I knew I was in trouble when the coach had to help me put my life jacket on properly. I’m pretty sure he took it easy on me after that.
At first glance, I had serious doubts that my hockey-player physique would get close to fitting into the narrow, two-seat canoes at the Fairway Gorge Paddling Centre. But trying to follow coach Corey Teramura’s example – smoothly sliding himself from the dock onto the boat, he makes it look oh-so-easy – I dump myself into the seat, somehow managing not to dump myself into the water in the process.
Outrigger paddling is more challenging and straining on the muscles than I anticipated. Not only must you stay in sync with your fellow paddlers, but you need to mind the mechanics as well.
A life-long outrigger paddler and coach – their team has won every competition entered this season and is off this month to Hawaii’s 41-mile Molokai Hoe Canoe Race – Teramura started our session with a brief history lesson.
Outriggers played an important role in many different civilizations from West Coast First Nations, to the South Pacific people of Hawaii, Tahiti and Fiji, who used the hand-carved boats for war, fishing and travelling between islands.
Locally, about 500 Victorians paddle outriggers, designed to surf ocean waves, rather than calm inland waters. While dragonboating is typically a spring and summer sport, outriggers paddle year-round, with several hundred dragonboaters paddling outrigger through fall and winter.
Having never before put paddle to water, I was surprised one efficient swipe of the water comprised five distinct components, but I quickly learn you must master some semblance of all five if you want the canoe to move easily and swiftly.
I also learn about the “Mana,” in Hawaiian culture, the spirit, energy and respect that goes into the sport, including the people around you, your equipment, and theose who pour their heart and soul into creating the amazing work of art that is a canoe and paddle.
Picking up the canoe – much lighter than I anticipated – we set it gently onto the water and Teramura shows me how he slides smoothly from the dock into the canoe. My turn now. I’m not the biggest fan of water, or rather of taking an unexpected swim, but I’m game for a challenge.
Awkwardly plopping both cheeks onto the seat, we set off.
I try to match Teramura’s rhythm and remember the parts of each stroke. After nine strokes, I hear him say “hup,” signalling the “ho” to come on the tenth – it’s time to switch hands and alternate our paddling side.
After several laps around a protected area of the Gorge inlet, we decide it’s time for a sprint. My shoulders and arms are quickly exhausted, and I barely, if at all, keep up.
Realizing I’m completely gassed, we finish with a few leisurly laps around the docks, Teramura sharing more about this sport he loves.
Gliding easily through the water and toward the dock, I can see why.