Everyday Adventures: Outrigger Canoeing

John Edwards thinks everybody deserves a good paddling.

"It's good exercise," he said. "Try it and you might like it."

Whoa! Stop right there.

Before you cancel your newspaper subscription, understand that this 53-year-old St. Petersburg man is talking about outrigger canoeing.

"I think if competitive paddle sports are going to continue to grow, people are going to have to start somewhere," Edwards said. "What better place than in an outrigger canoe?"

Edwards, a world-class paddler and former national champion, has been promoting competitive canoeing in Florida for more than three decades.

"When I started, I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "Back then you just went out and did it."

But while the sport of ocean kayaking has exploded in recent years, thanks primarily to the introduction of inexpensive, molded plastic, sit-on-top kayaks, interest in canoeing has remained relatively flat.

Traditional recreational canoes are well-suited for traversing rivers and lakes but are not as good in the ocean or bay.

South Pacific islanders, however, have long used canoes as their primary mode of transportation, navigating vast tracts of open ocean, because of a simple device known as an "ama" or outrigger, which kept the boat from tipping over.

While traditional outrigger canoes were made of wood and used for everything from commerce to war, the modern version is made of fiberglass and used only for sport. The typical outrigger canoe is 45 feet long, weighs 400 pounds and carries six paddlers.

Hawaii long has been considered the mecca for outrigger canoeing. The islands have more than 100 clubs and still host the world's most competitive races. But the sport spread to California, and about five years ago, to Florida.

In a 6-man outrigger, teamwork is the key. The paddler in the bow (No. 1) sets the pace. The No. 2 and No. 4 spots paddle on the opposite side as the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 5 paddlers. The No. 6 paddler, usually the captain, steers from the stern. In a 6-man team, the paddlers must stay synchronized, or the boat will lose speed. On a 2-man team, however, mistakes are obvious because there is nobody else to blame.

"There are probably 10 boats in the state right now," said Edwards, who co-owns four outriggers. "It is starting to get competitive."

Edwards' club, Outrigger Outreach, welcomes paddlers of all skill levels or degrees of physical fitness. He knows every sport has a learning curve, and to prove the point, he likes to tell the story about his tryout for the U.S. Olympic team.

"It was 1976 and I had been paddling canoes for a few years," he said. "I could paddle fast, but I hadn't quite figured out how to paddle hard."

The light, C1 (single canoes) are notoriously tippy. One false move and over you go.

"I was tied for first place, and about 50 feet from the finish I tried to give it everything I had," Edwards said. "The canoe took off; the problem was that I wasn't in it."

The incident taught Edwards a valuable lesson. "Everybody has to start somewhere," he said.

As the driving force behind the Florida Competition Paddlers Association (FCPA) and a representative of the Florida Sunshine State Games, Edwards has worked hard to bring more people into the sport he loves.

"But the numbers aren't growing," he said. "You see the same people in it year after year."


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