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Whoever touches Waikiki sand first at the end of this year s grueling Na Wahine O Ke Kai women’s outrigger canoe race across the channel from Molokai, one thing is certain: It won’t be the familiar faces from Kailua-Kona that have captured the title for the last three years in a row, and the hearts of Hawaii paddling fans along the way. The core members of Kai Opua’s champion women’s open crew have decided to take a break this season.

“They just needed some time off,” says coach Beanie Heen. “We put in so much time, it was like we were married to each other for the past three years. There was no real time to have a family. Some of the girls wanted to get pregnant and have a real life.”

This September will mark the 25th running of the Na Wahine O Ke Kai an exhausting, 41-mile crossing that is considered the world championship of women s long-distance paddling. Last year, Kai Opua became the first club from Hawaii ever to pull off a three-peat in the race, a sweet victory for the entire state, which had tired of being beaten at its own game. (Over the previous decade, teams from Australia and California had won eight out of the ten races.) In addition, Kai Opua’s Senior Masters crew for women ages forty-five and older also won their division of the race for the third time running.

Kai Opua’s success was also a victory for the time-honored tradition of club crews, over the rising tide of “all-star” crews. The latter are collections of sponsored, elite athletes from far-flung hometowns who rarely practice together. They often train alone in one-person canoes and gather as a team only to race, earning them the nickname “telephone crews.” Without a club association, the crew changes its name according to its current sponsor. For example, Team Eyecatcher, which placed second last year, was basically the same group of paddlers as Team Wailua Kayak & Canoe, the 1999 champions. At last year s race, they had paddlers from several different Hawaiian islands, as well as Canada and New Zealand.

“I would never want to do that,” says Jackie Taylor, Kai Opua’s energetic steerswoman, who, at 5′ 4″, says she s the “shrimp” of the crew. “It means so much more when you know every person and what they ve been through. I have the utmost respect for those other women; they work just as hard as we do but it’s not a club.”

So what gave the Kai Opua crew made up of seasoned paddlers ranging in age from their late twenties to early fifties such a winning edge? Experience and skill, to begin with. “These women have so much talent, and they had been paddling for so long,” says Heen, who started coaching the club in 2000, the crew s first winning year. “My job was pretty easy just get them together and crack the whip. After they got the feel for winning, they just wanted more.”
Then there was consistency: Attrition is normally high within clubs, but the Kai Opua crew lost only one paddler in each season, so eight out of the team’s ten women wound up paddling in all three winning years. “We had good chemistry,” Heen says, “and it really worked for us.” And finally there was Heen’s own coaching skills, honed over more than four decades in the sport. “We wouldn t have been able to do it without Beanie,” Taylor says. “He just took us to another level.”

Since the leeward waters off Kai Opua’s home turf in Kona tend to be generally placid, Heen regularly took the team to train on the windswept coast near the Big Island s northern tip, where the ocean better mimicked the rough channel conditions of the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race. Over and over again, they would load up their canoes, make the hour-long drive from Kona, rig up and battle the ocean for two hours before unrigging the canoes and driving home. This roughwater training paid off particularly in 2001, when the crew won in some of the toughest conditions in the race’s history.

Few sports require the nose-to-the-grindstone focus of outrigger canoe paddling. The job of the front five paddlers is to pull with all their might in perfect unison, listening for the periodic call to switch their paddles to the other side. Meanwhile, the steersperson sits in the canoe s stern, alternating between stroking and using his or her paddle as a rudder. “When your whole crew is paddling as one,” Taylor says, “it s magical.”

But the slightest hesitation or missed beat can throw off the rhythm of the canoe, so the athletes stare straight ahead, ignoring distractions like sore shoulders, parched lips, upchucked lunches and blistered backsides. “If I was hurting,” Taylor says, “I d just look at one of my teammates who has arthritis. On some days, her fingers were so swollen that it made you wonder how she could even hold the paddle but you d never hear one complaint from her. That would shut me up real quick.”

In the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race, the paddlers can make periodic, carefully choreographed crew changes. At the coach s signal, two women slip out of the canoe, to be replaced by two teammates from the team s escort boat, who jump into the water and clamber aboard the canoe as it streaks by. “Crew changes are nerve-racking,” says Taylor. “You re dropped in the middle of the ocean, and your only thought is getting in the canoe. Chances are, the canoe will be screaming down a wave, and it s not stopping. But you d better get your okole inside, or you re letting your whole crew down.”

One year, Kai Opua found itself two women short after a blundered change. The crew was out front and kept paddling on four cylinders. “It s hilarious now,” Taylor laughs. “Then, it could have cost us the race.”

The Na Wahine O Ke Kai, or “Women of the Sea,” has been held each year since 1979, when seventeen crews entered the first official women s channel race. The men s version of the race, now known as the Molokai Hoe, was first held in 1952. Two years later, a women’s crew from Waikiki asked to participate, but coaches and officials at the time believed that women couldn t handle the treacherous conditions in one of the world s roughest sea channels. They were proved wrong in 1975, however, when two women’s crews finally made their first, unofficial crossing. In the years since, the women have proven time and again that they can more than handle the dangerous currents, changing tides and open-ocean swells of the legendary channel.
Although there s no prize money to be won, the Na Wahine O Ke Kai competition is fierce: Last year, Kai Opua beat out fifty-three other canoes to earn their three-peat victory in a time of just under five hours and fifty-three minutes. (The race record, set by a California crew in 1995, is 5:24:32.) “Last year was the most rewarding,” Taylor says. “The competition level was amazing, and we had great conditions and surf.”

As grueling as the race is, just getting to the starting line is also a test of endurance. When clubs aren’t racing, traveling or training, they re raising money to do all of the above. “Being in a club is hard, hard work,” Taylor explains. “We haul the canoes to the regattas; we rig and unrig them; we coach the younger crews; and then we do fundraisers and serve stew and rice for eight hours.”

Now, however, Kai Opua’s champions are choosing to put in more time with their families. Crewmember Carrie Sue Hendricks is expecting a baby in August, and Taylor has taken up tennis, so she can play with her nine-year-old daughter. Heen has opted to coach with the Kawaihae Canoe Club, which is based closer to his home in Waimea.

But don t write the team off just yet. “They re already itching to get back in the canoes,” asserts Heen.