The Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club is one of several in the Pacific Northwest that paddles in six-person, 400-pound boats with a traditional outrigger or "ama" floating on the side for stability.
TAKING TO THE water in an outrigger canoe is not at all leisurely. This canoeing does not include stopping to peer into houseboats on Lake Union or exclaiming over a glorious sunset or pausing to chitchat with the rest of your crew.
Outrigger canoeing is a little bit relentless. When you are one of six paddling in a single boat, making sure your paddle hits the water to the rhythm called by a pacesetter in front, canoeing requires concentration. Glance at the houseboats and you might miss the call to switch paddles to the other side of the boat.
Guilty as charged.
Outrigger canoeing originated in the Polynesian islands, and it is a popular sport in Hawaii. The Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club is one of several in the Pacific Northwest that paddles in six-person, 400-pound boats with a traditional outrigger or “ama” floating on the side for stability.
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The Seattle club races, so practices are intense. Once you hit the water, which this bunch does rain or shine, there’s no looking back.
On the night I hopped into the canoe — settled safely in the back — we went about five miles in two hours. Apparently that’s easy compared to the minimum 10 miles spent on the water when training for races.
We gathered in a cove on the north side of Lake Union with enough people to fill three boats. Wednesdays are novice nights, when newcomers join experienced regulars, who all know each other well. It’s a friendly, welcoming crew, but they are committed to their paddling. I got a short explainer on the technique, and we were off.
Paddling an outrigger canoe is more similar to rowing crew than my previous, relaxed experience canoeing. Everyone syncs their strokes, roughly 50 to 65 per minute, and a caller tells us when to switch sides. We used traditional calls, including “hut” to signal we were switching sides and “hoe” to paddle. With all that manpower, the boats go fast.
It was exhilarating being on the water while working with others. Coach Doug Miyata steered our boat, so at first, all I had to do was stay present, paddling in sync, interrupted only by the call to switch.
Then there is the technique. We stopped at docks near the 520 bridge for some stroke work. The coaches have been retraining everyone to paddle with a shorter, more powerful stroke. Regulars focused on undoing years of habit. I focused on keeping up.
The outrigger canoe stroke uses the large muscles in your shoulders and back to pull water powerfully, which helps during long stretches on the water. Once we were on the water, it got harder. I struggled to use my shoulders and core instead of my arms while paddling up to speed.
I never knew canoeing could be so intense. When focused, I could keep up but always forgot something in my technique. Good thing Miyata was the one steering.
We stayed out past dark, with lights on the bow and stern of the canoe. By the end of the evening, I was exhausted, in the best kind of way.
The club has a great camaraderie, with committed regulars who love sharing their passion for their sport with the novices. Something special is at play, too. The paddlers treat each other, their equipment and their sport with a sense of reverence, creating an experience that is both mindful and strong. It’s the best kind of way to move.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Email: email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.