By: Kerry Banks
Sept. 28 - Oct. 5, 2000
From the shore, they look possessed: two crews of paddlers, six to a canoe, heads bent, digging through the water off Jericho Beach. The stroke is a downward punching-and-pulling motion that makes their 12-meter, 180-kilogram craft pulse and throb. Their wooden paddles stab the water at 64 strokes a minute. No one would ever mistake this for a placid recreational activity.
The male members of the Jericho Outrigger Canoe Club train out here four times a week in the summer, three to four hours a session, preparing their minds and bodies for gut-wrenching endurance races. Because these races, which are staged up and down the West Coast and in Hawaii, are ignored by local media, most Vancouverites are unaware that we have some of the fastest outrigger-canoe teams in the world.
n September 7, in California, an all-star men's team from Jericho and the False Creek Racing Canoe Club captured the U.S. outrigger championships, defeating crack American and Hawaiian crews in the 51-kilometre Catalina Channel Crossing in a time of just over four hours. It was a major upset, especially since sponsorship for outrigger racing in Canada is nonexistent: unlike their well-financed foreign rivals, local crews have to raise all their own travel and expense money through dances and other events.
Since it emerged in Vancouver about 12 years ago, outrigger-canoe racing has attracted a growing and fanatical following. There are now 11 outrigger clubs in the province and three in Vancouver: Jericho, False Creek and the Lotus Club, with male and female crews from each. The biggest local competition is the 20-kilometre Howe Sound Outrigger Iron Race, held in Gibsons in July. This summer's event involved about 60 teams. Jericho's team won the men's title for the second straight year.
Paul McNamara, a 39-year-old police officer who is president of the Canadian Outrigger Racing Association and captain of the Jericho men's team, calls outrigger a "hard-core sport". At the elite level, participants must be extremely fit and dedicated. "It's the most physically and mentally demanding thing I've ever done," says McNamara, who wears a Polynesian paddler's tattoo on his right bicep. Like many others, he graduated to outrigger from dragon-boat racing. "Once you make the switch, you don't go back," he says.
Not surprisingly, a number of outrigger racers have serious athletic backgrounds. The Jericho team includes a former Olympian rower and a triathlete. In their workaday lines they are firefighters, architects, salesmen, and stockbrokers, but out on the water they are all fools for pain.
This ocean sport requires strength, stamina, and steely resolve. The sleek outrigger canoes, with their distinctive lashing spars (iako) and slender balancing float (ama), are designed for speed, not comfort. Only 45 centimetres wide, they don't exactly allow paddlers to stretch out. But then, relaxing is not on the menu. In shorter contest - less than 19 kilometres - the same six paddlers remain in the canoe the entire race. In longer races - 36 kilometres or more - nine crew members rotate in and out of the boat at regular intervals, making these events more a fast-paced relay than a marathon.
An escort boat typically drops two or three relief paddlers in the ocean ahead of the canoe. As the craft reaches them, they duck under the struts and haul themselves into the seats vacated by their winded teammates, who exit over the other side. Ideally, the transfer is completed in the span of two or three strokes, without losing momentum. It's easier to describe than to accomplish. Bobbing in the waves with 700 kilograms of muscle and fiberglass bearing down on you is a trial of nerve. "In rough water, it can get pretty frightening," admits McNamara, "but it appeals to the kind of guys who are attracted to the sport."
McNamara, the team's steersman, has the job of navigating and keeping the crew focused. Unlike his mates, he spent all four hours of the Catalina race in the canoe. "After two hours, your legs and feet go numb. You just have to push through the pain barrier," he says. "Besides, after a couple of hours, it's tougher to get out and then have to get back in again."
Most of the world's best paddlers hail from Hawaii and Tahiti, where the history of outrigger canoes dates backs 1,500 years. Outrigger racing has been conducted in Hawaii since the early 1800's, but the sport experienced a revival beginning in 1952 with the creation of the fabled 60-kilometre Molokai-to-Oahu race. The inaugural contest featured three canoes. Today, it's a major spectacle that is followed in Hawaii with the intensity that Canadians reserve for the Stanley Cup. Because of logistics and scarcity of canoes, the make and female divisions are run at different times. The men's event goes in mid-October, while the women's race, which began in 1979, is held at the end of September.
The Jericho men have raced at Molokai the past six years, improving their results each time, despite the handicap of not being able to practise in the sort of wild water they will face in the race. They placed 18th in the five-and-a-half-hour torture test in 1999. This year, they're aiming to finish in the top 10.
The Hawaiian race is legendary for not only its length and keen level of competition but also its challenging conditions. In addition to sharks, the channel crossing exposes racers to unpredictable turbulence. The trade winds blow hard enough to kick up six-metre swells, "huge water", as outriggers call it. The maximum speed while paddling in calm water is about nine knots, but if you catch one of those mighty Hawaiian swells, a canoe can double that.
McNamara says the sensation of surfing the swells verges on the mystical. "The canoe starts to life and suddenly gets very light, and then you start to accelerate. There's nothing like it. It's an amazing rush."