Channeling its inner strength

KIHEI- As the Team Primo paddlers arrive for practice at their tiny corner of Kalama Park, it is easy to realize the difference that has grown at the upper echelons of outrigger canoe paddling.

Shell Va’a of Tahiti has won the last seven Molokai Hoe titles – the 41-mile race across the Kaiwi Channel is considered the world championship of men’s paddling.

The 2013 race starts Sunday at 8 a.m. at Hale O Lono Harbor on Molokai and finishes at Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki. For the first time, the event will be televised live on OC16.

Since its inception five years ago, Team Primo has never finished outside the top five in the Molokai Hoe, with a best of second in 2009. The team was fifth last year.

While the Tahitians have dominated the race recently – and their top paddlers are routinely in their twenties – Team Primo’s top nine range in age from two 23-year-olds, Will Reichenstein and Ryan Dolan, to Tyson Kubo, 43.

“The number isn’t really the goal, but as long as we are having fun and catching good waves and having a good time with our crew members, our friends and our family, then we will have a good race,” said veteran steersman Kekoa Cramer, 34. “Of course, we are competitive. We want to be the first Hawaiian finisher and take out as many Tahitians as we can, to give it our best shot.”

Team Primo has a wide mix of paddlers – six-time world-champion one-man paddler Kai Bartlett, 38, owns a canoe-making shop, Kai Waa, in Kahului. Aaron Creps, 34, is a lawyer.

“We do have an older team, which is partly true, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try as hard,” Cramer said. “You need a good mix of both. It’s great to have young (paddlers), but in Tahiti it’s easier to have young successful paddlers because they do it their whole lives. Here people want to become baseball players, football players, basketball players where you can get a scholarship in college.

“Hawaii (paddling) doesn’t offer that. A lot of people go to school, go to college, try to get a job and then come back to paddling – that’s the difference between the two places.”

Mael Carey, 38, said that the recent results and comments from Tahitian paddlers about their domination of the sport drive Team Primo.

“Sure, it’s motivation,” he said. “It’s competitive juices – we are all competitive. It is always motivation. They are calling us older, maybe we are a little wiser. Hopefully wisdom pays off in the channel. Seven years in a row now, Shell, they are looking for their eighth consecutive.

“We are motivated every year. Obviously there’s always the incentive of wanting to be the first crew from Hawaii. We hold a little bit of feathers in our caps. We hold the fastest Hawaii time, so there’s always motivation.”

Bartlett, 38, said the gap between Hawaii and Tahiti is not going to close any time soon. Bartlett has been paddling with Primo veterans Cramer, Kubo, Felipe Gomes, 37, and Jacob Abeytia, 34, since the beginning of the club in 2009.

“The facts are the facts and it is true,” Bartlett said. “It is good to face reality, we are not getting any younger. It’s fun to still compete and be older, but it is so true. You look at what they have and what we have.

“You have got 1,000 kids down there trying to be the best guy. Here, we have got two or three. It is what it is. There’s a little more hunger down there, there’s a little more drive.”

It is culture deep, Bartlett says.

“For us, it is not a job, for them it’s a job,” he said. “For us it’s a lifestyle. I would have rather just gone home and go to bed personally, I worked my okole off today. But I have got to be here for the boys.”

Bartlett said it is not impossible for the Maui nine to win the race, but it is not likely.

“It would be like that hockey movie ‘Miracle,’ ” he said. “The reality of it is we are just going to go out there and do the best we can do and try to have a blast with it.”

* Robert Collias is at