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Petaluma outrigger canoe club heads to Hawaii

The 19-and-Under Girls Crew from the Lokahi Outrigger Canoe Center is headed to Hawaii this Labor Day weekend, where they’ll represent Petaluma in the world’s largest long-distance canoe race and experience a culture they’ve studied for years.

The Queen Lili’uokalani Long Distance canoe race is named for the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and was originally held on the Queen’s birthday, Sept. 2. Since its inception in 1972, the race has expanded to four days of competition, and now draws more than 2,500 paddlers from all over the world to share the ancient Hawaiian practice of outrigger canoe racing.

“I think going to literally the heart of where this sport that we love came from, the origin of it, I think that’ll be a really awesome experience for us,” said Ella Reyes, one member of the six-person crew. “I’m really excited.”

Megan Reilly, 16, and Heidy Bremauntz, 16, sit in the front of the canoe in the No. 1 and 2 positions. They’re the pacesetters. Makana Dudoit, 18, Keara Reed, 17, and Kylie Tubbs, 16, sit in the 3, 4, and 5 spots; that’s the area of the canoe that is most responsive to power strokes and is considered the canoe’s “engine.”

Reyes, 15, is the steer-person and sits in the back.

Reilly, Bremauntz, Tubbs and Reyes are juniors at Casa Grande High School. Reed graduated from Casa last year.

Most of the crew has been paddling together at the Lokahi OCC, which is based at the Petaluma Marina, for more than three years. They’ve been training for “The Queen’s Race” since May, and their final preparation includes three local races in August. The crew has already won the Round the Rock Challenge held in San Francisco Bay.

This is the first time Lokahi has sent a youth crew to Hawaii in the club’s 25-year history. Lokahi OCC co-founder Sam Madeiros saw this crew’s potential in the Northern California Championships last year. He said his crew was in a sprint race against an elite opponent and met the challenge.

“They’re beating us, race after race, but the second to the last race and the last race, we ended up beating them,” Madeiros said. “The last race, I watched our girls kind of really beat up that crew and I said you know these kids have really good potential.”

Many top canoe crews have members from different clubs that join forces to create an elite unit, and practice year-round. The 19-and-Under crew from Lokahi practices seasonally every summer.

But the Queen’s Race is different. Six miles in length, and with multiple turns, there are no lanes to separate the 43-foot-long canoes like in a sprint. Crews compete to find the best line.

“Supposedly they’re very competitive and they’ll ram into (the canoe),” Tubbs said. “They’ll try to spin you, and it can get super competitive. We don’t have that here.”

Another thing the crew doesn’t have here is an abundance of Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian culture and its ancient practice of outrigger canoe racing are thriving at the club. But at the Queen’s Race, the crew will be in the thick of what they’ve studied.

“Just seeing how everything we’re taught about actually is over there, I think that will be very cool,” Reyes said.

Bremauntz added, “being around people from Hawaii and all the culture, I think it’s going to be really fun to experience that.”

Madeiros, who was born in Hawaii and has lived in Petaluma for 30 years, said that canoes are a huge part of Hawaii’s culture. The Lokahi OCC teaches its crews to respect one another, and to treat fellow paddlers like family. The crew’s goal is to paddle as one. “It’s a bonding experience,” Reyes said.

The crew said that paddling as a unit can be relaxing and peaceful, and can aide escape from day-to-day life. But they have competitive fire as well.

“We get the adrenaline when we want to win,” Reilly said.

Madeiros said he wants his young crew to continue to build its knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and he also wants them to compete. “Have fun first and foremost; secondly, learn something about the culture while you’re there. Thirdly, be competitive,” Madeiros said. “We want them to be competitive because they’ve trained hard for this.”

The crew’s next race is the Tony Gora Memorial long distance race near Santa Cruz on Aug. 19. On Aug. 27, just days before traveling to Kona, Hawaii, the crew will compete in the Kula ‘Anela long distance race near Angel Island.

“We haven’t done long distance races together, actually,” Reyes said. “So I think it’s good for us as a crew to kind of get a sense of what we need to work on before we get to Kona.”

With one victory on its warm-up tour already, the crew hopes to hit its stride by the Queen’s Race so they can represent Petaluma well on an international stage.

“They’re gonna prove a point that we can paddle (in Petaluma), go over there where it started and be competitive,” Madeiros said. “But that’s not the main thing. The main thing for me is for them to have fun and learn something about Hawaii.”

The crew members said they want to display their knowledge of Hawaiian culture while they learn from local paddlers.

“Showing that we know how to paddle, we know the Hawaiian names for certain things, and also learning from the local paddlers there, I’m sure we could learn a whole lot more than what we already know,” Reyes said.

The girls from Lokahi have trained hard for the Queen’s race, in the water and in their studies. But this is the largest long-distance canoe race in the world, and they know to be ready for anything.

“We’ve been seeing (Hawaiian culture) second-hand, now we’re finally going to see it first-hand,” Tubbs said. “And it’s going to be really different.”