Long before recorded history, the Polynesian people climbed aboard long thin canoes fitted with a stabilizing ama or outrigger and traveled around the many islands of the South Pacific in all types of weather and conditions.
The boats were integral to their sustenance and indigenous to the culture.
Now, hundreds of years later, these boats are still being paddled in almost the exact same way as the natives did so many centuries ago.
Paddling outriggers is part of our human history and also a popular modern sport all over the world steeped in the rich traditions of Polynesian culture.
Last weekend in Marina del Rey, more than 920 paddlers of all ages and genders gathered at Mothers Beach to participate in a day of competitive offshore racing in these 42-foot fiberglass canoes.
For the past 30 years, the club has been hosting the Kahanamoku Klassic, which is among the largest outrigger events of the season for California paddlers.
The host Marina del Rey Outrigger Canoe Club has been in the area since 1967, making them one of the oldest clubs in Southern California and also one of the five largest clubs in the area with about 110 members.
“We’re very proud of our club and the fact that the race usually goes off without a hitch,” said club president Nancy Dopp. “And everybody seems to have a good time and that’s the most important thing.”
Teams of six paddlers in each canoe pulled at the water beneath them attempting a balanced blend of perfect synchronicity and brute force in the race that spanned 13 ocean miles (four for the novice class).
In this sport, a good amount of distance between the swells is ideal so the 42-foot canoes have room to ride the waves and Saturday’s conditions were very suitable in that regard.
“We had a good south swell running for this race,” said first place finisher in her division Allison Kahanamoku Mermel. “So we were able to catch a lot of waves going down to the Santa Monica Pier.”
Mermel and Dopp have both been paddling since they were kids and are lifelong devotees to the sport.
“It becomes a part of your life,” Dopp said. “It’s a wonderful thing. I’ve been doing it for 28 years and I just love it.”
For Mermel, a native Hawaiian, the sport has been an integral element of her life in the deepest of ways.
Her father Sandy Kahamamoku founded the club and her family tree is intertwined with the social aspect of the sport.
“My parents met paddling, then my dad started our club and I actually met my husband paddling,” Mermel said. “So it’s been a full circle.”
Like surfing, the sport keeps gathering momentum and growing in popularity.
There has been talk of it becoming an Olympic event and it seems to be building a larger number of junior member and women competitors as the years go on.
“It’s becoming very popular with women,” Dopp said. “I’m not really sure why, but I think that this is something that women are finding they can compete equally with other women. And it’s a very good bonding sport.”
The club is hoping that the impending redevelopment of Marina del Rey will allow them to still carry on and grow without obstruction.
The club lends their boats and volunteers to various local public outreach groups that educate at risk and handicapped children and hopes to continue the community interaction.
Mothers Beach, where the club bases their operation, is supposed to undergo a complete revamping and the paddlers are concerned.
“It’s scary if we get kicked out of the Marina, we have no other place to go,” Dopp said.
“We have no place to keep our boats in a safe area. We’re very dependent on the county and we’re hoping that we can be there for as long as we possibly can.
“We love being where we are and we love being a part of the history of the Marina.”
Dopp is optimistic about the club’s future in Marina del Rey but even more so about the sport’s future popularity.
More and more men, women, kids, and older paddlers keep coming into the fray and clubs are popping up in all different areas of the world.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the history of the sport itself and the culture that you get to know and become a part of when you race with the Hawaiian people, ” Dopp said of the rising attention the sport is receiving.
“Also being on the water, it’s like surfing in that way, you can just become mesmerized out there. It becomes a dance with the canoe, the ocean and the waves.”