Family? Or Rivalry?

Kailua folks don’t use the calendar to mark the beginning of summer. They don’t need to. Just drive by the beach park on a particular Saturday morning in May, see the cars piled in the parking lot and overflowing onto the streets, a quilt of tents and food vendors, and paddlers—many with brand-new paddles and rash guards they’re wearing for the first time—running with their new teammates down to the beach, and you can’t help but smile. It’s the George Perry Race—better known as the Keiki Race—and you just know. It’s regatta season, and that means summer.

If you’re inclined, find a parking spot, wander down to the beach and eavesdrop on the team decked out in blue and gold as they prep for their race. Aſter all the reminders and encouragement and coaching, you’ll probably see them huddle close and on three, deliver an impassioned (but not too loud, because that’s rude) “Beat Lanikai.” Wander on down the beach, eavesdrop on the team in the green and white, and you’ll hear much the same encouragement, similar coaching ti ps, then on three (but again, not too loud), “Beat Kailua.”

The rivalry between the Kailua and Lanikai paddle clubs goes so far back, most can’t even really remember how it came to be. Old-timers recall they were once one team, then somebody stomped offmad, started another team, and that was that. Try to dig into that history and it’s quickly clear: Those squabbles just don’t matter anymore. Blood runs thicker than water, and in Windward O‘ahu, the sands shared between Kailua and Lanikai are the common blood. They may act like twin siblings vying to outdo each other in the water, but back on shore, don’t try to come between them.

John Foti , longtime icon of Lanikai paddling and this year’s Lanikai head coach points out, that in Kailua and Lanikai, it’s all about the beach.

“It’s ridiculous to live here and not be on the water,” he says. “Growing up in Lanikai, the canoe club was right outside my house. I thought everybody grew up like that.”

And at least in Kailua and Lanikai, perhaps they do. The two clubs combined registration each season often tops 1,000 paddlers, while other clubs around the island sometimes struggle to just fill their teams.

“It was decades into my paddling career before I realized we’re an anomaly over here,” Foti says.

Kathy Erwin, a longtime icon and oſt en head coach of the Kailua club, spent 41 straight years paddling with Kailua before taking this last year off to dedicate her full attention to a new job.

“All year, I didn’t know what month it was because I wasn’t paddling,” she says. The sport is so deeply engrained in the Windward culture that, for many paddlers, the paddling calendar calls the shots. Registration for the regatt a season? Must be spring. Keiki race? Summer and the regatt a season. Championships? Early August, and school will be starting again, but not before adults register for the long distance season and high schoolers start training for their OIA and ILH seasons. Off season? That used to be the fall, but now fall means one-man racing, stand up paddle racing, and eventually, channel crossings in these individual craſt s the following spring. Then it’s regatt a registration all over again.

“Having a worthy opponent is a giſt ,” says Erwin, reflecting on the relationship between the two clubs. “Having Lanikai just over that hill, it makes us stronger.”

Ask Erwin to talk about her most cherished memories, and the tears well up just a bit.

“As head coach, getting out of the paperwork and out on the sand, watching these first time kids out there . . . then watching the faces of their coaches just light up. That makes me cry,” she says.

Foti points out that there’s not so much of a rivalry anymore, just a healthy competitive spirit.

“When the Maui club heated up (winning 10 of 13 state championships),” Foti recalls, “both clubs realized we needed to turn it up. Then came the Tahiti ans.” No ti me for small kine rivalry then. Idle chatter sometimes suggests merging the two teams, and Foti is quick to object.

“Think how many kids that would leave out of the boat and on the sand,” he says. “We can’t do that.” Listen to him talk story about the two clubs, and his pride of the shared relationship is evident: “We always have room for each other in our guide boats. We help each other out.”

Erwin recalls once, a few seasons back, when the Kailua club was struggling a bit for funds and for wins. Lanikai had their signature green-and-white gear, but the Kailua team barely managed to scrounge up t-shirts.

“An anonymous donor, somebody who just believed in the club so much, donated logo rash guards and sweat shirts to the team.”

She recalls how boxes and boxes just showed up, and suddenly all the kids were sporting their new gear—and a new sense of pride.

“We started winning again,” she says, “and I’ve always believed those shirts—that donor’s belief in us—had something to do with it.”

For Foti and Erwin—and for both teams—it’s that pride in their club and their love for their community that brings them out on the water year aſter year. Both agree the two clubs are more alike than they are different, which also might be said of the two coaches.

“Paddling is my church,” Foti explains. “Out there I can reflect, wash off the bad day, solve problems.”

Talking about the waters the two clubs share, Erwin says, “The canal, Lanikai, Kailua Bay, that’s our sanctuary.”

More alike than they are different— two teams, one community, and a depth of mutual admiration and pride. That’s what binds them together. That’s family. But come the middle of May, when the cars overrun the parking lot, listen carefully as each team huddles. I promise you’ll hear that rallying cry.