning the page and adding a new chapter to its book, this one is starting similar to the last few.
The Kona-based super crew notched a third consecutive victory at the Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Canoe Race on Saturday, clocking a time of 1 hour, 51 minutes and 8 seconds to hold off a hard-charging Maui Jim crew (1:51:18) in the Iron Non-Koa Open Division.
The 18-mile race for the men was from Honaunau Bay to Kailua Pier.
“It feels good. This is our hometown race, so to win it means a lot,” Red Bull paddler Kainoa Tanoai said. “We are stoked, but this was our first race of the season so there are still lots of kinks to work out.”
The Red Bull Crew came into the race with massive expectations, stemming from a stellar year that was punctuated with a Molokai Hoe victory. The win — which was the first by a Hawaii-based crew since 2005 at what is considered the world championship of men’s long-distance outrigger canoe racing— was the subject of a short film, titled “This and Nothing Else,” which premiered at the race’s talk story event on Friday night.
Before the race started at Honaunau, the crew gathered for a short pule and speech. The focus was to turn the page on what had happened over the last year and to focus on the start of a new season.
“We try not to put too much pressure on ourselves or focus on the past,” Tanoai said. “We just try to give it our all and focus on the things we can control in the canoe — that’s all we can do.”
During the afternoon, Red Bull battled familiar foes in Maui Jim and third place finishers, Lanikai (1:52:19). Until about the halfway mark of the 18-mile race, Lanikai and Red Bull were within a half-canoe length of each other, trading blows.
Red Bull eventually built some breathing room on Lanikai’s teal canoe until the final half-dozen miles, when the Maui Jim crew entered into the fold, putting the pressure on by taking a route a little farther out to sea.
However, Red Bull had enough gas in the tank for a final burst to the pier, keeping all challengers at bay.
“Our plan was to stay and hang to see the speed of everyone. Toward the end we tried to push, but those guys were right there with us. They almost got us,” Tanoai said. “Everyone is upping their level of competition in Hawaii. That’s a good thing, that’s what we want to see.”
The record book will show Red Bull at the front of the pack for three years in a row, but as Tanoai noted, a good chunk of the crew in the winning canoe have been at the top of the podium in Kona with other crews like Na Koa O Kona and Livestrong.
Hui Nalu Canoe Club took first in the Iron Unlimited Division with a time of 1:53:21.
Hosts with the most
On the women’s side, a crew from the host Kai Opua Canoe Club was the first to Honaunau, completing the 18-mile morning route from Kailua Pier in 2:03:58. Kawaihae Canoe Club took the top spot in the Iron Non-Koa Open Division with a time of 2:10:38.
Mel Kelekolio, the Kai Opua crew’s stroker and a veteran paddler, said the conditions were better than expected both in the water, and in the skies.
“It turned out to be a nice surprise,” Kelekolio said. “We are very fortunate to have this race in our backyard. It’s my favorite.”
Kelekolio has coached the women’s crews at Kai Opua for three years, and while she loves to teach, there’s nothing like getting the competitive juices flowing in the canoe again.
“At first, I was a little bit worried. It had been a while since I had been stroking. I was hoping I wouldn’t blow it in the first two minutes or something,” Kelekolio said with a laugh. “But I was confident because I knew the girls in the canoe were strong and determined. They were just phenomenal and it turned into an awesome day.”
Kelekolio also made sure to credit the hard-working Kai Opua club members, who have been making sure the full slate of events at the “world’s largest outrigger canoe race” are running smoothly.
In all, there were 103 women’s crews and 116 men’s crews in the race. While the 18-mile wa’a kaukahi (single hull) race was the main event, smaller and shorter races are scheduled for today and Monday.
“It’s a lot of work to make sure everything gets done,” Kelekolio said. “There are a ton of people doing behind-the-scenes work making this thing go smoothly.”
That sentiment is not lost on Kai Opua Canoe Club President uncle Bo Camos, either.
“Every year, paddlers strive to come to Kona and be a part of this great race. What an honor it is for us to share the spirit of Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing with the world,” said Campos. “Mahalo nui loa to everyone who comes together to help Kai Opua Canoe Club make this world’s largest long-distance canoe race such a success. We couldn’t do it alone.”
The race welcomed paddlers from as far as Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the US mainland for the race, and each of the 200-plus crews in the race had high hopes to take home a medal.
For the Outrigger Santa Cruz, garnering a bronze medal with the picture of Queen Liliuokalani on it to take back to California was a dream come true.
“We did it for the queen!” exclaimed Laurie Lippe. “It was such a terrific day.”
The crew raced in the iron division — meaning no changes during the race. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the six women finished the race in 2:48:57.
“There is a lot of mental focus needed — grit and getting in that right mindset,” said Santa Cruz’s Kay Miyamoto, who was participating in her fourth Liliuokalani race. “This place is special. The ohana that you feel like you’re a part of is amazing.”
Grit and grind was also needed by organizers to make the race a reality. After Hurricane Lane backed up the shipping schedule, officials were scrambling to build a fleet of canoes large enough to host all of the crews.
But when race day rolled around, things went off without a hitch.
“It was great to see so many entries after suffering through last week’s pre-race challenges with Hurricane Lane,” race director Mike Atwood said. “Our canoe family came together and we had enough canoes for every crew who came here to race. It took a lot to make it happen, but the smiles on everyone’s faces — including officials, paddlers and spectators — told me it was the best race day we have had in years.”