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Sync or Swim

A new feature, On the Move, premieres today. In it we will spotlight recreational sports clubs in the Southland. We kick it off with the writer’s outrigger canoeing club.

My parents think it ironic that I’m from Hawaii but had to come all the way to Southern California before I took up the ancient Hawaiian sport of outrigger canoeing.

I’ve done my share of sports and have always been somewhat of a water baby. But never before had I tested myself against the sea in an outrigger canoe. And never had I experienced the serenity and exhilaration of propelling a boat toward the horizon the old-fashioned way.

Three years ago, my itch to get back in shape and my desire to get that pronounced V in the back and arm muscles (you know, the kind that Angela Bassett has made her trademark) led me to the Marina del Rey Outrigger Canoe Club. My affinity for the ocean made the sport a perfect fit.

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Although outrigger was introduced to Southern California more than 30 years ago, it has grown increasingly more popular just in recent years. The number of clubs has almost doubled over the last decade, from about 14 in 1985, to 24 today.

When I went to my first practice at Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey, I was put in a canoe with five other paddlers who each had a different level of experience. I tried to grasp the intricacies of the long, strong stroke as we looped around the harbor and then toward the open ocean.

Outrigger canoes differ drastically from canoes used on river trips. About 40 feet long, outrigger canoes are more than twice the length of traditional canoes. They also have an ama--a long float attached to the canoe with two bamboo sticks called iaku’s to balance the boat.

In the years since my first practice, the women’s team has grown so large that coach Lindsey Richman separates the novices and the veterans until the season is well underway. That way, novices can learn the technique without slowing down the skilled paddlers.

Outrigger canoeing is a physically trying sport that requires endurance and upper-body strength. If you try the sport without any physical preparation, you may never come back again, but you don’t have to be an Olympian to get in a canoe.

Paddling is as much a physical challenge as it is mental. Everyone in the canoe, which is typically made of fiberglass, must work as one. Each wooden blade must enter the water at exactly the same time or the 400-pound canoe doesn’t glide smoothly.

The steersman, who sits in the rear of the boat, keeps the boat straight while watching the timing of paddlers and cheering them on. The lead paddler, the stroker, must set an unwavering cadence for the paddlers behind her, who alternate sides every 15 to 18 strokes.

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Outrigger welcomes participants from a range of ages, from 8 to over 60. There are teams for men, women and juniors, and during competition the races are broken down by novice and veteran paddlers. There are also masters, 35 and older, and senior masters divisions for paddlers older than 45.

There are 23 clubs between Pismo Beach and San Diego. The Kalifornia Outrigger Assn. (KOA)--named for the koa tree, which was used to make the traditional Hawaiian canoes--sanctions about 12 races between May and September in which the clubs compete against one another.

The regattas, which began May 9 in Marina del Rey, are divided into three seasons. Ironman races kick off the four-month racing period with distances ranging from 4 to 6 miles for novices and 14 to 16 miles for veterans.

Sprints follow in June and include a series of 1,000-meter heats. And the season concludes with nine-man competitions--the most physically challenging.

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Nine-man races--named for the fact that nine paddlers are alternated through the canoe during each competition--are like a series of sprints, but the distances are anywhere from 17 to 30 miles. In these races, novices and veterans compete together. A motorized escort boat trails each canoe carrying three alternate paddlers. Every 15 minutes or so, the coach orders changes, which means that fresh paddlers replace those in the canoe.

The escort boat pulls ahead of the canoe and drops the new paddlers into the water. They line up in the order in which they will sit in the boat, and the steersman then maneuvers the outrigger toward them.

As the boat pulls alongside them, those in the canoe roll out on the right side, while the new paddlers pull themselves up on the left under the outrigger. All the while, the canoe keeps moving.

September’s 30-mile Catalina Crossing race from Newport Beach concludes the official California season. When it’s over, many longtime paddlers head to Hawaii to paddle across the treacherous Molokai Channel--a 42-mile stretch between Molokai and Oahu.

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Besides the aerobic benefits, outrigger canoeing offers the challenge of competition and a strong sense of camaraderie. Beach parties typically follow each race, and the friendships that are formed are often as strong as the waves paddlers power their canoes through.

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On the Move is published on the fourth Monday of the month. Tracy Johnson’s e-mail address is tracy.johnson@latimes.com.

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For the Canoe Club in Your Area . . .

For more information, contact area outrigger canoe clubs:

Dana Point

(714) 643-5508

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(714) 498-3886

Hokuloa (Ventura)

(805) 389-3002

Imua (Newport Beach)

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(714) 458-1605

(714) 759-1521

Kahakai (Long Beach)

(562) 438-0233

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(562) 439-6975

Lanakila (Redondo Beach)

(310) 374-8109

Lokahi (Harbor Area)

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(310)-834-0939

Marina del Rey

(310) 827-4161

Nahoa (Redondo Beach)

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(310) 250-6282

Newport Athletic Club

(714) 307-6789

Offshore (Newport Beach)

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(714) 964-0891

Santa Monica

(310) 393-5428


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