The Kona Girls

The Kona Girls

Paddlers primed for Hawaii

The Vernon Paddling Centre is sending a team of women, the Kona Girls, to the 40th annual Queen Lili’uokalani Race, featuring 2,500 paddlers from all over the world, staged by the Kai’Opua Canoe Club.

There’s a torchlight parade and dance on Saturday night, and an awards luau on Sunday.

Quite a way to enjoy a weekend in Hawaii. But, first, the Vernon Paddling Centre, or Kona Girls, will jumpstart Saturday morning by sweating it out for 18 miles from Kailua Bay to Honaunau.

It’s the 40th annual Queen Lili’uokalani Race, featuring 2,500 paddlers from all over the world, staged by the Kai’Opua Canoe Club.

“It’s the world’s largest long-distance outrigger canoe race,” said three-time race veteran Christine Castrucow, a youth social worker who runs the No. 4 seat. “We should do the race in two-and-a-half hours. We started this team last winter and have been training since May. We have a lot of fun.”

The six-member team will compete in the Wa’a Kaukahi (single hull canoes) and then combine with a Calgary men’s team in the new adventure-scavenger hunt race Sunday.

The Vernon Masters (45+) women start the adventure event paddling 18 miles from Kailua Bay to Honaunau. The men then bring it back 18 miles to Kailua Bay. The Ironman divisions do so with no changes.

Lorellei Sullivan, who steers, is a health care IT worker, while second seater Donna Lepape calls herself a semi-retired recreationalist.

Peggy Kassa, who sits in the third seat and holds the crucial duty of counting out loud, is a ski instructor and party hostess.

“I shout hut and ho (for 13 strokes) and then we switch sides,” said Kassa. “Timing is everything.”

One of the club’s original members, Monika Lawrence, a chef, takes the No. 1 seat. Newbie Debbie Jones, a provincial government employee, owns the No. 5 seat.

Kassa and Lawrence are going into their second Queen Lili’uokalani Race, named after the last monarch and only queen regnant of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Paddling guru Dave Chambers saw so much potential in this group that he returned to coaching after a five-year sabbatical.

“The girls are really good with their timing,” said Chambers. “It’s huge. You can have the strongest crew in the world, but if you don’t have timing, you don’t go anywhere. It’s like a tug-of-war where a weaker team can beat a real strong team if they’re out of sync.”

Chambers showed up at Paddlewheel Park once a week to train the ladies, having Don Kassa drive a boat so he could concentrate solely on coaching. The ladies worked out twice a week on their own.

“There is a lot of experience on this crew and they are very coachable because they’re always paying attention.”

The team even used the social network to boost their training. Sullivan manned a Facebook page where the ladies would study videos of themselves paddling.

The Kona Girls, said Castrucow, “had really reliable subs” to cover on training nights, with Ronnie Thompson, Sandy Cook and Valaine Anonson getting props for their assistance.

“This group of girls is as good as any team we’ve ever sent over there,” said Chambers, who will be in Vernon, waiting for a phone call to see how they finished. “I know they will work hard.”

Kassa loves the rush of completing a long race.

“I’m exhilarated and tired, but it’s a good feeling,” she said.

There are 140 teams in the Masters Division.