What is that? A question often posed by onlookers as Comox Valley Canoe Racing Club (CVCRC) members cart a 44ft, 300lb, six-person outrigger canoe down the Courtenay marina ramp for practice.
Polynesian in origin, outrigger canoes were key to the settlement of the South Pacific islands as these large crafts were made for crossing open waters. Wind and waves bring the boat to life and the outrigger, attached to the left side of the canoe, is for stability. Outrigger canoe racing is the official team sport of Hawaii and Tahiti, and a growing paddlesport in Canada, particularly on the west coast where seaside communities provide a bounty of paddling conditions.
Annie Boulding, who was first introduced to outrigger racing in Vancouver, spearheaded CVCRC’s development in 1993. Since then, individual members and club crews have brought home medals in sprint and long distance events in Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Brazil.
Why is outrigger canoe racing so popular? For one, it’s inclusive. Age categories encourage participation whether you are 16 or 76. There are solo, tandem, and six-person outrigger events that provide racing opportunities for everyone—from local races, where novices and recreational racers join with seasoned vets to gain experience; more competitive national circuit points races; and world-class challenges requiring paddlers to participate in qualifying time trials to create crews that can compete against the best anywhere.
It doesn’t require inherent talent or expensive equipment, just a commitment to learn to pull as a team and paddle through discomfort into the zone. Self-awareness and camaraderie grow through the technical, strategic—and let’s face it—strenuous aspects of moving a watercraft in an ever-changing environment in concert with others. It’s a “here and now” experience, ultimately guided by the water, wind and tide. The scenery and sea lion sightings come free!
The va’a (outrigger canoe) is also a vehicle to explore Polynesian culture. Traditions respecting and honouring the canoe, one’s crew, club, community, and the ocean are at its heart. Hawaii’s “Aloha Spirit” can be encapsulated as:
A, ala, watchful, alertness
L, lokahi, working with unity
O, oia’i’o, honesty
H, ha’aha’a, humility
A, ahonui, patient perseverance
Paddlers all over the world find inspiration in this ancient code of ethics that continues to illuminate everyday life and outrigger paddling in the South Pacific. In Hawaii, local hales (canoe clubs) host children and youth taking after-school lessons in Hawaiian, hula, and paddle making, who then head out into the sun to learn the ways of their ancestors in seats of the va’a.
In the Valley, the CVCRC offers tri-weekly training sessions and ongoing coaching. Like golfers with their swing, outrigger paddlers are constantly striving to perfect their stroke. Dragonboaters, SUP paddlers, and kayakers often take up outrigger canoeing to improve their general fitness and skills, and then discover the magic of open water paddling. Recently, the CVCRC has expanded its fleet of three OC6s to include two tandem outriggers for those who want to learn about the outrigger’s ultimate rush of running downwind, and surfing the swell and waves of a wild sea.
More information can be found at cvcanoeracing.ca or on Facebook.