By: Jack Christie
Oct. 27 - Nov. 3, 2005
Copyright Jack Christie October 2005. For more information, visit www.jackchristie.com
Can you tell an ama from an iako? Or a huli from a hut and hoe? If so, you must be Hawaiian, or at least an outrigger-canoe paddler. Hawaii calls to outrigger clubs around the world whose members train year-round for two annual world competitions: the Molokai Na Wahine for women in September, and the Molokai Hoe for men each October.
An outrigger canoe is shaped like a traditional canoe and fitted with a spray skirt that keeps water from flooding the boat. Its design includes parallel spars, or iakos, lashed across the gunwales. They extend sideways and are affixed to an outrigger, or an ama. Outriggers provide the stability necessary for canoes to travel great distances and in a variety of ocean conditions.
Although the exact origin of outrigger canoes is lost in the mists of Polynesian history, they've been around for about 3,000 years. Whether shaped from wood or fibreglass, outrigger canoes are hefty. A typical six-person competition outrigger can top 15 metres in length and weigh as much as 200 kilograms. They have to be sturdy to handle big-wave days. And they need a strong crew to power them through the swells.
Not that you're likely to find much surf in Burrard Inlet, where paddlers from three clubs - the Jericho Outrigger Club and False Creek Racing Canoe Club in Vancouver, plus Burnaby's Lotus Sports Club - practise year-round. Still, the open water in the Strait of Georgia often offers up enough chop to test the mettle of local crews, particularly in winter. Although men can count on powering their way through whatever comes along, the challenge for women paddlers who lack similar upper-body strength is how to finesse their canoes through the swells. Fortunately, nature has endowed their muscles with greater endurance than men's.
Outrigger-canoe paddling is the official state sport of Hawaii. Earlier this month, the Georgia Straight journeyed to the Hawaiian island of Molokai to cover the men's race, an event that drew 107 outrigger teams from places as diverse as Italy and Hong Kong. Canada was represented by three teams: two from the Jericho Outrigger Club and a mixed team of paddlers from throughout B.C.
For Paul McNamara, helmsman in the lead canoe from Jericho, this was his 12th year in the race. Talk about commitment. "I'll come every year until I'm dead. I'm even going to bring my baby daughter next year," he told the Straight before a prerace briefing session for team captains.
Race director Michael A. Tongg told the assembled captains exactly what they hoped to hear: forecasts were for two- to four-metre swells coming at the canoes from three directions, with winds and tides working against them. Tongg warned that it would be like a "washing machine out there". And that's just the way outrigger paddlers like it. The gnarlier the conditions, the bigger the swells. The bigger the swells, the more surfing and, consequently, less paddling that crews have to do.
Just surviving the 68-kilometre course in the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and the island of Oahu, one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the Pacific Ocean, would be a challenge for many of the paddlers. Honolulu-based Tongg is an experienced salt who has taken part in 30 such crossings and won the race six times. When asked to describe the feeling of riding down the face of a big swell in an outrigger, he recounted that it was like being on a roller coaster. "You can glide for 150 to 250 yards at top speed. It.s one of the most exhilarating experiences that paddlers can have."
Riding swells gives paddlers' arms a much-needed chance to rest. Not that the six-person teams have to spend the entire race in their outriggers. Escort boats that accompany each canoe carry three replacement paddlers. Exchanges typically occur every 15 minutes or so during a race. In order to accomplish this, paddlers swim between the canoes and escort boats, hauling themselves aboard in an effort that can be more exhausting than the act of paddling itself.
On race morning, McNamara summed up his expectations with a sentence and a smile. "The channel is going to get really rough and it.s going to beat the hell out of us is what it's going to do." He defined his task of steering the outrigger as "trying to keep the canoe running over little bumps and finding swells that give us extra speed. Then away we go." In a massive understatement, he estimated that after six hours on the water, "our team should be really tired by the time we haul the canoe up onto Waikiki Beach." From past experience, McNamara knew it would take paddlers at least a week to fully recover from the effort.
Gabriel Somjen captained the senior masters team from Jericho, all of whom were aged 50 or older. Like a lot of canoe paddlers, he started in dragon boats before switching to outriggers. "It's a little easier on your back," the 20-year veteran explained, "and you get to go to nice places." That was patently evident as we chatted at sunrise on a beach called Hale O Lono (Home of the Lord). His teammates were busily putting the final rigging touches on their canoe, lashing spare paddles to the iakos and duct-taping a Canadian flag onto the stern. "A lot of how well we do depends on the ocean. The ocean is our friend, but it can also turn into our enemy really quickly, so we want to be at one with it. The key to outrigger racing is to feel the spirit of the ocean through its movements. That helps you make a fast crossing."
Perhaps what helps most is the feeling of ohana, or family spirit, shared among the paddlers. "Ohana is certainly what we have on our team," Somjen claimed, with obvious pride. "We're a lot like family. We love each other and sometimes fight, too. In the boat, we have to keep the positive spirit. That's very important."
A combination of fitness - these paddlers typically train three to four times a week throughout the year - and ohana helped power Somjen and the seniors masters crew to a second-place finish in their division and 51st place overall. McNamara and crew finished 22nd, an improvement over last year and good enough to retain bragging rights as the fastest of the 21 canoes entered by West Coast clubs, from San Diego to Vancouver. Watch for them to be back in the waters off Jericho in November to start all over again. That's ohana. That's outrigger.
ACCESS: To learn a little Hawaiian and get a winter workout, too, contact the Jericho Outrigger Canoe Club (www.jerichooutrigger.com/), the False Creek Racing Canoe Club (www.fcrcc.com/), or the Lotus Sports Club (www.lotussports.com/).