Our guide to outrigger canoeing, as told by members of the VRC

A crew of nine Hong Kong men just came third in their category at the outrigger canoeing world championships. But what exactly is outrigger canoeing? We find out.

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What is it? Designed for riding the swells of the Pacific Ocean, the outrigger canoe (OC) is similar to a normal canoe, but with a float attached to one side of the hull, which helps keep the vessel stable in rough seas. Traditionally made of wood, but these days mainly crafted from fibreglass, outrigger canoes can be paddled solo (OC1) but teams usually compete in a six-person boat (OC6), with three in a support boat for crew rotation.

Who does what in an OC6? The first person in the canoe sets the pace. If seat one is paddling on the left, seat two is right, seat three left and so on until seat 6, who is the steersperson but also paddles. Seat three calls out on every 14th stroke and everyone switches to paddle on the opposite side. three in a support boat for crew rotation.

The key to a successful team is perfect timing, a strong catch (the power portion of the stroke when the blade of the paddles enters the water and pulls back).

Where does the sport come from? Outrigger canoeing dates back around 2,000 years, originating with the Austronesian people who lived on islands in the southern, western and central Pacific Ocean. Remnants of their outrigger canoes have been discovered on the western coasts of Peru and California, leading some to argue that their arrival in the Americas predates Columbus by at least 400 years.

Who are the main clubs?
There are several OC clubs on the Southside of Hong Kong Island, plus others based on Lamma and Lantau. Victoria Recreation Club Paddle Club in Deep Water Bay boasts an impressive fleet of vessels and hosts Hong Kong’s most popular monthly OC race – the 2016 Zolfo Cooper VRC Race Series.

How do I sign up?
Visit www.vrcpaddleclub.com, their Facebook page @HongKongVRCPaddleClub or @vrc_paddle_club on Instagram for more information. VRC has one Open Day each year right after the Dragon Boat season finishes and also conducts Dragon Boat corporate workshops.

THE FINISH
Last month, nine members of the Victoria Recreation Club in Deep Water Bay achieved a podium finish in a race across one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world.

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The brutal 41-mile Molokai Hoe outrigger canoe (OC) race in Hawaii is regarded as the sport’s world championships. It began in 1952, with three traditional wooden boats competing and finishing in just under nine hours. This year’s race saw close to 100 international teams battle it out in hi-tech fibreglass boats. The fastest time was 4 hours and 49 minutes.

The VRC sent two teams to compete, with the over-40 crew taking third place in the Masters 40+ category. Both crews faced waves up to five metres high, fierce winds and unpredictable currents  – not to mention roaming sharks and jellyfish – as they made their way from Molokai Island to Oahu across the Kaiwi Channel. Known as the “Channel of Bones”, it has claimed the lives of entire ancient canoe fleets as well as modern-day watermen.

We chatted to VRC Head Coach Scott Dale and some of the team upon their return from Hawaii to find out more about outrigger canoeing, why they do it and how you can sign up.

Where are you all from?
(Franck): We are a multinational bunch hailing from Hong Kong, the UK, Australia, France, America, Germany, Canada, Malaysia, Russia and Australia.

How often do you train?
For the Molokai Hoe, we trained six days a week in the boat, plus additional circuit training, weight training and swimming.

Has such intense training affected your personal lives?
(Stephen): The woman I love now paddles, of course.
(Steve): To do well in this sport, like any other, you need to commit a significant amount of time to it. Friendships outside do suffer unfortunately, but within the community we have social activities.

How did you get into outrigger canoeing?
(Steve): Back in 1994 the VRC (formerly the Hong Kong Island Paddle Club) purchased a part-share in two OC6 boats. We started outrigger canoeing in Hong Kong! The only outrigger canoe race at that time was in Hawaii, so we just had to use our dragon boating experience. That made those early days very difficult.

(Nick): I started off in a corporate dragon boat team, which is a common way to get into paddle sports. After the dragon boat season ended I wanted more so I joined the VRC’s rookie programme. It didn’t take long until I was hooked.

(Arnie): One day I looked down to the ocean from my apartment and thought, “I need to learn a watersport as this might be the only time in my life I live on the water.” I saw a canoe off to one side, located the club and showed up for the open day. That was a year and three months ago.

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What’s the best thing about outrigger canoeing?
(Stephen): Sunrise training with rainbows over Ocean Park, seeing fish jumping over the canoe and spotting the odd stingray breaching the surface. It balances out the rest of my life: crowds, deadlines, emails, networking…in an outrigger canoe, it’s just you and the water.

(Benny): Learning about the ocean – how it changes throughout the day, month and year – how to connect and move along with it.

(Mark): Getting out on the ocean with your mates, racing in Hawaii and other cool destinations.

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And the worst?
(Lee): A bad day out on the water in a canoe is better than a good day in the office!

(Mark): Getting up at 5am in the winter and paddling when it’s cold and dark. Oh, and the paddletics.

What do you eat before a race?
(Lee): Fluids! A six-pack of IPA and a bunch of bananas.

(Stephen): Race day is no time for experiments. My secret ingredient is peanut butter.

(Arnie): Oatmeal, bananas, plenty of fluids.  

(Mark): A big omelette with any and all ingredients – salami, ham, pepperoni, spinach, mushrooms, cheese – and toast, and HP sauce!

(Franck): The boys always make fun of me for this, but M&Ms and Red Bull.

How many calories do you eat a day when training?
(Stephen): It can probably hit 5,000/day when paddling over 110km/week plus doing a few intense land training sessions for strength and explosive power.

What is your most memorable race?
(Christian): The first time I did Around the Island and paddled through Victoria Harbour, close to the Macau Ferries. It was scary.

(Nick): This year’s Three Peaks Challenge – a combination of outrigger paddling and hill running through the best of Hong Kong’s great outdoors: the sea and the mountains. We won following a close battle with our arch-rivals, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.

(Lee): Rio. Enough said!

(Arnie): The Dragon Run 2015. I had been paddling five months. Someone lent me an expensive tippy canoe for the race and I huli’d 22 times in three-metre waves. It was hard.  

(Mark): My first and only Molokai solo in 2005. 32 miles on my own. Made running the Honolulu marathon six months before seem easy!

How often do things go wrong?
(Nick): We don’t often flip (or ‘huli’) canoes, but we did manage to huli a dragon boat whilst being filmed for the Travel Channel. The camera crew’s speedboat sent a large wave over us and flipped us right over.

(Scott): Right at the start of the 24km Around Po Toi race, all the canoes were very close together and a competitor lifted our ama and huli’d us. Not a great way to start but we still finished the race. Afterwards, a crew member went diving and recovered the five pairs of lost sunglasses off the seafloor.

(Stephen): One early morning before work, we launched two canoes for a one-way paddle to VRC when the ama detached on one canoe. Fortunately we could do emergency repairs in the water. Getting a taxi to work proved the hardest part of the morning.

Are you friends outside of canoeing?
(Lee): Yes – we live, eat and breathe each other all year round, both on and off the water. It’s a lifestyle.

(Jean): We are a bunch of guys with different personalities – and often big egos – on a small boat in the middle of the sea for two hours a day. It is intense. But after a good race we’ll have a drink and a barbecue together.

(Scott): I consider most of the Hong Kong paddling community as ohana (family). Paddling is a lifestyle choice more than a sport. People that connect with the ocean share a special bond.

What is it like to race in the Molokai Hoe? How do you keep motivated for 5 hours?
(Scott): It’s great to participate in international events like the Molokai Hoe and have the opportunity to learn from the best. The time goes surprisingly fast – you’re just focused on what’s required to get to the end point.

Does training in Hong Kong prepare you well for such treacherous conditions? Do you go out in typhoons?
(Mark): No, not really. Since Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific, the waves come from a lot further away so are much thicker and more powerful than in Hong Kong, even during a typhoon. Yes, I do go out and paddle my OC1 in typhoons, but with a group and a safety plan in place.

Has any of you ever seen a shark while you were canoeing?
(Lee): In 2014, we were competing in the Molokai Hoe race in Hawaii. I was sitting in seat 1; Scott was in seat 2 behind me. We were happily paddling away, concentrating on our timing. A change was called (where some of the crew jump out of the canoe to recover while others slide into their seats and take over the paddling) and Scott and I were wondering which one of us was out next. Just as the call was made a huge shark swam straight underneath the boat. It was like slow motion, smooth and determined, but aggressive. I heard Scott say, “I ain’t b****y getting out”, and I certainly wasn’t about to go anywhere, so we told seat 3 to do the change as he obviously didn’t know what was going on. Importantly, nobody got hurt!

(Mark): I’ve seen a lot of whales when paddling off Oahu.

The races are very long. What do you do if you need the toilet?
(Steve): DON’T HOLD BACK! It’ll get bailed out eventually.

Why should someone start outrigger canoeing?
(Lee): Tranquility, space, being close to the simple things in life. Failing that, it’s the best excuse to get large on some delicious IPA beers at the club house with your teammates.

 

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