Uncle Bo: Man who Powered Paddling to New Heights

Over the past few decades, when it came to paddling in Hawaii, Lawrence “Uncle Bo” Campos was hard to miss.

Campos — a mountain of a man with an even bigger personality — was a pillar of the paddling community not only locally, but around the world, going to extraordinary lengths to grow and perpetuate the culture of the sport.

His impact will be a lasting one, and his seat in the canoe a big one to fill.

Campos died Dec. 13 after a short but courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 71 years old.

A celebration of life will be held Saturday in Kailua-Kona and Sunday on Oahu.

The Kona gathering will take place at 9 a.m. at the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel luau grounds. A paddle out will take place at 9:30 a.m., followed by a 1 p.m. eulogy on the luau grounds of the hotel.

Attendees are asked to bring loose flowers.

Paddling passion

Campos was the president of Kai Opua Canoe Club, race commissioner of the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association and the driving force behind the Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Canoe Races.

He never stopped challenging the canoe ohana, the Department of Education and the tourism industry to embrace outrigger canoe racing as an activity in which everyone could participate and appreciate as the state’s official team sport.

He also held a variety of roles in the international paddling world, many through the International Va’a Federation.

Campos was instrumental in bringing the IVF World Sprint Championships to Hilo in 2020. It will be the first time since 2004 the Big Island has hosted the event.

“Everything in his life was wa’a,” said Mike Nakachi, Campos’ nephew who helped take care of him during his final days. “That was his life. That’s what he loved doing.”

Campos’ close friend, Kai Opua athletic director Mike Atwood, described working with Uncle Bo as an intense, inspiring experience.

“He had the ability to encourage people to work on being a better paddler and club member, which translated to outrigger canoe racing’s world wide platform recognition today,” Atwood said. “Whether he liked you or not, he was always respectful. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes we didn’t, but at the end of the day we would hug it out and love each other.”

Nakachi echoed those sentiments.

“He was all about club, community and being a great ambassador for the sport. In the last 10 years or so, he really established himself as a figure in the world of paddling,” Nakachi said. “And he wasn’t shy to call someone out when he felt he needed to.”

Larger than life

Campos started at Kai Opua in the mid-90s and knew of the club’s competitive background.

Campos was soon elected a president with the vision to bring recognition to Kai Opua in the local community, statewide and worldwide, through club name branding and imaging. Club shirts took on a new sense of pride as Kai Opua became the recognized name it is today.

Atwood was coaching at another club when Campos initially took over at Kai Opua. Even from afar, he could sense the passion Campos had for the sport.

“When you spent time around him, you realized the level of his love for the sport,” Atwood said, who eventually came aboard as Kai Opua’s head coach in the early 2000s. “Bo showed us how much fun you can have out there.”

Campos — with Atwood as his race director — worked tirelessly to transform the Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Race into the five-day cultural event it is today.

He pushed everyone around him to look at the race through a cultural lens. Today, the Queen’s Race immerses the thousands of race participants and their families in Hawaiian culture by telling the story of Kona’s Hawaiian cultural roots and heritage.

“We both really enjoyed meeting people from around the world through the event and giving them the ability to enjoy the culture of Kona and canoe racing,” Atwood said. “Perpetuating the paddling tradition was big for him, as well as bringing new ideas and people in that could help grow the sport.”

For Cameron Taylor, Campos was both a friend and mentor. Taylor worked with Campos through the IVF, serving on the board together and travelling the world to various events.

“The paddling world lost one of its brightest stars and I’ve lost one of my closest friends,” Taylor said. “It’s going to be hard going forward without him.”

Campos was “like the sun,” Taylor described. When he was somewhere, it seemed like everything revolved around him because of his enthusiasm and charisma.

“He was a legend,” Taylor said. “He owned every room he went into. I was so lucky to spend so much time with him. Uncle had so much energy. Sometimes you would have to peel away to get to the good stuff. But that was just his passion.”

Taylor, based in the United Kingdom, recalled the first time he brought a crew over to the Big Island for Queen Liliuokalani race week. For a long time he had stressed to his paddlers the theme of ohana and the culture behind the sport, but it never seemed to stick.

It took just a few minutes with Campos to make clear what he was trying to communicate for so long.

“He made sure our crew understood what the sport was about. It wasn’t just about being in a canoe and going fast. It was about the stuff afterwards — about the camaraderie, the ohana,” Taylor said. “That was the biggest thing for us. He showed us that the sport was bigger than a canoe.”

Back in the day

Campos was born at Kapiolani Hospital on Oahu and graduated from Kailua High School.

He’s a descendant of Rafael Campos, his great-grandfather who ran one of the largest dairies in the state. Rafael had three wives and 27 kids, one of those being Lawrence, the grandfather Uncle Bo was named after.

In college, he majored in hotel management at the University of Hawaii. Campos’ professional pursuits took him out of state to the Bay Area and Colorado before eventually coming back to Hawaii, making the Big Island home.

Campos grew up with outrigger canoe racing and has ties to the Kai Oni Canoe Club on Oahu, as well as Waikiki Surf Club.

“When he was young, he was a stroker,” Nakachi said. “He was so much bigger and stronger than the other kids. Eventually he turned into a good steersman. There’s not a lot of guys that big who could sit back there.”

Nakachi is one of the few people who could legitimately call Campos “Uncle Bo.” Nakachi — a paddling personality in his own right as the figurehead of the Red Bull Wa’a crew among other things — is the nephew of Campos, his mother, Leslie Nakachi, being Campos’ sister.

While Nakachi understood Campos’ reach in the paddling community, he was still taken aback by the number of people who came to see Uncle Bo in his final days after news spread that he was terminally ill.

“It was unbelievable to see all the people who came through wanting to pay their respects to him,” Nakachi said. “People from all over the world came by.”

Nakachi has fond memories of his uncle, who for many years lived with him in the same house in Waimanalo on Oahu. Through the years they laughed together, cried together, and then laughed some more together.

“I was just a kid, but you idolize someone like Uncle Bo,” he said. “I remember he was going to the University of Hawaii and had a fancy Nissan sports car. We lived in the Waimanalo boonies and he would be hot doggin’ down the road, hitting all the rocks and stuff.”

And he can remember the origins of the “Uncle Bo” moniker, which was more about his demeanor than his legal name.

“They called him that because when he was born he was this big kid that was kinda goofy,” Nakachi said. “He was a kolohe character — like Bozo the Clown. He got into all kinds of stuff. He knew how to have a lot of fun.”

Lasting legacy

Campos always made an effort to put Hawaii’s kids first. He knew that by keeping them on the water, they too would learn the culture and pass it along to the next generation.

“He was always an advocate for the keiki,” Nakachi said. “He worked hard to take those programs to the next level.”

On top of his work with Kai Opua, Campos coached the Kealakehe High School paddling team alongside Atwood. The girls crew captured the BIIF title at Hilo Bay last month, propelled by the memory of their former coach who passed away mid-season.

“They paddled for him and could hear his voice, ‘Go, Kealakehe,’ He definitely did inspire them,” Atwood said after the race.

As a legacy, Campos’ contributions to outrigger canoe paddling will not soon be forgotten. But those close to him agreed that the unparalleled way he exhibited the aloha spirit will be what he’s remembered for.

“He set the bar high,” Atwood said. “The people he was able to touch around the world at any level of the sport was incredible. From young kids to executives who came in and wanted to get to know the sport — he treated everyone the same, which was a big reason why he was so successful.”

“He had a huge heart and cared about the people around him — paddler or not,” Taylor added. “That’s one of the things I admired most about Uncle Bo.”

By J.R. De Groote West Hawaii Today jdegroote@westhawaiitoday.com

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