Paddlers learn to listen to the voice of the ocean. Young paddlers, at first trepidatious, learn to maneuver their canoes with adept precision in the vastness of the sea. They learn to be resilient.
“Bury those blades! Use the whole paddle! Nice long strokes, guys, reach as far as you can!” the coach shouts at them from the shore.
The keiki crews are on their last lap of the afternoon practice at Anaeho’omalu Beach and coach Derek Park takes them out of their comfort zone, telling them to find that extra gear.
“Grab as far as you can and that canoe is going to accelerate like crazy!”Park said.
Though visibly tired, the crews respond, digging their paddles into the water with determination.
Paddling has everything a kid is looking for — excitement, risk, camaraderie and the mystery of the ocean.
What does it take to be a keiki paddler?
“The goal with kids and adults is the same, to work together as a team,” Park said. “From the get-go I find that thing that makes them a good paddler — the ability to learn and take criticism. Every kid is going to be a good paddler, with some it just takes longer. One thing they have to have is the heart and drive to want to compete. ‘How can I make myself the best athlete? How can I make the crew better?’”
Practice includes drills designed to get kids comfortable in the water. Beginners learn skills like how to hold the paddle correctly and how to get in and out of the canoe. Canoes are flipped over on purpose to get young paddlers used to the canoe when no adults are around. The canoe is your world, your island when you are out on the water, Park emphasized.
“My first time was very disorienting,” said Jamie Yap, age 11. “You have to just jump in and do it yourself.”
Paddling is a family activity for Yap, who’s sister Kellie, age 9, and both parents paddle in the club. Yap is also active in swimming, basketball and soccer. Unlike soccer, she explained, you need a lot of upper body strength.
“You can’t stop (like stopping the ball in soccer), you have to keep paddling,” Yap said. “It’s an adventure and there is some risk, which adds to the excitement.”
Adopted as the official Hawaii state team sport in 1986, paddling is perhaps the ultimate team sport with an emphasis on timing and being in sync. Heartbeat for heartbeat, stroke for stroke, breath for breath, paddlers have to become one person in that boat. Practice is rigorous and the keiki learn teamwork.
Bruce Risley, age 11, has been paddling with the Waikoloa Canoe Club at Anaeho’omalu Bay, or A-Bay, for the past three years. This year, he volunteered to be a steersman. The crucial responsibility of keeping the crew paddling in time is up to him. Risley speaks with maturity, confidence and an enthusiasm for the sport.
“It’s a sport where you can get out and meet people and have fun. I’m hoping to continue paddling until I’m 18 years old and can paddle with the adult crew,” he said. Risleys’s 14-year-old sister, Emily, and 18-year-old brother, Robert, also paddle with the club.
At the Waikoloa Canoe Club, kids start paddling at age 8. Not everyone makes the grade. This year, out of the 24 kids that started the season, only 10 remain.
For some, paddling fills in the spring and summer gap before soccer in the fall. For others, it’s summer, and that means going on vacation. One of the reasons kids eventually drop out, Park noted, is right around the time they get their driver’s license, when driving to practice may not be a top priority.
But training is rigorous and showing up is mandatory.
“There is no horse playing,” Park said. “That can create animosity that can translate out on the water. And never trash talk competitors.”
Training is from February through July. Keiki practice after school Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Paddlers also have to commit to the race schedule, Saturdays in Hilo or Kona from 7 a.m. until done.
At the Waikoloa Club, keiki race in the same $100,000 koa canoe that the adults race in. Two teams under the age of 19 compete at the regattas; those between eight and 18 and the “Specials” between 8 and 11 years old.
“Watching the Specials paddle is my favorite race of the day,” Park said.
This is Parks’ sixth year paddling with the Waikoloa Canoe Club, his third year coaching keiki, and first year as head coach. Earlier this year he competed in the three-day, 100 mile Olamau race from Laupahoehoe to Kailua-Kona.
While kids get out on the water to have fun, Park said, egos can get in the way of adult paddlers, but the goal is the same; becoming a cohesive team is essential in paddling.
The same is true for families. Something Park advocates is bringing adult and keiki paddlers together. Since their keiki have signed on, many parents have joined the club to paddle as well.
“It gives them something to talk about at the dinner table — ‘Oh, he made us paddle buckets,’” Park said.
The strenuous workout also provides everything a parent desires for their children — physical exercise, a good appetite, sleeping soundly at night, and the boost of character that competition provides.
And their hard work is paying off.
“Their times are getting faster and faster,” he said. “For a small club with limited resources, the kids are doing very well, and they have grown as a team and at working together. I’m very proud, all these kids are awesome. They are gassed at the end of practice. I kick butts pretty hard. But it’s better than playing video games all day. Parents tell me they eat everything in the house and sleep very well.”
Iris Yap can attest to that. She, her husband and two daughters, Jamie and Kellie, all started paddling with the club this year.
“It’s one of the few sports we can do together, and since we’re at the beach anyway we might as well get some exercise,” Yap said, adding “There are many discussions around the dinner table about technique.”
Dues for keiki under age 17 at the Waikoloa Canoe Club are $50 a year. For more information find them on Facebook, at waikoloacanoeclub.com or contact Coach Park at 854-5641.