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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 26, 2002

Kai 'Opua will be pushed to three-peat

By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

Of the 65 or so entries in Sunday's Hawaii Modular Space Na Wahine O Ke Kai, at least five are very good.

Na Wahine O Ke Kai

• WHAT: 41-mile outrigger canoe race for women

• WHEN: Sunday, 7:30 a.m. start; first finishers expected around 1 p.m.

• WHERE: Start at Hale O Lono Harbor, Moloka‘i; finish at Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Waikiki

Kai 'Opua is the two-time defending champion. Hui Nalu is coming off a confidence-boosting victory in the Catalina Channel Crossing. Outrigger is the only team to beat Kai 'Opua in the last two years. Team Eyecatcher is composed of some of the state's best individual paddlers. Australia is entering an elite crew for the first time in four years.

Only one can be considered great Sunday.

The 41-mile race from Moloka'i to O'ahu is regarded the women's world championship of long-distance outrigger canoe paddling.

Conditions are predicted to be generally poor for paddling Sunday — light, variable winds; unfavorable tides; little swells; hot temperatures.

"Everybody is probably going to know who's doing what," said Hui Nalu coach Steve Scott. "When it's flat, you don't see teams break away in the surf or take different courses to find the surf. It should be exciting regardless."

• Kai 'Opua: The team from Kailua, Kona, returns nine of the 10 paddlers from last year's championship crew.

Until a stunning loss to Outrigger in the Dad Center Race last month, Kai 'Opua had dominated women's paddling for two years.

"That was the best thing that could have happened to us," coach Beanie Heen said. "Up to that point, we were winning everything so easy. It's like we lost that fire. But after that, we got it back. I think we're more ready this year than ever before."

As proof, Kai 'Opua routed the competition at the Queen Lili'uokalani Races one week after the Dad Center Race.

"We trained really hard last year, but I would say we went even harder this year," Heen said. "Just based on times, this year is the fastest we've ever moved."

What's more, Kai 'Opua has proved its worth in all conditions. Its breakthrough 2000 Na Wahine O Ke Kai victory came across a flat Kaiwi Channel; last year's win came across a rough channel.

• Outrigger: The perennial contenders from O'ahu gave hope to the rest of the field with its upset of Kai 'Opua last month.

"We always felt like we were pretty good," coach Bret Chuckovich said. "But winning the Dad Center gave us so much more confidence."

Outrigger is an especially effective crew in the surf, so conditions could be against them Sunday.

"Between flat water and surf, we'll take the surf every time," Chuckovich said. "But I don't think you can count us out in the flat water. It's just that if it's flat, we might need a better race than normal."

• Hui Nalu: The team from Hawai'i Kai beat Outrigger and all of California's top teams at the Catalina race three weeks ago.

"Having done well there really unified the group," Scott said. "We're feeling good right now."

Hui Nalu's victory came in the flat waters off California, although Scott is still labeling Kai 'Opua as the team to beat Sunday.

A majority of the Hui Nalu crew has been together for four years, and they have come agonizingly close in the last three Na Wahine O Ke Kai races with two second-place finishes and one fourth.

• Team Eyecatcher: The crew will be composed of paddlers from O'ahu, Kaua'i, Maui, New Zealand and Canada. Members include current solo world champion Lauren Spalding, and former champs Kelly Fey and Donna Kahakui.

Because of the geographical separation, the team will not practice together before the race.

"We all practice on our own, and when we get together, it seems to work," Fey said.

It worked in 1999 when the crew — then known as Wailua Kayak & Canoe — won the Na Wahine O Ke Kai. Five members of that crew are still with the team.

This year's race will also be emotional for Team Eyecatcher. Mark Brewer, husband of team founder Mary Brewer, was lost at sea earlier this year.

"Mark was a big part of our team," Fey said. "He always took care of us, made sure all our equipment was just right."

The team will paddle in a new canoe that was recently blessed in honor of Mark Brewer. Mary Brewer, who paddled on the winning '99 crew, will follow the team on an escort boat.

• Mooloolabah: The Australian crew includes three members of the Panamuna Riggeroos that dominated the Na Wahine O Ke Kai in 1997 and '98.

This year's team won the prestigious Hamilton Island Cup as well as the Australian National Championships.

"It's an expensive trip for us to come over to Hawai'i, and that's one reason why we stopped coming over," said team captain Lisa Curry. "But this team we have now has been together for two years, so we prepared long and hard for this."