It's a bright, windy day, and the Atlantic Ocean is choppy with four- to six-foot swells. On the beach are gathered about a dozen members of the Las Olas Outrigger Canoe Club, and five of them are going to brave high tide to get a Hawaiian outrigger on the water. The key is timing the rush into the ocean to avoid incoming waves. When the paddler at the stern gives the go-ahead, the crew hauls the boat into the water at a dead run, jumps into the seats, and begins paddling. Because of the day's conditions, the people in the bow get wet first as a large wave crashes, leaving the middle paddler bailing furiously. Beyond the breakers, though, the stroking becomes fun, and the view is beautiful.
John Gage, the wacky leader of this enterprise, isn't a stickler for form or rules. After living there 20 years, Gage left Hawaii because, as he says, "there were too many experts." When he dipped his paddle into the Atlantic six years ago, the canoe he used was a little different from its Pacific counterpart. For one thing, the longboats Gage now uses are made of carbon epoxy, lighter than the fiberglass or wood from which most others are made. Gage's boats are also one inch longer than the standard 44-foot boat. Why? "So they're longer," he states with a smirk. (Though a watercraft is traditionally referred to as "she," a canoe is more often personified as a male -- something to do with the shape, perhaps.)
The crews race other Florida clubs regularly but paddle mostly for fun. On Saturday mornings about 30 people participate, and on Wednesday evenings about half to two-thirds that number show up. Two canoes venture out in 20-minute shifts, allowing everyone to take a turn. At the moment the Wednesday-evening excursion coincides with high tide, and sometimes just getting the boat out seems like an intrepid or a foolhardy decision, depending upon where you draw your line in the sand.
The Las Olas Outrigger Canoe Club
Fort Lauderdale beach opposite Oasis Caf, 600 Seabreeze Blvd.
Wednesdays at 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. At the moment paddling is free, and all equipment is provided, though a $50-per-year membership fee goes into effect shortly. Call 954-525-3059 for more information.
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