In the midst of Kailua Canoe Club’s impressive streak of four consecutive O‘ahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association titles notched between 2009 and ’12, co-head coach Kathy Erwin was asked to explain the secret behind the club’s success on the water.
She immediately credited Kailua’s "three wise men" — Pat Erwin (her husband), Hank Leandro (the club’s other head coach) and Kamoa Kalama. The trio represents a collection of longtime paddlers within the club who have become integral coaches and mentors for generations of paddlers moving through the program.
Fittingly, each "wise man" also has a nickname: the Guru, the Godfather and the Governor, respectively.
Kalama plays his role to perfection, from his world-class performance in the canoe to his ability to motivate paddlers of all skill levels with his passion for the sport.
The 57-year-old started paddling when he was just 8. The sport was both a recreational outlet and a vehicle to better understand the ocean. He recalled learning to read tidal patterns and currents and their relationship to the waves, and to recognize cloud colors and patterns to determine whether and for how long it would rain.
"Our family was so large that I really didn’t have time to get to football practice — paddling was my main form of recreation," Kamoa said. "We spent a lot of time in the water; we were windsurfing before windsurfing was invented. We were exposed to a lot, including becoming stewards of the water. For me, canoe paddling became a way of life."
Kalama recently returned from California, where he competed with a golden masters crew from Kailua in the annual Catalina Crossing U.S. Outrigger Championships, which spanned 30 miles from Catalina Island to Newport Beach, Calif. The crew, which Kalama also helped coach, claimed gold in its division after covering the distance in 5 hours, 6 minutes and 6 seconds — more than four minutes and roughly a quarter-mile ahead of the next-closest canoe from Dana Outrigger Canoe Club of Dana Point, Calif.
Earlier this summer Kalama and other members of the local paddling community, including veteran waterman Joseph "Nappy" Napoleon, traveled Down Under to help spread knowledge of outrigger canoe racing and its culture.
Paddlers visited the 30th annual Gatorade Clash of the Paddles from June 20 to 24 on Hamilton Island situated northeast of Australia in the Coral Sea. The event serves as the country’s marquee water sports gathering and features long-distance canoe paddling races as well as surf-ski, dragon boating, stand-up and prone-board contests.
In addition to featuring more than 100 short- and medium-range sprints, the Clash was headlined by a 26-mile outrigger canoe race dubbed the Hamilton Cup Marathon. The latter is known within the paddling community as one of the toughest endurance races in the world.
"We spend time doing cultural training and clinics, and also talk about the canoe and how it’s built," Kalama said. "It’s good to get that international exposure. But the best racing is here."
Kalama returned from the annual trip in time to help Kailua’s men’s 55 crew, which also included Pat Erwin, Clifford Tillotson, Walter Hamasaki, Nyle Warinner and Paul Hewlett, claim gold in its half-mile race at the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association’s state championship regatta Aug. 3 at Hanalei Bay, Kauai. The win was the crew’s third in a row at the state’s ultimate sprint competition.
And on Oct. 12 Kalama will participate in his 35th crossing of the Kaiwi Channel during the 41-mile Moloka‘i Hoe, often considered outrigger canoe paddling’s world championship. While the paddler and his Kailua crew-mates will be hard pressed to overcome the dominant Shell Va‘a crew from Tahiti, which is aiming for an eighth straight title, he still takes pride in being able to compete on the same level with younger athletes.
"Every year is a blessing, and you can never truly be prepared for the different conditions you face," Kalama said. "It just challenges you constantly. For me, at my age to be competitive with individuals that are more than half my age, it’s kept me young and provides a great perception of the world around me. I’m 16 years old going on 57, I guess."