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Outrigger paddling adventure lets adults of all abilities ‘come out and play’

Boaters paddle an outrigger canoe in the Newport Back Bay as part of Project Independence's Access to Adventure program.
With assistance from Makapo Aquatics, boaters paddle an outrigger canoe in the Newport Back Bay as part of Project Independence’s Access to Adventure program.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Suited up in life jackets and with paddles in hand, clients served by the Costa Mesa nonprofit Project Independence hit the waters of Upper Newport Bay Thursday in outrigger canoes in search of a high seas adventure.

About 20 adventurers — many of whom participate in local programs aimed at giving adults with developmental disabilities opportunities to live, work and flourish — showed up ready to make waves at the Newport Aquatic Center.

They were treated to free use of equipment and boats provided by the Makapo Aquatics Project, which offers lessons and activities at the center tailor-made for people of any ability in a safe and friendly environment.

RJ De Rama, left, with client Gina Giglio as they head out for an outrigger session at the Newport Aquatics Center Thursday.
RJ De Rama, left, with client Gina Giglio as they head out for an outrigger session at the Newport Aquatics Center Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Everyone is at a specific part of their journey in dealing with their disability. That’s why it’s good for people to come out and show you what’s possible,” said RJ De Rama, who founded Makapo in 2007 for blind individuals after losing his sight three years earlier. The group later widened its scope to people with other disabilities.

“It’s about getting people outside their comfort zone, but it’s also a matter of really instilling trust and fun,” he added. “Our motto is ‘come out and play.’”

That’s exactly what Ann Marie “Annie” Negrete came to do. The 62-year-old Westminster resident tried outrigger paddling in 2018 and had a great time. But then the pandemic put the kibosh on group activities.

“I don’t like staying at home. I can’t stand it,” Negrete said as she waited in line for a spot in one of two six-person outrigger canoes. “The fresh air makes me happy. I love it here — we’re family.”

RJ De Rama, founder of Makapo Aquatics Project, instructs paddlers at the Newport Aquatics Center.
RJ De Rama, founder of Makapo Aquatics Project, shows how to properly hold a paddle for members of Project Independence’s Access to Adventure program at the Newport Aquatics Center Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

After some instructions from De Rama on how to hold the paddle and row as a team, responding to verbal calls from a steersman, it was time to get down to business. People piled into boats and the first teams took off, disappearing from view in a matter of minutes.

Onshore, Project Independence chief executive Robert Watson explained the organization’s Access 2 Adventure program started in 2001 as a means of giving clients a sense of freedom and challenging themselves in a safe environment and with people they know and trust.

“Socialization is a big part of it, getting people out so they can be together and experience new adventures,” he said. “They’ve done things like climb Mount Whitney, going on a cruise. They even go to Catalina [Island] now.”

Staff members Andrew Bader, left, and Efrain Becerra, right, help client Jeffrey into a canoe on Thursday.
Staff members Andrew Bader, left, and Efrain Becerra, right, help client Jeffrey Thursday during an Access 2 Adventure lesson organized by the Costa Mesa nonprofit Project Independence.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

During the pandemic, Project Independence kept services going by finding safe alternatives to group activities, meeting people outdoors in driveways and garages and even hosting activities on Zoom.

“We had a [virtual] garden class,” he said. “We dropped off soil, seeds and pots to individuals’ homes and had an instructor on Zoom showing them what to do.”

As the first two boats made their way back to the shore, the sound of faint laughter rang across the bay. Rowers worked in tandem, repeating the call and response pattern — Hike! Hut! Ho! — that indicates when to switch sides.

As boaters disembarked, wet socks and pantlegs did little to deter megawatt smiles from spreading across cheerful faces. Some stayed onboard, ready for another go around.

For 34-year-old Caitlin Nelson, Thursday’s adventure was her first time on an outrigger canoe.

Boaters give the thumbs up to launch at the Newport Aquatics Center in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I came out today to be with my friends and to get a good workout. It’s fun,” she said. “I enjoyed myself. I want to do it again.”

A big part of Project Independence is providing participants a chance to flex their autonomy in a range of jobs and activities where special needs, assistants and equipment can still be accommodated, said Development Director Todd Eckert, who waded in the water, camera in hand, to photograph boaters as they rowed back to shore.

“The services we provide have always stemmed from an inclusive model,” he said. “Our folks are in the bloodstream of the community. [With this] we get to exaggerate that mission by doing something truly fun and seeing our mission in action.”

One visitor Thursday sat on the beach in her wheelchair, enjoying the sun on her face, while another got shy about the boats at the last minute and opted to sit at nearby picnic tables.

At the other end of the activity spectrum was 39-year-old Dana Point resident Creighton Wall, who was so excited he took two rides on the boat. His father, Gary, said his son is a bundle of energy who likes bicycling, skiing and waterskiing when he’s not working at the Trader Joe’s in Crystal Cove.

Grinning, Wall himself couldn’t help but agree.

“I’m always out and about on my bike, and I walk,” he said. “I do kayaking in Nebraska, but this is my first time ever doing it here.”

Did he like it?

“I loved it!” he replied.

Creighton Wall prepares to head out for an outrigger paddle session at Project Independence's Access to Adventure program.
Creighton Wall prepares to head out for an outrigger paddle session at Project Independence’s Access to Adventure program at the Newport Aquatics Center in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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