Canoe Club Enjoys It When Things Get Rough

The women of the Offshore Canoe Club come from all corners of the state to meet at the shore in Newport Beach and challenge the sea in a traditional, Polynesian canoe.

"The most exciting thing about outrigger paddling is being out in the ocean when it has enough roughness to it," said Mindy Clark, 37.

Several years ago, when crossing the Kaiwi (Moloaki) Channel in Hawaii, the sea grabbed Clark's canoe and tore off its nose. Clark and her teammates jumped into the ocean as their craft sank. They were picked up by an escort boat.

"The seas were huge and I think everybody got sick and everybody thought they were going to die," Clark said.

The Offshore Canoe Club, which is based in Newport Beach, has about 100 members, male and female, who compete at various levels. The nucleus of the club is the group of women who compete annually in the 41-mile Bankoh Na Wahine O Ke Kai race, in which paddlers cross the Kaiwi (Molokai) Channel from Molokai to Oahu.

The women have won the Kaiwi Channel event 10 times, including last year, when they finished in 6 hours 46 minutes 33 seconds. The Offshore Canoe Club men's team won the race three times in the 1980s. The race is considered the world championship of long distance outrigger canoe races.

Men had been racing across the Kaiwi Channel--the roughest channel in the Hawaiian Islands--since the 1950s, but coaches and officials considered it an impossible race for women. The distance requires athletes to paddle in shifts, dive out of the canoe in the open ocean and swim to an escort boat to substitute paddlers. The six-person canoes are slow and cumbersome, the long outrigger providing stability in the ocean.

Last year at the Molokai race, Clark paddled the entire way without a substitute because she was the team's only steersman. The other women on that winning team included Sharon Attelsey of Newport Beach, Gina Aubrey (San Clemente), Donna Meyer (Honolulu), Anna Olsson (Karlstad, Sweden), Vicki Mills (San Clemente), JoJo Toeppner (Tahoe-Donner), Dru Van Hengal (Santa Barbara), Cathy Whitford (Honolulu) and Julie Wolfe (Lancaster).

The women, who range in age from 29-42, also have won the Catalina Crossing, which is considered the U.S. championship for the sport, 16 times.

During the season, which begins next month, most of the women get together about twice a week to train in Newport Harbor or the ocean. The weather doesn't always acquiesce for practice time, but the women are undaunted.

"If you were by yourself, you wouldn't do it, but since you're with a whole team you think, 'Everybody came down here for a reason. . . . Everybody drove and got off work so maybe we should make some good of it,' " said Clark, who lives in Big Bear.

Clark, who has been with the club since it began in 1979, spent her adolescence as a swimmer and diver for Culver City High in the 1970s. She began paddling while attending Santa Monica City College.

"Women's athletics were nothing," she said. "In outrigger paddling, we did half the distance that the men did."

The first official women's Na Wahine O Ke Kai race was in 1979 and the Offshore Canoe Club, running under a different name, finished second. The club, coached by Billy Whitford, has maintained the same nucleus of women over the years.

"We've been together for so long that nobody wants to go to another team," Clark said. "Each person has a different reason [why] they do it and why it's exciting to them. For me, now, it's being around my friends."

The Offshore Canoe Club will begin its season May 10 with the Kahanamoku Klassic at Marina del Rey. It will be seeking its 11th title this year at the Bankoh Na Wahine O Ke Kai on Sept. 28.

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The Katin Team Challenge, a surf contest that normally takes place during the spring in Huntington Beach, has been rescheduled for July and will be part of the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' World Qualifying Series, said Bill Sharp, president of Katin USA.

The contest, featuring individual and tag-team divisions, will be held July 24-27 on the south side of Huntington Beach Pier.

The National Scholastic Surfing Assn. will operate the contest and it will carry a one-star WQS ratings point for the ASP tour.

The tag-team event might include women for the first time. One four-woman team, which includes world champion Lisa Andersen and other top-ranked surfers such as Rochelle Ballard, would compete against the men.

According to Mike Kingsbury, who represents Andersen and Ballard, both have made oral commitments to participate and are "fired up" about a possible women vs. men competition.

At 18 years, the Katin Team Challenge is the oldest pro surfing event on the U.S. mainland. Some past participants are world champions Kelly Slater, Tom Curren and Shaun Tomson.

Though the contest will be on a larger scale than in the past, Sharp said it won't be a mega-event like the U.S. Open or AirTouch ProAm.

"We want it to be a fun and comfortable event without too many fences and wristbands," Sharp said.

Entry forms are available at local surf shops and from the NSSA, P.O. Box 495, Huntington Beach, Calif., 92648, or call (714) 536-0445.

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San Clemente's Shea Lopez currently is the only surfer from Orange County among the top 10 on the men's World Championship Tour.

Lopez moved into the 10th spot after finishing ninth at the Rip Curl Pro in Australia last week. Shea's brother, Cory, is in 19th place on the World Tour. Slater and Andersen remain in the top spots.

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Rick Fignetti of Huntington Beach won the men's division of the eighth stop of the U.S. Surfing Federation's Western Region Tour. Fignetti, 40, beat Will Church of Santa Cruz in excellent wave and weather conditions at Steamer's Lane in Santa Cruz last week.

The next stop of the tour is May 3-4 at Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point. To enter or for information, call (714) 493-2591.

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