What's nice about outrigger canoeing is that you're facing forward, so you get to see where you're going," says John Wascher, vice president of the Oceanside Outrigger Canoe Club. "And [the canoes] are built to go into the swells; you can go out into the open ocean. One big thing with the sport is being able to catch those swells when racing. In a crew boat, where the guys are sitting backwards, flat water is really good. For us, flat water is just kind of sticky." The annual Paopao nine-man outrigger canoe race will take place on Saturday, August 18, in Oceanside. Earlier this year, two organizations -- Makana Ke Kai Outrigger Canoe Club and Paopao Outrigger Association -- merged to form the Oceanside Outrigger Canoe Club. "A lot of clubs will have Hawaiian names," Wascher explains. Paopao means "little canoe" in Samoan, and makana ke kai is Hawaiian for "precious gift of the sea." "In this case, we're trying to get better rapport with Oceanside."
Outrigger canoes are propelled by paddle and characterized by a pontoon attached to one or both sides of the boat, providing stability to the canoe as a training wheel would a bicycle. The stability provided by the outrigger allows for longer races in open water. In Olympic rowing competitions, oars are fixed to each side of the long, narrow boats, called racing shells or sculls.
The Oceanside club also participates in an annual 42-mile Hawaiian race from the island of Molokai to Oahu and a 32-mile race from Newport Beach to Avalon, on Catalina Island. "After every race, there's always a lot of partying," says Wascher. "The men used to go over to Catalina from Newport, but [one] night it got pretty crazy with the guys drinking, so they changed it around. Now the women [race] from Newport to Avalon on a Saturday, and on Sunday morning the men leave Avalon and [race] to Newport Harbor."
The Paopao Nine-Man race is 18 miles long and lasts a little over two hours. The outrigger canoe holds six people; for nine-man races, three alternate paddlers follow the canoe in a small motor "chase boat." Paddlers are swapped out every 15 to 20 minutes. "The fishing boat will race ahead 200 yards in front of the canoe and drop those people in the water," Wascher explains. "As the canoe comes toward them, the people paddling will put their paddles inside the boat, then exit the boat out of the right side by rolling out of the boat as the new paddlers come in on the left side, and the boat never stops -- they jump in, sit down, and grab a paddle." Over 40 outrigger canoes from 28 clubs will participate in both the women's and men's races.
Members of outrigger canoe clubs are as attracted to the culture as they are to the sport. "A lot of the Polynesian culture is involved, a lot of what we call 'aloha.' We try to bring as much of it as we can," says Leslie Baron, a member of the Oceanside club. "We make leis to give crews after we finish a race, and we give a formal boat blessing. There are little customs, like pointing the boat in a certain direction when it's on the sand, that add to the sport. The boat should always be facing the ocean. That's its home."
Wascher continues, "Someone from the local area who is Hawaiian or Polynesian will get on the speaker and give a nice Hawaiian prayer for safety and bringing everyone back, for good seas."
Accidents do happen. "When we flip over, it's called a huli, which must be the Hawaiian word for 'flip.' The majority of the people who are on the water are pretty comfortable swimming, but some people -- which is kind of crazy -- love being on the water and love paddling but in the open ocean get a little freaked out."
Wascher considers all paddling organizations his ohana, or family. "I tell new people, whether you want it or not, when you join this club you get an entire new family that will do stuff for you, like babysit your kids. It's a whole community."
The sport also attracts the very athletic. "You have to dedicate so much to paddling; it's a total body workout. Most people within the community are really active people, a lot of them work out, mountain bike. There are a lot of personal trainers, runners. One guy was an Olympic cyclist, and another was an Olympic rower." -- Barbarella
Paopao Outrigger Nine-Man Race
Saturday, August 18
8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info: 760-967-0767 or www.makanakekai.com