Wave Runners

It's a weekday evening, and John Gage and his buddies are going canoeing, which is a great way to go nowhere special. They're pushing off from the sand of Fort Lauderdale beach, hopping in their boat, and making a round trip from Oasis Cafe to BeachPlace, a journey of about a mile with no particular aim -- except to go canoeing.

But instead of paddling placidly along in a wide, flatbottom recreational canoe, they're skimming the waves at about eight miles per hour in something that has the same proportions as spaghetti. The Hawaiian-style outrigger is a whopping 44 feet, 8 inches long and outrageously narrow -- just 18 inches wide.

When Gage, a crew of four, and a novice newcomer set out in the six-seater made of super-strong, super-light Kevlar, the canoe's speed is surprising. At first the ocean water looks green, and the white, sandy bottom is visible. Moments later the shallow water has turned deep and dark blue. The bottom has vanished.

But a new paddler has little time to gawk at the scenery. It takes concentration to maintain the timing and placement of each stroke. If you're paddling on the starboard side (that's the right side of the boat to you landlubbers), the person in front of you is paddling on the port side. The paddler in the back steers, and every 15 or 20 strokes, the leader in front calls out, "Hut, ho!" signaling paddlers to switch to the opposite side.

"We switch because you exercise your right arm, then your left," says Gage, who founded the Las Olas Canoe Club after moving to Fort Lauderdale two years ago.

Indeed, getting in shape is a good reason to join. No motor. No sail. Just arms working like pistons. It's an exhilarating ride.

"Ideally I'd do this all day," says Gage, age 47, who lived for 20 years in Hawaii, where canoeing is popular. He builds canoes for a living, a job that makes him feel like a kid with really neat toys. But he doesn't want to be the only one who enjoys them. "As long as people fill my boats, I'll build more," he says.

He's certainly providing plenty of paddling opportunities. The club meets three times a week, is free, and requires no experience.

Every evening several trips are launched, each one designed for a specific experience level. Veteran club members with beefy shoulders and arms compete in grueling competitions, like a recent 12-mile race that took place in Boca Raton.

Tonight a seasoned crew has paddled to a red buoy near the horizon and returned out of breath -- but smiling. "That buoy is bigger than it looks," explains one of the club's original members, John Kee, a Wilton Manors resident in his mid-forties. "So it was farther away. We just kept paddling and paddling."

If you're new, though, you won't be paddling to Nassau and back. The journey to BeachPlace took about 15 minutes, a quick trip that not only made a novice a little queasy -- Gage says that disappears after about the third time on the water -- but made his arms sore. "We keep the trips short for beginners so you can get a good workout in a short amount of time," Gage says. "And, plus, when you're on the ocean, it's a distraction."

Maybe Susan Luria was looking for a distraction when she showed up at the meeting. The runner from Boca Raton, in her mid-twenties, is asking Gage about the safety of canoeing with the club. Gage tells her he often sees dolphins and sea turtles but hasn't spotted a shark so far. Only one person has ever been sick while in the canoe, he says, but accidents happen. "I'd say we capsize about 1 in every 20 times," he admits.

"Presuming I don't drown, I'll be back," Luria says before her inaugural trip. "I think I'm going to like it. I've done the rowing machines in the gym, so this won't be too hard."

Oh, yeah?

-- Steve Harrison

The Las Olas Canoe Club meets every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday at 9 a.m. at the northern end of Fort Lauderdale's South Beach, across the street from Oasis Cafe, 600 Seabreeze Blvd. Participation is free. For more information call John Gage at 954-525-3059.

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Steve Harrison