Ohana and aloha brighten Steel Lake


Staff writer

Colorful outrigger canoes lined Steel Lake on a gray morning last weekend spiked with reggae and the liquid cadence of English mixed with Hawaiian.

Near an outcropping of lily pads, a newly blessed outrigger canoe named Kalenakai faced the rippled center of the lake.

Federal Way’s Kikaha O Ke Kai outrigger canoe club introduced Kalenakai at the sixth annual Ho’olaule’a sprints at Steel Lake Park last Saturday. The canoe is white with yellow and blue diagonal stripes and club members had to drive it up from Oregon, where it was built.

If about 200 people from Portland, Everett, Silverdale, Seattle and the Tri-Cities traveled to Federal Way to compete in the Ho’olaule’a sprints, they also traveled to Federal Way to play. Kikaha’s races are as much a gathering for fun and family as they are a competition.

Duane Watanuki, 50, Juel Cole, 35, and Todd White, 35, competed in the men’s open division. Watanuki is a steersman and Cole and White are paddlers on team Hui Wa’a O Puget Sound. They met through paddling.

Juel said paddling requires a combination of endurance and strength. Hui Wa’a O paddlers train four days a week. They drill with a tire tied to the front of the canoe and with a bungee cord connecting the canoe to the dock.

“It’s good, hard, friendly competition,” Watanuki said.

And make no mistake — the competition can be fierce.

During the women’s 500-meter open, Kikaha paddlers held a cool lead heading into the last 200 meters only to be swallowed up by Puget Sound paddlers, who gulped up stroke after stroke and took first in the heat 2:14 to 2:15.

Kikaha’s sprints consist of 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-meter events, and paddlers race to be the first across the line. One of the trickiest skills is navigating quick turns in a 40-foot canoe.

Good turning clinched the 2,000-meter for the Kikaha women.

“We had great turns and after each turn we’d come out farther and farther ahead,” said Kikaha president Laura Moody.

The Kikaha women dominated in the 2,000-meter open at 10:23, beating out Hui Heihei of Silverdale (10:47) and Puget Sound of Everett (10:59) paddlers.

The Kikaha men’s 2,000-meter open paddlers beat Hui Heihei from Silverdale — an important win Kikaha considering Hui Heihei beat Kikaha men last year. Kikaha men finished the 2,000 meters in 8:50 and Hui Heihei placed at 8:59.

At the end of the day, and after 35 events, Kikaha took home the first place trophy.

The races can be nose and nose, with paddlers tugging at the water in synchronized effort to maintain a lead. A race can turn over quickly.

“At Silver Lake last week, we had races that were this far apart,” Cole said, holding his hands about six inches apart.

Outrigger canoes are usually about 40 feet long and narrow. In the six-person divisions, five paddlers sit in a row in the canoe and paddle on alternating sides.

A steersman, who sits at the back of the canoe, is the motivator. He or she plans the course and positions the canoe to catch swells and navigate around bouys.

Miko Calivo, 16, also paddles for Hui Wa’a O.

His dad was the president of the club for about five years so maybe he was preordained to be a paddler, but he fell in love with it in the fifth grade and wrote a report on it for school. He started paddling when he was 11 or 12.

While paddling provides recreational entertainment for onlookers and positive competition for paddlers, outrigger canoe paddling is more than just games.

It represents the history of Polynesia and serves as an ancestral tie to people living far away — in time and distance — from Hawaii’s sunny shores.

“It’s more than competition. We try to instill the cultural aspects into the kids,” Cole said.

It’s about ohana, or family and community, he said.

“It’s different from mainland culture, but for us, it’s the norm,” Cole said. “There’s bonding, from kids to grandparents. It’s being part of a larger group and giving value to that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from here.”

Calivo said he didn’t know people from other teams very well, but he liked that everybody could come together at Steele Lake and have fun.

“It’s so great to see how we can all hang out and not worry about anything, even though we all have jobs and have to go back to school. We can all paddle,” he said.

Kalenakai, the new canoe, was named after Boy Chun Fook, who emceed the races. Chun Fook is a long-time supporter and self-described head honcho of Kikaha.

Members of the club decided to name the new canoe after him to incorporate Chun Fook’s character traits into the new canoe.

“It’s a real big honor,” Chun Fook said.

Chun Fook has been a paddler 16 years, since he was a 12-year-old boy in Hawaii. His father died recently. Last Saturday, his own son was paddling in the races.

Manu Baker, 60, wears shorts and brown sandals and watches the kids races from the cement bulkhead on shore. He used to compete but his doctor told him he had to stop because of his heart.

“It was hard to quit,” he said. “This is a year-and-a-half. Now, I sit out here and watch it.”

Baker, called Uncle Manu, was one of several who started the club six years ago.

“We started with one canoe,” he said. “We added on and added on because it kept getting bigger.”

He left Hawaii and moved to Washington in 1963. He’s lived in Federal Way 31 years. Though he can no longer compete, Uncle Manu is still involved in the club.

“Now, I work with the kids. They’re our future,” he said. “We’re trying to teach culture and fitness, we try to keep them out of trouble.”

His own sons, now 20 and 16, used to paddle, but they have moved onto other activities now. “When they get up to their age, we say we did our best. But at this age, it’s a good age to teach culture, respect, fitness and to stay out of trouble.”

Alan Smith has been paddling about 10 years. He started at a club in northern California called Okalami.

He competed in the golden masters division last Saturday. On the beach at Steel Lake, he said he loves the teamwork involved in outrigger canoe racing.

“When you’re really paddling well, it’s effortless,” he said. “I love the spirit. There’s nothing but good feelings.”

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