As he takes a short break from developing a new model of kayak in China, veteran Maui waterman Kai Bartlett reflects upon a prodigious career that has taken him from elite paddler to entrepreneur and family man.
In his current role at the helm of Kai Wa‘a Canoes and Kayaks, the business he launched in 2001, Bartlett continues to cultivate the manufacturing and distribution network through a partnership with Outrigger Zone that has expanded worldwide from Asia to Europe and across the United States.
Bartlett manages relationship building and product design in crafting OC-1 and OC-2 (one- and two-person outrigger canoes) and surf-ski kayaks, while his wife, Kealani, handles the business logistics and back-end sales tracking in addition to her role with Student Sports, an event and marketing organization dedicated to helping student-athletes.
The Kai Wa‘a business is riding a wave of momentum strong enough to allow Bartlett to immerse himself full time as the “face” behind the world-class vessels, utilized by many top paddlers and kayakers.
Kealani Bartlett is an elite paddler in her own right and a member of the dynastic Team Bradley, winner of 11 of the last 13 Na Wahine o ke Kai titles.
“I’m super stoked that she’s been able to compete and succeed at such a high level,” said Kai Bartlett. “And, as a wife that paddles at that level, she supports me when I need to train, so there’s a win-win with that mutual understanding, knowing the time and effort that goes into the process.”
The couple has a 2-year-old son, Kaiakea (a family name from Kealani’s ohana on Molokai), and are expecting a baby girl this month, so, as Bartlett puts it, “We’ll have a full plate” while they try to balance caring for their young children and managing the business.
“Our marriage is unique, and the easiest part of everything is paddling together,” Bartlett said. “It’s like you can never really leave work at the office, because the office is home, but the challenges are minor hurdles in the reality of life as we raise our kids. We’re really blessed.”
Kai’s daughter Lea, from a previous marriage with elite paddler and kayaker Lauren Spalding, is now 14 and is passionate about rodeo competitions and horseback riding. She lives with the Bartletts every other week.
“It’s neat to see her doing something in her own style, not necessarily following mom and dad,” he said.
Bartlett is a Kailua native and product of Kalaheo High School on Oahu’s Windward side who started paddling with six-man crews in 1998 as a 23-year-old with Lanikai. In 2003 he moved to Maui, commuting to compete with Lanikai through 2005 before transitioning to powerhouse Hawaiian Canoe Club in Kahului. Bartlett went on to join an all-star crew dubbed Team Primo with teammates from Wailea Canoe Club.
“We had such a strong brotherhood and unity at Lanikai that I didn’t want to give that up, but eventually it was time to move to Maui and plant that seed,” said Bartlett, now 44.
After returning from China, Bartlett will resume preparations for the 67th edition of the Molokai Hoe, the annual world championship of outrigger canoe paddling that spans 41 miles from Molokai’s Hale o Lono Beach to Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki on Oct. 13.
Bartlett will participate with Team Wailea/Maui Jim (formerly Team Primo), which still holds the record for the fastest time by a Hawaii competitor — 4 hours, 42 minutes and 59 seconds — set in 2011.
“We’ve been blessed with a tightknit group, and for me, I’ve been fortunate to be in these positions with so many great paddlers,” Bartlett said. “Not a lot of people are that lucky.”