Every paddler in the annual James Bhutty Moore-morial races with a woven flax flower on their canoe, in memory of the former waka ama champion.

For many, the memory of Rotorua's James Moore, who drowned while training in the waters off Mount Maunganui in July 2008, serves as a driving force when the going gets tough during the gruelling 32km race from Maketū to Pilot Bay.

Tupuria King was touted as the favourite to win the elite outrigger canoe race and he did not disappoint on Saturday, winning his fourth title in five years. He won three in a row between 2015-2017 and it could've been five out of five had he not missed last year's race to attend his sister's wedding.

Usually, the paddlers pick up speed towards the end of the race as the tide and wind assists them home. However, this year that was not the case. King set the course record of 2h 17m in 2017, but this year his winning time was 2h 54m 18s.

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"The conditions were quite flat, not really what we like, it was actually quite difficult. That record was with a big wind behind me, a 40 minute difference this year was pretty significant.

"There was actually a two-man that helped me push for a better time because they were pushing me the whole way, they're faster than a single, so that was a good push," King said.

He is a dedicated trainer and is growing with confidence every time he competes.

"Definitely my training over the five or six years has helped and just my experience in the long distance races. I've got some good times in sprints, but my strongest point is long distance - competing in Hawaii and Tahiti in long distance races you build up endurance and experience over those years."

Tupuria King appears to be an unstoppable force in the annual James Moore-morial Race. Photo / Andrew Warner
Tupuria King appears to be an unstoppable force in the annual James Moore-morial Race. Photo / Andrew Warner

King did not know Moore - he was still quite young when Moore was racing - but said paying tribute to past paddlers was something the sport of waka ama did well.

"I think it's awesome, there's quite a few memorial races in New Zealand which are actually really significant races. It's a really cool way to acknowledge past paddlers."

This year's James Moore-morial also served as a trial for the New Zealand men's and women's teams to compete at the 2019 World Distance Championships in Mooloolaba, Australia in August.

This year's event attracted 135 competitors, including many of New Zealand's best.

The second individual outrigger canoe paddler home was Whangarei's Stephen Roulston and in third place was race organiser Paul Roozendaal.

The fastest woman in the outrigger canoe race was Maketū's Nicky Kingi, closely followed by Rotorua's Tui McCaull.

The surfski winner was former Olympic sailor Tom Ashley, ahead of Garth Spencer and Simon Longdill.

Bhutty 2019 Race Start

Posted by James Moore-morial race on Friday, 1 February 2019

Roozendaal said the race was "really tough".

"The conditions were a lot harder than expected, times were a lot slower - the slowest we've ever had in the event. That kept everyone honest which was good because it was a trial for those New Zealand teams and it showed who was strong and who wasn't.

"The wind was meant to swing round and be at our backs, but it was more side wind and a little bit of head wind. We were meant to be assisted with the tide going in, but it didn't seem like it was there. Everyone still loved the day, it was great weather and finishing at Pilot Bay was amazing, the water is so clear there."

He said at the forefront of everyone's minds was always the fact the race was held in memory of Moore, a man many of the paddlers were great friends with.

"His nan was at the finish line and she's really appreciative of everyone coming. She said 'I'm going to keep coming to this as long as I'm alive'. She loves it, she loves seeing everyone do what James' loved. It's really important to the family.

"We do a moments silence at the start and every competitor has the flax flower on the canoe with them which they can drop in the water and give back to James. While I was racing I had it front of me and as it started getting hard and I was getting tired, that was me looking at the flower saying 'come on James, help me out, I need some more energy'."

Twelve men and 12 women were selected from the race to do further training yesterday morning and the final teams will be announced in the next two weeks.