Gloria Wesley photo
The weekend after Labor has always been one of canoe racing in the Davis household, and for the last few years, that has meant a trip to California for the Catalina Crossing. The Catalina race is a nine-man team, six-person outrigger canoe race between Newport Beach and Catalina Island. That’s roughly 30 miles of open ocean water. The ladies paddle out to the island on Saturday and the men paddle back to the mainland on Sunday. My husband, Mike, feels like he was born to ocean paddle and looks forward to this as one of the premier events of his season. I find it to be one of my trials.
Coming from a background of marathon canoe racing, ocean paddling provides a new set of challenges. We aren’t used to paddling on water that big. Compared to the small Michigan rivers, the ocean is vast and overwhelming. On the clearest of days, Catalina can be spotted from the mainland if you know where to look, but most of the time there is a part of the race where you can’t see any land. Riding ocean swells feels similar to riding waves on our lakes and rivers, but again, the scale is so much bigger. Without good anticipation for the way the wind and tide work together, a fun ride can turn into a swim in a hurry.
I haven’t even mentioned the biggest challenge: sharks! While this may seem insignificant to regular ocean goers, those of us who prefer the fresh coasts of the Great Lakes can hear the “Jaws” soundtrack playing in the background as we enter the water. Our support boat does not look sea worthy enough to handle a full-on attack, and we just hope that someone else has more appetizing-looking legs and feet. Maybe this isn’t really the biggest risk of the race, but it can easily get in your head. In each of my three crossings, sharks have been spotted.
Some things are the same no matter the craft or conditions. Training and preparation are huge in putting together a good race. Having a team that works together is the surest way to have a good finish, especially when we know we will have to make adjustments during the event. Eight of the nine paddlers on our team have limited outrigger paddling experience, and we know adjustments will have to be made in-race. While outrigger traditionalists are not a fan of the marathon stroke, it will get the job done and carry us efficiently to the finish line.
We race under a club from San Francisco called Hui Wa’a. Racing under an established club comes with many perks. First, we have an excellent coach in Hui Wa’a’s Mike Martinez. He has guided over 25 crossings and talks us all down from our fears of sharks or the ocean in general. He is the calm and steady in a race full of surprises. Hui also provides a nice unlimited (read fast) outrigger for us to race, with foot braces AND covers. Only one boat is needed for our two teams because we don’t race at the same time, which is a huge bonus for logistics. In addition, Coach Mike lines up a support boat and driver named Russell. When we jump into the water after a shift in the boat, Russell is an arm’s length away as soon as we come to the surface. He keeps all the racers safe, even in rough conditions.
Finally, Hui Wa’a gives us the key to a successful Catalina crossing: our steersmen. The steersmen typically race “iron” and stay in the whole race, while all other members switch in and out for different legs. Our steersman is Margaret Caudle from the San Francisco Bay area. She has a sixth sense for where we should be heading, even when all you can see is open ocean.
The rest of the team is made up of a rag-tag bunch of marathon paddlers from all over North America. Mike calls us “Rocky” because we look pretty good until you put us next to “Ivan Drago,” the California teams! We look undertrained and undersized compared to them but looks can be deceiving.
Saturday morning, the day of the women’s race arrives, and there is a nervous energy throughout the team.
Our women’s team is good at paddling but not at water changes. A water change is when three “extra” paddlers from the chase boat jump into the water, the outrigger paddles up and three paddlers jump out, while simultaneously the three extras climb into the outrigger. Good men’s teams can make a change in two strokes… our team was lucky to get all of the ladies in the boat in less than a minute.
In order to minimize the number of changes, many of us paddled for an hour straight. Instead of trying to maintain boat speed with three ladies paddling and three ladies struggling to get in, we would plan on stowing our paddles and pull the women out of the water if needed. After everyone was in, we then did a “race start.” We noticed in practice that this made our change-outs significantly faster.
At the start, paddlers aren’t allowed to change for the first 30 minutes, but we went longer to hopefully gain on the other changing teams. We had a great start off the line, but quickly fell back a little. Soon the support boats were zooming in close as other teams made the first change. This caused quite a bit of turbulence, but after 10 more minutes we were chugging along and finding our rhythm.
The first time jumping in the water is always a bit nerve-racking! As soon as I popped up I saw the support boat and climbed on – just in case there were any sharks in the area! I looked to the outrigger and all of the girls were paddling! This was a great water change for us. For the next half hour I refueled with water, Gatorade, cookies, peanut butter sandwiches and fruit, waiting to be called for the change.
As a team we really start to find our rhythm. We put distance on the teams behind us and are paddling mostly alone in sixth place. We don’t want the next team to catch us, so we don’t let up.
One more rest and my final shift is back to seat five. I can feel the fatigue of the race setting in and I just want to put my arms down, but knowing that we are close to the end, I push through. My number gets called again and I am out for the finish, but at this point it is a relief. A mixed team that caught us after starting 10 minutes back was battling to pass us in the last 10 minutes and our team wasn’t giving up. As we near the finish, the mixed team loses control and hits our ama, a dangerous situation especially with the men using our boat the next day. Our team quickly backs up and takes off again, just barely edging out the mixed team for an exciting finish! We held on to that sixth place.
After a night of fun on the island, I was in the support boat for the men the next day. The calm water in the morning turned choppy as the race moved along. Our elation at how the men are doing turns into despair as we watch our team outrigger tip over.
The first thing to do when the boat capsizes is to count people, then grab the paddles and bailers. After all of this is done, the men have dropped back to 14th place. It’s hard to tell where you are because teams are spread out on the ocean for a mile or more. They are happy with their 10th place finish but are ready to come back next year and show their true potential.
After the race, both teams meet up to load the canoe for its journey north and then head to the awards party to celebrate. The party is on the beach with live ukulele music, a cookout, beer tent and vendors selling all sorts of paddler goodies. I can definitely tell that I am not in Michigan anymore and soak up the atmosphere. Everyone leaves with a smile, a trucker hat and a sun tan. It always feels like the end comes too soon as we load into cars and head for the airport, promising to see each other next year.