Q&A with Kai Bartlett: Work Hard, Paddle Hard, Have Fun

Ozone:

Aloha Kai,
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions and to tell us a bit about yourself. Many know about you through Kai Wa’a, and others know you as a dominating competitor in OC1 and the cornerstone of Team Primo at Wailea Canoe Club. Can you tell us how you were introduced to competitive canoe paddling?

KB:

174851_194985883863430_6335094_nMy first introduction to paddling was in Kauai as a kid, but when I was 19 I started to work for John Martin building the Honukai one-man and two-mans. I needed a job and my friend Dave Silva, who was working there said they had a ton of work if I had any interest. Well.. I thought, this is actually pretty creative, why not! The starting wage wasn’t the greatest but the creativity part was so much fun to me. At the time I was strictly surfing and skating and had no desire to do anything else. Time went on and I would slowly meet some of the paddlers coming by the shop and my interest started to spark again, very minimal though. John would let Dave and I borrow his 2-man during flat spells so we’d go out and cruise for several hours at a time. Finally I got brave and asked if I could grab one of the canoes out of the bushes and fix it up for something to go out and play on. John was keen so I did some hedge trimming and pulled out a Honukai and went to town on it. My first downwind run was all it took. I was hooked. It was from the Mokulua’s down to Flat Island. Done! I wanted more surf runs.

Ozone:

Yeah, a lot of paddlers get hooked doing a surf run, but you went all-in.  Was there a moment that you can remember when you knew you were going to dedicate yourself to paddling?

KB:

Back in late 1996, 473984359_I started to get more into paddling. John let me make a Nai’a, which at the time was his latest design, because I was showing more interest and business was good. At this time I was going out about three to five times a week. Not really knowing much but learning what I could. Walter Guild was running the Altres race off Waikiki and I was very interested into seeing what this was all about. I entered and did pretty good I thought for just jumping in so I wanted to give racing another go. My next race was the first Kanaka Ikaika race of the the season. I entered short course and beat the guy who won it the whole season prior. I remember the moment I hit the beach and looked back at the racers finishing thinking to myself, I found it! This is going to be my life. I’m going to become a paddler and if I can get better maybe I can be like that guy over there (John Foti), who just won the long course. I still had my surfing distraction though but a snow board accident kept that at bay for the rest of that ’97 season so all I did was paddle and go on runs with Kamoa Kalama and Pat Erwin to try and improve with the surf runs being my main goal.

Ozone:

It’s a little hard to imagine you just starting out and paddling short course. I think it’s safe to say you have reached legendary status and are a big influence on paddlers around the world. How do you feel about that?

KB:

I never thought too much about that and 340248_110526262437362_847207771_ostill don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a positive influence at anything I do and I hope I am. I wanted to make a name for myself when I was younger and first coming into the scene.. but I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, it was more fun becoming a good paddler than actually “making it” or arriving at a preconceived notion of success. Maybe that’s just me and others love being the man or woman on top. I found that when at that upper level there are expectations when it comes to performance and you begin to lose a little bit of the fun side of things. Maybe I also feel that pressure because of being a canoe designer and I feel if I don’t perform than they blame my product and not the fact that I’m only human and some days just aren’t my days. For example this season I didn’t train as much because of other things in life taking precedence, growing pains I guess,haha. I’m sure all paddlers can relate to that challenge of trying to find balance. Actually, right now I am having more fun than ever on the one man. The last two years have been great with traveling and meeting new people in this great community we have in Outrigger. If I can go around the world and be a positive influence to others in our sport than I am a winner and hopefully I can do that for more years to come and show them that there’s a fun side along with the competitive side. It has to be fun, life is too short for anything else.

Ozone:

It seems that the secret of your success is loving what you do.  Balancing being a competitor, father, coach, etc. is just a part of it though, you are also a canoe builder, designer and business owner. What made you interested in building canoes? Can you tell us about the transition from canoe paddler to canoe builder?

KB:

At first my interest in building canoes was purely just to have a consistent job. I did enjoy the creative side of it, I was always into art, so my interest soon began to pour into other aspects of the business. As my paddling career began to grow so did my desire to one day have my own business designing and building my own products. It was something I always wanted to do. I knew I needed more to accumulate knowledge, so in ’98 I left John Martin and went to work for Karel at Outrigger Connection.

XS mold at the Kai Wa'a shop in Maui

XS mold at the Kai Wa’a shop in Maui

At that time John was happy building fiberglass hulls and Karel was pushing the envelope in the construction of his one man canoes. He was doing the whole vacuum bagging process and even playing with low temp prepreg. I knew for me to get further, I needed to learn more. It was a blessing because he sent me off to his Waimanalo shop to work beside Brent Bixler who did all of Karel’s designs at the time. I built one mans and two mans and in my free time helped, talked to, and watched Brent work on designs. I was truly getting the two in one package deal, learning and experience.

My transition from paddler to builder is actually reverse to what some may think. Builder then paddler is how it all came about. Sometimes a tough role to juggle. Ask yourself how many top racers build their own product? It’s not easy but sometimes it can have it’s rewards, as for any good thing in life. Other times you have to give way to one to make the other better, i.e. work more, paddle less or work less and paddle more. I had a coach once tell me (Gail Berrengue) that you can’t be great at both, you don’t have enough time in the day and you only have one body. You have to make a choice of which one you want to be better at and give that choice your time and try your best to make the other work with the time you have left. I’ll always remember that because that’s how I’ve felt in the builder/ paddler aspect of my life.

Ozone:

Specializing in one thing seems to have paid off for you – good advice from Gail. As paddler and canoe builder, which aspect of this duality do you enjoy more, and does it affect the canoe designs?

KB:

I definitely enjoy the paddling side of the business over the building, who doesn’t enjoy playing?! Sometimes the manufacturing can get overwhelming and at other times it can be a lot of fun. It depends on how things are going with quality control, your workers and the customers. Little things like that can make or break the strum of the strings. On the paddling side, I enjoy surf runs and sometimes will only get out when the wind is up unless training in a serious fashion for upcoming races. For this, my primary desire is for a great open ocean canoe. Of course with our OC-1 season having different conditions all the time, we have to find a design that can accommodate a variety of conditions with a touch of emphasis on the surf.

Ozone:

Can you tell us about your influences and inspiration in canoe building? Do you have a specific and/or unique attribute that you are after when making canoes?

KB:

The number one thing we look for when making a canoe is making a happy customer. In design, I look at a bunch of different things out there in the automotive industry and sailing. These guys are always pushing the limit and are required to create dynamic & cutting edge designs. I also look at what other canoe builders are doing. Everyone has different views on looks and functions so it’s good to keep the eyes and mind open and creative.

Ozone:

When thinking about your portfolio of canoe designs, it seems you started by experimenting with different designs for different conditions. At some point, you might have had an epiphany of sorts, offering the Scorpius in three different sizes. What happened there? One size fits all was not working?

KB:

I did! I want to accommodate everyone and one design won’t do it. A guy that’s 220lbs will not fit a canoe the same as a guy 150lbs or women that would be even lighter in a lot of cases. I saw it here on Maui with Kekoa Cramer who weighs 155lbs and Tyson Kubo who weighs 220lbs, in the Pueo when they both had one several years ago. The water line was very different for both paddlers which means the canoe will perform completely different for Kekoa or for Tyson.

We knew we had a great design with the Scorpius and if we could slim it down we could provide a similar experience for a variety of paddlers so they could equally enjoy what the Scorpius was all about. We actively build all three designs for a wide range of body weights.

Ozone:

I see, thus the XM and XS. All three Scorpius designs have had great results and raving reviews. Do you have a favorite?

KB:

I always will have a soft spot for the Scorpius. In open ocean that canoe is like a Cadillac. She surfs unreal and even though it’s a larger hull design she still has a great over all glide. I have had success in rough, calm conditions, and upwind conditions on that canoe.

For me being 190 lbs. the XM suits me best for most conditions from a competitive standpoint. If it’s flat or upwind I prefer the XS because of it’s sharper entry and narrower hull design. Each canoe has it’s own special flavor.

Ozone:

The Scorpius is said to be the most comfortable canoe to ride, how did you go about achieving this attribute?

KB:

One thing I look for in my designs is being able to sit in it all day without being uncomfortable. It’s simply finding the right angles and heights in the seating and footwells. Really the best way to design this was for me to spend hours in different designs and going thru some painful lessons. The footwell design I have is something I shaped when I first started Kai Wa’a and I just adjusted the height thru time and trials to find a sweet position.

The number one thing when doing a long race is that being uncomfortable will kill your performance and drain your energy.

Ozone:

The ama is very unique and is the quickest ways to identify Kai Wa’a riders in the lineup of canoes. How did you come to this design?

KB:

Our ama design is put together with the ocean in mind. I know some designers out there don’t agree with the design because of the limited waterline and curve shape to it but if you were to watch it surf the bumps it’s evident that the ocean agrees with it. That was truly my primary reason for the design. I want the ama to surf with the canoe and let the canoe be itself in the surf. For flat water it is nice to have more waterline in your ama but in the ocean too much of a secondary hull restricts your maneuverability and sometimes will over power your steering.

Ozone:

Yes, I think you are on to something there – the more you paddle one man canoe, the more you understand the relationship between the ama and hull, and you must make adjustments. Some say each canoe requires a different paddling style, for example; a lighter quicker stroke or a deeper stronger stoke. Is this true?

KB:

I feel that each canoe requires a different touch in your stroke for sure. Hulls are different so they react differently and need a certain touch to match it up. Say for instance the Scorpius is a larger hull that sits higher in the water so you can really stretch out your stroke. The smaller designs need a little quicker return because they will settle back down quicker.

Ozone:

Looking forward, do you make changes to existing XS or XM designs? Where is the Scorpius line going from here?

KB:

At the moment we are just doing some tweaks to the hulls to see what direction we want to go in the future. I have many ideas and some are close to the surface while others will take some time and R&D.

Ozone:

Through chatting with you I can see how Kai Wa’a has grown to be a strong name. What was it like when you first started working with Ozone? Can you tell us about your relationship with the company and how that works?

KB:

I’m happy to be a part of Ozone. Mike approached me back in 2004 about building our product. I was very excited to jump on board looking at it from a worldwide viewpoint.

We can only facilitate so much from Hawaii. Mike has put the company thru a ton of change since then and now with Brian on board Ozone has transformed into the top outrigger company in my eyes. They are pushing the limits.

At first it was hard giving my name to someone else and letting them run with it, but it was something I needed to do if I were to move forward. It sure has paid off. I have canoes all around the world now thanks to Ozone. It’s also nice that Mike and Wendy are on Maui as well so if there’s something major to work on or discuss we’re only 20 minutes away. I’m lucky to have this opportunity.

Ozone:

I know there is a mutual respect between canoe builders. It is such a niche business, and most everyone is in it for the community and the passion for paddling, which is a benefit for all of us paddlers. Since partnering with Ozone, do you now have more time to work on your custom builds and experimental designs?

KB:

Because I’m still a small operation at home , most of my time is spent building. I would like to reserve more time for design. I have a lot of ideas that I would like to play with but production is always in the way. It pays the bills so it’s hard to ignore.

Ozone:

Business aside, are you still having fun as a paddler? What have you been up to? Did you compete in Tahiti or the Olamau?

KB:

216203_498450006877297_1926009114_nI will always have fun as a paddler. Sometimes you can get bored with it but that’s when you’ll find me doing only surf runs. How can that get boring? As I get older I’m becoming more selective on races. I have done enough upwind and or flat channel races that I have come to a conclusion with myself that I haven’t got time for that anymore. May be if I put in a full season of training I would think about it but for the most part I figure I have accomplished enough so it’s now time to focus on races that I enjoy. I am also into discovering new races, that I haven’t done and go do them just for the experience and see new places.

I did not jump in the Olamau. Had too much going on with work and actually a shipment from Ozone as well. The week before I had just got back from the Tahiti Nui race so work catch up and hanging with my daughter was the priority. Tahiti Nui was a blast and a heck of an experience. I would be into doing that race again. Logistics were easy, we scored a great canoe and seeing the island from that point of view was pretty nice.

I will be going to France this September with Kai Chong for the Excel Challenge. Pat Dolan and I went last year and had a blast. It’s a coastal relay that finishes on the border of Spain. The French community does a really good job with putting the race together and just being with them all and seeing their excitement for the sport is rejuvenating.

I will also be looking into other races around the globe to check out. We only live once, might as well get as much out of the one life we have. Why not travel while doing something you love.

Ozone:

Kai, those are wise words and an inspiration. You gotta have fun. Congratulations on your recent first place finish in the Kaiwi Relay with Pat Dolan and Kauai World Challenge with Kai Chong.

KB:

Thank you, it was a pleasure to race with both those young boys. My first time racing with Kai Chong in a relay race and then with Pat Dolan to repeat our win from last year in the Molokai relay. Pat is quite special to me, like a younger brother so succeeding with him is always priceless. I really enjoy all the partners I race with, and I choose my teammates with that in mind. There are some great paddlers out there but their attitude wouldn’t make the cut for team Kai Wa’a. You have to be humble and a good person with good character. I learned this through experiences with other paddlers and experiences in life with myself as well.

Ozone:

There is a common thread I have noticed with your crews and your team. I met Kai Chong recently at the airport in Kauai, solid guy. Speaking of being a great paddler, many are wondering what they can do to up their game, from fitness to paddling skills. Do you have any advices for ‘up and comer’ paddlers in training?

KB:

249136_10150201778799805_3231742_nI do. Often, beginners who were serious athletes in another sport get discouraged because they train really hard but don’t get too far. Don’t worry about the training, worry about basic water time. Learn your feel for the water and your vehicle on the water. Without that your training will be irrelevant. For young and older paddlers that are getting into it and producing results, enjoy it but don’t let it get to your head nor treat others different. Don’t take it too seriously; heck we’re not getting paid to do it so make sure you find ways to keep it FUN.

When I first got into paddling I really wanted to make something out of it and I eventually did by putting a whole lot of water time in. I would do all the 6-man races on my OC-1 including the Henry Ayau race and the Molokai Hoe. I knew I had to learn if I were to ever succeed with training and what better way to learn than hitting the wall in longer distances. (laughs).

I won’t lie, I became very serious for several years and I feel it got to my head and I soon became someone I wasn’t. That’s why I say, don’t take it too seriously, enjoy it. I’m glad I figured that out.

Ozone:

This started out as a simple Q&A to get to know you, and it turned into life lessons, thanks for opening up. As a paddler, I continually find myself on the water discovering things, most of which have nothing to do with paddling, but there are metaphors in the ocean, and learning to not struggle, but to let go and have fun is one of them. Mahalo, Kai, for taking the time to talk story. Aloha!
-Naim Ferguson

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