Outrigger Paddling in the North Bay


AS THE WEATHER warms and light dawns earlier, here in Marin, it’s not unusual to spy a six-person canoe gliding across our waterways. Six-man and -woman teams can be seen warming up in the dappled morning light (and also in the fading evening light), and anyone close enough might hear a continual “hut, hike, ho” as a team pulls a 40-foot boat through the glassy water. Considered the state sport of Hawaii, outrigger canoeing has steadily grown more popular nationwide over the past few decades, in both recreational and competitive forms, including in Marin.

Who paddles outrigger canoes?

Water-loving men, women and kids are drawn to this sport. Many clubs have special divisions for keikis (18 and younger), masters (under 40) and senior masters (50 and older). Benefits include being on the water, staying active and being part of a team. In 30 minutes, a paddler might complete 1,500 strokes. The motion of leaning forward and pulling the paddle through the water makes for an extreme workout, especially for the lats and core, and burns as much as 700 calories an hour. Outrigger canoeing brings paddling into the realm of team sport, as there’s regularly scheduled practice with fellow paddlers. It “forces you to keep your practice time and not find excuses,” says Steve Wegner from He’e Nalu men’s team. “You don’t want to be the guy to let down the team.” The fellowship in outrigger is hard to describe: it’s intense, yet the joy of feeling the canoe moving forward in a synchronized manner is contagious. Paddlers here in Marin range from beginners to veterans with two decades under their beltless board shorts. Besides the shorts, gear includes UV shirts, hats and shorts — all waterproof.

Where do people meet?

Most outrigger canoe paddling is centered around canoe clubs. Marin has two: He’e Nalu Outrigger Canoe Club in San Rafael and Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club in Sausalito. Both have multiple six-person outrigger canoes and offer scheduled practices for their men’s and women’s teams, along with club events. He’e Nalu hosts an annual outrigger race on August 6 called the Round the Rock Alcatraz Challenge, and Tamalpais Outrigger holds the Kula Anela Hoe Wa’a Outrigger Canoe Race around Angel Island on August 27. For both clubs, team members come from all over the county — Novato, Mill Valley, San Rafael and Sausalito — plus San Francisco and Sonoma County. The outrigger community is rooted in tradition and friendship, says Amy Connell of the He’e Nalu women’s team: “We all share a love for the water and the friendships and a heartfelt love for the sport.”

What does it take to be a team member?

Committing to practice and your team are really what it takes to become part of a crew. Canoe clubs have set practices on the weekends; then, as the days get longer, practice moves to a couple of times a week after work, usually at 5:30 or 6 p.m. A typical workout takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half. He’e Nalu has a men’s workout Sunday mornings and a women’s on Saturday mornings.

How does one become a team member?

Considering that six paddlers are needed for each boat, the clubs continually seek members. He’e Nalu Canoe Club is at 101 Surf Sports on the canal in San Rafael, which opens up to San Pablo Bay; contact the club directly for more information about its new paddler program. The Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club, at Fort Baker in Sausalito’s Horseshoe Cove at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, does its recruitment in March and April.

Why outrigger canoe?

For athletes wanting a team sport that involves the water, community and a great workout, belonging to an outrigger club has great appeal. Travel is also a draw: races happen all over Northern California, including Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, and some teams even go to Hawaii or Southern California. Training starts in March for summer competitions; the first races are Memorial Day weekend. “There is nothing that clears my mind better than being out on the water after work,” says Michele Dermer of Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. “When I am paddling, all I can think of is my stroke and how I can help my crew glide our boat across the bay. When we’re done, no matter what, it’s all smiles — we’re cold and tired, sure, but smiling.

Canoe Marin

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Water Ways