on outrigger canoeing...
I used to go bodyboarding at the Army rec center just north of Pokai bay, on the leeward side. I loved it there, that's where we went most often. We would snorkel, ride the waves, and whatnot.
He was away on some field training or other, and I had one of my few brave spells and went by myself to go bodyboarding. This was rare - I had great trouble leaving the house alone. My depression caused me to stay at home most of the time, and even getting out of bed was an achievement.
I was bodyboarding there in the evening, and I saw a man with an outrigger canoe. I think it was a four-seater. It was red. He was by himself, riding the waves into the shore, then paddling back out. He passed near me, and I said "That's a beautiful canoe".
He asked me, "Would you like a ride?"
I was a little nervous, but I said "Sure", and went to put my bodyboard on the beach. I got in the canoe, and he handed me a paddle and explained how it worked.
We chatted a bit, and he told me he was a coach for the little kids crew of his paddling club. He seemed very nice, and I was much more at ease.
We paddled back out, and then started catching waves. He said with me helping, it was much easier than just on his own. It was amazing! It felt like riding a roller coaster. After each one, we'd turn around and head out to catch another one. We talked a bit, but not that much.
It was wonderful. It was one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me.
Eventually the sun set and it was getting dark, and I said I had to go home.
Much later... months and months later...
I read in the local free newspaper that there was a canoe club on the north shore looking for members. I gathered up my courage and gave them a call. They welcomed me to come on down to Haleiwa for one of their practices.
I was incredibly nervous. I thought they wouldn't like me because I was a military wife, I was white, I had never done this before, etc. But they were amazingly friendly. They were kind to me right away, and happy to see a new face, and someone with such long arms.
It was about halfway through the season, so even the other ladies who had never paddled before this year had a fair amount more experience than I did. At first, I had no clue what I was doing. I'd hold the paddle backwards, be behind on switches, and occasionally have to stop paddling because I got too tired.
But the coach, Jim, was very patient with me, and no one seemed to mind my beginner's clumsiness. As the weeks went on, I got better and better, learning how to use my back muscles instead of my arms as my stroke form improved. Soon I could switch from side to side with no hesitation.
We'd go up the river sometimes, and at one practice we did what's called "one-man pull", which is where we'd each take a turn in the front of the canoe, pulling the whole thing by ourselves (with a steerswoman in the back). These canoes are made of fiberglass, 44 feet long and weighing 400 pounds. They'd measure our time with a stopwatch between two bridges on the river. I can't remember the distance - it wasn't too far, but far enough to be quite a challenge. When they say "go" and you start, that canoe moves soooooo slowly at first. But then you get the momentum going, and it gets easier as you go along. It was hard for me to wedge my hips in the front seat of the canoe, which is narrower than the seats behind it and suited more for petite persons. I did very well on the one-man pull, though. I think I got one of the best times of our team, if not the best.
I used to sit in seat 4 or seat 5, the Power seats. I liked seat 4 because I'd be in charge of the ama (along with seat 2). If it looked like the canoe was unstable, I'd lean out on the iako to keep the ama firmly in contact with the water, and if necessary I could actually sit on the thing. I've never been in a canoe that has flipped, but I've heard it's really tough to get it turned right-side up, and get everyone back in and bail the water out.
We'd compete in regatta races on the weekends at different beaches around the island. It was so much fun, like a big track meet. I liked watching the senior masters teams race, people who had been paddling for 20 or 30 years or more. Their stroke was so smooth, it looked as natural as breathing. I loved the idea that plenty of people over 50 competed in this sport.
Our crew, in the women's novice B division, never won a race. We almost always came in last or second to last. But I didn't mind. I had a great time. At the race at Waikiki, we actually caught a wave just before the finish line, and we came in second place! That was the best we did all season, and I still have my medal from that day.
Sometimes after practice, we'd have a few beers, sit around and "talk story" as they do in Hawaii. I just remember how they made me feel welcome, and it was one of the best things that was going on in my life at that time, when so little was going right for me.
The season ended, and then eventually the next spring came around. It was time to practice for the long distance races. Oy, this was tough! We'd go for over half an hour with no breaks, up the coast to Waimea. No water along the way, and the sun and salt made it really tough. I didn't think I'd make it, that first time.
When we finally arrived in Waimea bay, it felt SO good to stop paddling. We'd rest for a few minutes, jump in the crystal-clear water, and nothing in my life has felt more refreshing than that. After we had some water and such, we'd get back in the canoe and paddle all the way home.
I never thought of myself as the kind of person who could do an endurance sport, but I learned I could do it. Each time we'd go on a long paddle, I'd do better and better at it. I'd get into a meditative state, staring at the person two seats in front of me, synchronizing my paddle with hers, becoming the paddle. I'd block out everything else, and it would become like a chant, all of us pulling together.
Once we had 11 people for one of these long-distance practices. So 6 went in one canoe, 5 in the other. I was in the canoe with 5 people. On the way back, we raced, and we beat the other canoe by a wide margin. It felt incredibly good to be the winners, especially considering that we were short-handed.
I remember the divers who would wave to us as we went by, while they were coming up for air before continuing spear fishing. I remember seeing turtles and flying fish along the way. And I remember the day that the sun burned red through the smoke from the burning sugarcane fields, and tiny bits of black sugarcane ash fell on us out of the sky, like some freakish burnt snow. That was utterly surreal.
I remember once, on the bus on the way to practice, I stood there with my paddle, and a teenage boy asked me, "You paddle canoe?" and I was a little surprised, but said "yeah". "For who?" "Manu O Ke Kai". He nodded, knowingly, with approval. That was all we said, but I realized something then - paddling gave me a certain identity, made me of Hawaii in a way. I was not a tourist anymore. I was someone who paddled canoe. It was part of me, and I was proud.
There was one day when I got there late to practice - I think I had missed the bus. The other ladies had already headed out to go catch waves a little ways up the coast. I could drive there, but I wasn't sure I knew exactly where it was, and I was hemming and hawing and not sure what to do.
Some of the other club members were hanging out at the picnic tables, drinking beer. One of them suggested I could go out in one of the one-man canoes of the club's president, Uncle Randy. He helped me rig it together, and I set off by myself for the first time.
I tooled around the harbor a little, but when I went beyond the harbor's edge, I got nervous at the little waves that were there. I decided to come back in and go up the river. It was almost sunset, and the sky was gorgeous. As I went up the river, it got very very quiet.
I was all alone, and the water was like black glass. I could see the front of the canoe cutting through it like a knife, leaving a little folded wake of water. I was spellbound. I stopped paddling and just coasted, enjoying the peace of it. I dipped my fingers in the water as I went along.
It felt so good, so right, so simple, at that moment. I was truly at peace that evening. It meant so much to me, because of the massive depression that was raging in my life, to have one thing that gave me joy.
I came back to the beach, and the other paddlers returned, and that was that. That was the only time I've been in a one-man outrigger canoe. I remember that I used the image of that ride to help myself relax when I was in labor (with mixed results). I still cherish that memory greatly.
And so now I have my own canoe. I have been missing paddling like crazy these past few years, dreaming of it, longing for it. Finally, we just decided to get one for me. I've been waiting for weeks and weeks... and now it's here.
So starting tonight, I can again say with pride:
I paddle canoe.
- from B.R.