Rain or shine, Vancouver's champion outrigger paddlers churn the waves off Jericho Beach, training for a series of grueling endurance races this summer that could lead these ultra-fit men and women to the top of their sport.
The steadily growing sport -- three clubs in Vancouver, 11 in the province -- attracts serious paddlers who practise on the water three or four times a week throughout the year.
"Outrigger racing is attracting athletes who are looking for an exciting sport with a deep competitive edge," says Paul McNamara, an affable 39-year-old Vancouver detective who captains Jericho Outrigger Club's men's team. "We have paddlers who are triathletes, former Olympic rowers
and rugger players.
"We live to ride the waves. It's magic. So we put up with the pain. After two hours in the boat, your legs and feet go numb. We trash our bodies for this sport, because the rewards out in the water are so great, especially when the swells are big."
A team of nine men from the Jericho and False Creek clubs won the U.S. national championship over a 51-kilometre course off the California coast last September. Team B.C. aims to finish in the top 10 at the world championships in Hawaii this fall.
Jericho's women's team, coached by McNamara, is also striving for the top 10. They won the 20 km Howe Sound Iron Race off Gibsons last July against top international teams.
In September, the women scored a stunning upset in the Subaru Gorge Games against another elite field, including their arch-rivals from the False Creek Club, who usually beat them on home waters.
A month later in Hawaii, the Jericho women finished 13th out of 65 entries in the Molokai Hoe, the World Series of long-distance outrigger races.
Jennifer Stanick, 30, is a Grade 3 teacher in Vancouver and a Jericho paddler.
"Even in the rain and the wind, being out on the water in an outrigger is a huge adventure. And there's always that inner drive to help your teammates move the boat, to not let them down," she said.
Local outriggers self-finance their programs with modest fundraisers.
Other top teams around the Pacific have attracted sponsors, but not Vancouver's paddlers. They struggle to pay their way to races. Canada 3000 has offered to help with an upcoming trip to Australia.
A typical six-person, two-hour iron race (no relief paddlers allowed), attracts more than 60 teams. The Howe Sound race, which will serve as the Canadian championships this July 14-15, is considered one of the sport's top 10 events.
In longer races (36 km or more) nine crew members rotate in and out of boats. A paddler jumps out on the starboard (right) side, while his relief, waiting in the water, frantically tries to clamber in on the port side. The maneuver is usually successful -- especially in shark-infested waters.
Outrigger paddling is geared to competition; recreational paddlers should consider joining a dragon boat club.
Who participates? About 200 men and 150 women in the Vancouver area. They're moderate-to-serious
athletes ranging in age from 22 to 50. Strong upper body required.
Equipment: $160-$200 for a wood paddle; less than $100 for other clothing, including swimwear. The
clubs own the canoes.
Membership:$250 a year at Jericho Outrigger Club (205-0215), which includes a $61 Jericho Sailing
Centre adult membership; about $300 a year at False Creek (684-7223) and Lotus (527-9903).
Travel costs: About $200 a year for local racers; more than $2,000 for members of top teams.
Website: www.jerichooutrigger.com has links to other clubs.