This past Saturday afternoon, May 7, under a hazy sky, dozens and dozens of outrigger canoes (211 team entries) powered by six -person crews blasted through a lightly choppy Pacific Ocean as part of the 2011 Kahanamoku Klassic, an annual event that draws paddlers from all over the Southern California area to tough-out an 11-mile semi-triangular course to the Santa Monica pier, before returning back to Marina del Rey Harbor.

While the scene at event headquarters at Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey was laid back, with nearly one thousand people milling around clad in board-shorts and flip-flops, on the water it was all-out competition.

Focused crews, eyes-fixed straight ahead, grunting, paddling with a particular mixture of synchronicity and brute force.

“It was perfect, we had a lot of great conditions until we hit the jetty where it kind of turned into concrete,” said long time paddler, former Marina del Rey Outrigger Canoe Club board member and race chair Nancy Dopp. “It was a little bit of a struggle but it was fun – all in all a great day.”

Dopp has been paddling in this area for decades and she reports not only greater participation in the Kahanamoku Klassic’s but also in the sport itself.

“It’s growing on both sides [men and women]. It’s been wonderful to see it happen – it’s taken us a long time to get there.”

Competitive paddling in this area has been around since the 1970s and while the canoes and paddles have become modern, the basic sentiment and attraction for the sport remain the same.

It’s a highly competitive sport with a very defined cultural aspect. The ideal of respect is integrated throughout the experience. Members are expected to act as a team on and off the water. They are encouraged to compete hard but not be overly consumed with that element.

“We talk about being competitive, doing everything as a team and to be club-oriented,” said race chair and novice-program director Calvin Hirahara. “It should be fun. I tell them to be competitive but not live and die with wins and losses.”

Hirahara teaches newcomers about the techniques involved in making the ocean-going canoes go faster. On the surface, the sport might look like a half dozen people packed in a boat wildly paddling with simply strength as the deciding factor but under closer examination there are specific techniques that are responsible for a team’s success.

“Technique will carry you through a close race,” Hirahara said. “I always preach that I’m looking for the maximum glide per stroke. You have to be in the water together, then out of the water together and the biggest thing is to have the power-phase of the stroke together – that’s how you get the maximum glide.”

Beyond making a boat go fast, being part of an outrigger team involves the traditions of the Polynesian people. From launch to return, club mentors teach age-old practices and customs that must be followed. For instance, paddlers should always enter the boat on the left side and never stand up in the boat.

Hirahara explains that this is because when the canoes were made of wood, the material was considered a living being and to stand on a fellow living being would be a show of disrespect.

Both Hirahara and Dopp are pleased and proud that the sport remains strong in both Marina del Rey and the rest of the country, considering that it’s not a particularly supported sport in any way.

“Word of mouth has been incredible,” said Dopp. “People see the sport occasionally, but it’s not like in Hawaii where it’s on TV. We’re lucky to get any kind of publicity, so as it grows it’s always wonderful, but we’ll probably try to do a little outreach next year.”

For full results of the Kahanamoku Klassic or for more information go to www.marinaoutrigger.org.

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