KAWAIHAE — When Michael Ostrowski, with his wife Rene, left Milwaukee for Hawaii early last week, he had just been out snowmobiling in 10 degrees below zero.
On Wednesday, the two were basking in 75-degree-plus weather and enjoying the sparkling blue ocean at Kawaihae Harbor where they and about 25 other couples were competing in a just-for-fun race sponsored by the Kawaihae Canoe Club (KCC).
The race participants were visiting Hawaii courtesy of their employer, Lube-Tech out of Golden Valley, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. The trip was a reward for the group of salesmen known as the “Big Dawgs” for their high performance throughout the year.
Lube-Tech’s owners, Chris and Marna Bame, split their time between their home in the Minneapolis area and their home in Kohala Waterfront on the Big Island. Chris is a KCC member and paddles when he’s in town.
His involvement with the club gave him the idea to have the Big Dawgs, who are competitive by nature, compete against each other in a series of races organized by the KCC using their canoes.
The race course and format was planned by George Fry, who organizes the club’s recreational paddlers. Because many of Wednesday’s participants had never paddled before, they were accompanied in the canoes by KCC volunteers sitting in the stroke position and as steersman.
In addition to learning more about and experiencing canoe racing real-time, the Lube-Tech employees enjoyed a hamburger and hot dog lunch organized by Mike Bates and other KCC volunteers in honor of the visitors.
In return, the Big Dawgs presented KCC with a $7,500 donation earmarked specifically for the club’s keiki program. Proceeds to the tune of $1,600 from the sale of logo T-shirts and hats also went to the club.
At the luncheon Manny Veincent, who has led the KCC for more than 40 years as its president and head coach, spoke about the importance of the keiki program not only to the club but to the community as a whole.
“This is cattle country and the kids in our program have to travel maybe 20 miles one way, some a little bit more to get here,” he said. “Our kids have to sacrifice a lot. Their families have to sacrifice a lot. It’s a tribute to the type of kids here when they go out to compete and beat the big city people.”
A spry 86-year-old, Veincent, a retired fire captain from Waimea, still coaches mornings and afternoons four days a week. His priority is teaching 12- to 16-year-old young men who, were it not for his steering influence in their lives, might be on an entirely different trajectory.
“I know these kids, I know what their home life is like and I know what they do in school,” he said. “I know everything that goes on so they cannot lie to me.”
The new found structure and discipline in their lives makes a difference. Kawaihae Canoe Club youth teams have performed well at state regattas and the 14-year-old boys in particular have been recent state champions.
Perhaps more important than the competitive results, however, is the influence Veincent and the KCC have had in the lives of troubled young men, resulting in some amazing turnarounds.
Veincent recalls receiving a phone call at 4 a.m. one day from a former protegé.
A male voice on the other end said, “Uncle, thank you so much for keeping my head straight.”
Today, Veincent proudly noted, that young man is head of neurosurgery at a hospital in New York.
A Hawaiian boy who Veincent and his family fostered for a number of years is now CEO of a large trucking company in the Midwest, and the club received a thank you letter from a KCC cohort who went on to become a commander in the U.S. Navy Seals.
The KCC celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012. Club members are proud of their legacy, which includes building several of their own wooden canoes and winning numerous state championships over the years.
Club members have also completed several challenging ocean crossings, paddling on outrigger canoes like the ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Veincent led an all women’s crew from Mahukona to the South Coast of Maui, and two more crossings were accomplished from Upolu to Makena on Maui’s southwest coast, and from Keokea to Hana, Maui, on Maui’s east coast.
The KCC’s non-competitive kupuna group was started in the mid 1990s and is still going strong.
With an emphasis on fun, the kupuna have participants of all ages including several paddlers in their 70s. Canoes leave Kawaihae Harbor at 6 a.m. three mornings a week and membership is $125 per year.
“It’s a beautiful way to start the day, the water’s gorgeous and you get to see the sunrise,” Fry said.
“Paddling in Kawaihae is really a treat and I think we have the nicest canoe club in the islands. It’s really a spectacular spot.”
The season for KCC’s competitive paddlers began March 1 and will continue through September with paddlers competing in regattas throughout the state. For more information about either group contact Fry at email@example.com.
Support shown by KCC members at the recent Lube-Tech event is typical of the group who enthusiastically support each other and their club.
The KCC is known on island for the meticulous care and attention they give to their site — raking kiawe beans, cleaning trash and protecting their land just mauka of Kawaihae Harbor.
Indeed, the club’s motto, prominent displayed entering their site, is “Malama I ka Aina,” — to care for and live in harmony with the land.
“Our goal is to make things better than when we started,” Veincent said.