Twin Ports residents find the fun in outrigger canoeing

We're humming now. The 40-foot sliver of yellow cleaves the water of the Duluth harbor. Six of us paddle in perfect synchrony. A stroke almost every second.

We're humming now. The 40-foot sliver of yellow cleaves the water of the Duluth harbor. Six of us paddle in perfect synchrony. A stroke almost every second.

"Hut!" cries Diane Kivisto of Superior from Seat Four.

We finish that stroke and all shout "Ho!" on the following stroke. Then, without missing a beat, we all switch paddling sides in unison. Silence falls across the crew as we bend to our work.

All we hear is the dipping of blades, the dripping of our return strokes and the gurgle of the outrigger parting water on our left.

This is outrigger canoeing, an activity borne of necessity in the Polynesian islands thousands of years ago. Specifically, this is OC-6 paddling -- six paddlers seated single-file in an outrigger canoe. Boats of this design and size allowed Polynesians to explore and settle distant islands.


Now used for recreation and sport, outrigger canoeing has hopped from the Hawaiian islands to southern California to Duluth. More and more Twin Ports paddlers are discovering the joy of OC-6 paddling, offered under the auspices of the Duluth Boat Club.

"It's a scream," says Duluth's Peg Apka, setting the pace from Seat One in our boat Tuesday night. "We can't get enough of it."

She and her husband, Jim Suttie, are regulars on outrigger evenings at the harbor.

"If someone comes more than once, they're pretty much hooked," Apka says.

The boat clips along beneath two ragged ribbons of Canada geese and against a backdrop of grain elevators. We zip past a sleepy sailboat that bobs at its mooring.

"Let's do a 'Power 20' after the next switch," shouts Craig Lincoln, our steersman in Seat Six.

"Hut!" Kivisto calls.

"Ho!" the paddlers shout.


And Lincoln counts out the first few power strokes. Each of us can feel the slight acceleration, the lift and surge of the boat on each stroke. At 20, we drop back to our regular pace, and the boat finds its sustainable 5 mph groove. We could do this forever, it seems. We could make Two Harbors by midnight, Isle Royale in another day.


Duluth's first outrigger canoes arrived in 2003, when Ron Deters went looking for them as program director for the Duluth Boat Club. Dragonboat racing had become popular, but buying a dragonboat for practice proved too pricey. He figured outrigger canoeing would allow paddlers to train as a team, then transfer their skills to the dragonboats a few days before the annual races.

He found these "malia"-style used boats at an outrigger canoeing club in California. They resemble the long, narrow dugout canoes you've seen in magazines. Well, except that these are made from fiberglass and are painted a bright yellow. Each weighs about 400 pounds.

Two laminated arcs of wood (called iakos in Hawaiian) are lashed to the boat and reach out to a short fiberglass outrigger called the ama. The boat would be far too unstable to paddle without the ama, and even with it, paddlers must be conscious of keeping the ama on the water. Every outrigger paddler learns early to "honor the ama."


Outrigger canoeing requires little in specific skills or gear. You can paddle one with the same bent-shaft paddle you'd use in the Boundary Waters. You sit up on a comfortable seat. And unlike dragonboat paddling, you switch sides every 15 or 20 strokes. Beyond that, it's just a matter of staying on pace.

"Making a big boat move along with six paddlers is fun," says Duluth's Lynn Quenemoen after Tuesday night's paddle. "I like the workout and the camaraderie."


The team aspect seems to appeal to many paddlers. Something about the timing and the precision is reminiscent of singing in a choir or playing in a marching band. And each paddler can find his or her own level of effort.

"What's incredible about it is how stable and comfortable they [the boats] feel," Lincoln says. "You're not getting a lot of rocking back and forth. Anybody can sit in them and feel comfortable and paddle and have a good time."

"You don't have to speed up the pace to work harder," paddler Pam Lincoln of Duluth says. "To get a better workout, you just increase the power of your stroke."

Deters sees other advantages in paddling outriggers.

"One of the great things about outriggers is you can get out on water you can't get out on, or wouldn't be relaxed on, in a canoe," he says.

The big boats handle waves well. In Hawaii and California, outrigger canoes are used to "surf" incoming waves in much the same way surfers do.

It's possible to huli -- the Hawaiian word for flipping your outrigger canoe. When the word huli comes up among local paddlers, it is often followed closely by the term "M & Ms." It seems that Suttie, a well-built guy, reached from one boat to another -- away from the ama -- to grab some M & Ms during a break on the water.

His boat immediately flipped, dunking Suttie and all of his companions.


Honor the ama. Even over M & Ms.

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