Marvin Otsuji has participated in every Na Holo Kai since its inception, and he possesses a wealth of ocean experience that has made him the winningest captain in HCSA history. Ever since his crew won Na Holo Kai in 1997, Otsuji has prevailed in all but four of the races. (It was his boat, Kamakakoa, that won the 2010 K a‘anapali-to-Hale o Lono run.)
“Knowledge not shared is knowledge wasted,” says Otsuji, explaining why he always offers course advice and helps to rig his competitors’ canoes before each race. His attitude mirrors the magnanimous disposition carried by members of the HCSA. Galpin describes the group as “one big family”: ambitious but generous, competitive but compassionate. “If something happens, they will stop to help,” she says.
Otsuji was born on Moloka‘i and grew up on O‘ahu, always with the ocean as an integral force in his life: It was 1983 when he first attached a mast to his twenty-two-foot surfing canoe. He is a natural athlete— he went to college at UCSB on a baseball scholarship and returned to Hawai‘i to be the tennis pro at Kaua‘i’s Island Holidays Waiohae Resort. Besides surfing and windsurfing, he was also an avid motorbike and car racer.
As a captain, Otsuji is focused and demanding. “We don’t win these races by a fluke. It’s by design,” he says. His select crew members—a contingent of Hawai‘i’s top paddlers—are well aware, as Otsuji reminds them, “It’s not a picnic. When it starts, you paddle. When it ends, you stop.
“First and foremost, I pick guys I want to spend six or seven hours in the canoe with,” he says matter-of-factly, explaining how he goes about selecting a crew. Otsuji also coached outrigger canoe paddling for twenty years, so the competitive nature of the sport is not lost on him, and he also considers the intensity of a paddler’s will. A good blend of resolute paddlers can give a team a competitive edge, especially when such long races can be decided by a matter of moments—a wave caught a little sooner, ridden a little longer. “What I get a lot of mileage out of is the guy who doesn’t win [the] Moloka‘i [Ho‘e] but gets to sit next to the guy who does,” he says. “They get a taste of it.”
Though he studied to become a lawyer, Otsuji ended up opening a beach concession at Waiohae and later established a dive shop in Po‘ipu, Seasport Divers. A strong entrepreneurial streak runs through the HSCA: Every canoe captain in the association, in fact, owns his own business. And Otsuji runs his canoe like he runs his business: “Know what your competition is doing. Value your staff and make them feel valued. I don’t go into a race without having what I need—never missing a paddler, missing a piece of the boat.”
When his canoe hits the water, he formulates the most efficient strategy for navigating, steering, paddling and sailing. “Putting these together at the right time is key,” he says. “I take risks but I take educated risks. Being in the water so much, I do things by feel. There’s no steering wheel—there’s a wooden blade. Getting too mathematical, too technical—that’s not how these sailing canoes work. It’s not ‘If it’s blowing fifteen knots, then this is the proper action,’” he explains.
Perhaps canoe sailing pioneer Mike Kincaid describes the necessary attributes best: “Once you’re committed, you gotta go,” he says. “People have to be fearless about trusting that their crew can handle it, their canoe can handle it, their captain can handle it. This sport is not for timid people. Guaranteed, if you’re timid, this is not where you want to be.”