All I wanted to do was get back out on the water
I watched longingly from the Monterey Bay Recreational Trail as the canoe turned out of the bay into the open ocean. As soon as I got home, I excitedly emailed a couple of people listed on the Ke Kai O’Uhane club’s website. Two people emailed back right away and made me feel so welcome.
The first time I held a paddle in my hand and was helping to move a four hundred pound canoe through the water, I was hooked. When your canoe is rising over the swells, and swiftly riding a wave, it feels like you are soaring. The rush of such power pushing you forward takes all the breath from your chest. You feel the spirit of the ocean.
One of the best parts of outrigger canoeing is being able to experience the beauty of Monterey from a completely new perspective. Besides making new friends, some of the most amazing experiences have included paddling at sunset as the creamy clouds melt into pink bliss, and looking into the water only to see thousands and thousands of miniature jellyfish. I always love the way the light catches the water. The colors are never the same. Sometimes the surface is like gray glass and other times it is such a pure blue that all you can do is drink it in with your eyes.
When you are out on the ocean, you are a guest. Most of the time, harbor seals watch us paddle around, and sometimes they swim quite close to the canoe. Their large, black eyes thoughtfully consider us as we paddle by. Sea lions bark incessantly and the sound reminds me of Tusken Raiders from Star Wars. I must confess that the cuteness of sea otters still overwhelms me, and I can’t help but point them out to the entire canoe: “Look! A sea otter!” Well, at least I stopped dropping my paddle whenever I see them.
On Memorial Day weekend, the Ke Kai O’Uhane Outrigger Canoeing club hosted the annual Hoe Wa’a. This year is the club’s 30th anniversary, which made the event even more special. I paddled in two races: the four mile novice women’s race on Saturday and the four mile novice co-ed’s race on Sunday. I’ll share the experience from my very first outrigger canoeing race on Saturday, May 24.
Being a new paddler, lining up with over twenty canoes up at the starting line was intimidating. To my dismay, a song was stuck in my head. Maybe I could use it like a metronome to keep my stroke rate consistent during the race? For a split second, a little cloud of doubt cast itself across my mind. Could I really do this? Was I ready? I looked at the other canoes around me. Everyone was smiling and wishing each other good luck. This wasn’t so much a competition as an experience that we would all be sharing together. The doubt gave way to thankfulness for even being able to be out on the water. Those little moments of fear are easily set aside with a grateful heart.
When the flag dropped, I heard everything and nothing. The canoe surged forward. Six moved as one, soaring over swells, and scattering a flock of birds resting on the water.
I fixed my eyes on the buoy in the distance, willing it to come closer. I could vaguely hear the other crews calling out to one another to switch sides. In our canoe, I could only feel the support and encouragement from behind.
When you are paddling hard for forty-something minutes, the funniest things pop into your mind. What if a sea lion jumps on the canoe? What happens if we huli, or flip? Out of all the songs in the world, why is this one stuck in my head right now? However, the playful wind, the sea spray, and the undulating ocean pull you back into the moment. Even if you can't quite remember what you were seeing, you remember what you were feeling. Joy. Pure, ecstatic joy. Ke Kai O'Uhane means "the spirit of the ocean." When you are part of a team moving a canoe through the water, you definitely feel that spirit.
As soon as we heard the red bell buoy ringing ahead of us, we turned the power on. I could feel new energy in the canoe: relief that we had reached the turn-around point, and excitement that we were more than halfway home. The sea lions, crammed on the buoy, barked at us as we swept around them. Anytime you paddle near sea lions, the smell definitely clears your sinuses. On the way back to the beach, the emotion in the canoe turned to one of frantic excitement. A canoe was right on our tail and gaining. Our steersperson threw out words of encouragement, keeping us motivated and in time with one another. Her voice rose above the wind, reminding us why we were paddling.
Soon the beach was in sight. People were blowing conch shells, welcoming us home. Everyone on the beach was cheering us on – even people from other teams. That chorus seemed to pull us to shore. The canoe behind us was creeping up. We were nearly neck and neck, speeding towards the beach.
With a long distance race, the clock only stops as soon as a runner from one of the canoes jumps out and sprints through the finish line flags. I unzipped my spray skirt, and hopped onto the sand. My heart was willing every inch of me forward and my body struggled to obey. There is no feeling quite like finishing hard and giving your absolute best.
Someone told me that the people I meet in the canoeing club will be the best friends I’ll ever make in my life. I now know this to be true. Wherever I go, whatever I do, there will always be a family of people who love the ocean, the canoes, and, most of all, the history and culture behind the canoes. Respect each other. Respect the canoe. With that trust and respect, you will always come safely home.We beat the other canoe by five seconds! The other canoe sprinter and I hugged on the beach, both totally spent from the effort of the race. When I got my breath back,all I wanted to do was get back out on the water.
Written by: Melissa Ulrich