A Regatta To Remember Kala Kukea

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - April 23, 2008
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Kala Kukea
Kala Kukea

In the midst of the cheers and laughter at Maunalua Bay is the strong spirit of appreciation for a very special man. For the 12th consecutive year, paddlers from across the globe celebrated the life of Kala Kukea - a well-respected athlete, firefighter and family man.

“Kala Kukea is always with us at Maunalua Bay,” says Lianne Cameron of Hui Nalu O Hawaii Canoe Club. “He touched the lives of many young athletes in our community.”

Kukea was an inspirational leader at Hui Nalu as a paddler, coach and friend. In February 1996, Kukea died unexpectedly of heart failure while training with his son Nalu. He was only 52.

“He could be depended on, and his word was as good as gold,” says fellow firefighter Anthony Lopez of his dear friend. “He gave himself to the neighborhood and the communities he was involved with - they became his priority and he made sacrifices. He and his family made sacrifices to see that the communities benefited from his knowledge.”

Each year since his death, the Hawaii Kai-based canoe club has sponsored the Kala Kukea Iron Man at Maunalua Bay. This year’s event featured divisions for surf skis, OC1, OC2, paddle boards and stand up paddle-boards.


“The event honors Kala and what he strived to share with others,” says Cameron. “The focus every year is to raise funds to help support our keiki and their families. The scholarships go right back to the kids, which allows them to participate in outrigger canoe paddling.”

The 1961 Kamehameha graduate was a Warrior in many different ways. After graduating from West Point, Kukea served two tours in the Vietnam War. He returned home to serve his community for 24 years with the Honolulu Fire Department. The popular fire captain earned the reputation as a humble hero with Rescue One.

“In my mind, he was someone whom I always looked up to and yet he was the humblest person that you could imagine,” recalls Kamehameha Schools president Michael Chun of his classmate. “He never attracted attention to himself; he’d always stay in the background.”

Kukea also was a hero at Hui Nalu, where he taught hundreds of children and adults how to read and respect the ocean. “He was very generous with his knowledge and he was willing to share it with anyone who wanted to learn,” says Cameron.

Kukea was a champion in the ocean. The former Masters U.S. National Kayak Sprint champion conquered the Kaiwi Channel annually in the Molokai Kayak Challenge. Then each October he would do it again in the Molokai Hoe as a steersman for Hui Nalu. Kukea constantly found ways to teach.

Today, the Kala Kukea Iron Man Challenge is one of the final races leading up to the Molokai world championships. “This is the last real tune-up race before the big one in May,” says Cameron. “It’s a race Kala knew very well.”


Indeed, Kukea was a solid fixture in the grueling test across the infamous channel, often beating younger competitors. Since 1996, the Kala Kukea Perpetual trophy has been awarded to the first Hawaii finisher in the 50 years and older division, in memory of the world-class athlete.

“He was adored by so many people and loved by his family,” says Cameron. “I think he was much bigger than he even knew, and his legacy definitely lives on.”

A soldier, coach, champion, father and husband - Kala Kukea was a true iron man and so much more.

 

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