Local club hosts successful world championships

Fifteen years ago, John Roberts bought two outrigger canoes and started paddling them on the Glenmore Reservoir. Outrigger canoes are easy to spot: unlike Canadian-style canoes, they have lateral support floats attached to one or both sides of the boat’s hull.

Outrigger paddling in the open ocean is a popular activity in places such as Hawaii and Tahiti. The fact that Calgary is a landlocked city didn’t deter Roberts.

Eager to find others interested in paddling with him, Roberts established an outrigger program at the Calgary Canoe Club. Today, the club boasts a dedicated contingent of outrigger paddlers who range in age from 16 to 72 years old.

Although it may seem strange to see ocean canoes on the water in Calgary, Roberts said one of the greatest appeals of the boats is that they are very versatile.

“Outriggers are the pontoons on the sides that keep a boat stable so you can go in big ocean waves,” Roberts said.

“We’re not near the ocean, but the canoes are still great for around here because they are beautifully safe boats. They don’t tip over like a lot of canoes do. Yet they are fast and challenging boats to paddle.”

City hosts successful world championships

A testament to how far the sport of outrigger canoeing has come in Calgary came this past August when the Canoe Club successfully hosted the 2012 Va’a World Sprint Championships. Over 1,100 paddlers from 18 countries and regions took part in the five-day event held on the Glenmore Reservoir.Canadian outrigger paddlers take part in a race on the Glenmore Reserviour.

Photo by Karry Taylor

Among the 250 paddlers representing Canada, 40 were members of the local outrigger program. Although Roberts was unable to compete as planned due to a shoulder injury, he was instrumental in organizing and bringing the event to Calgary.

Renata Martin, one of the local competitors, said that while participating in outrigger races is exciting, she also finds a lot of enjoyment in training.

“The Glenmore Reservoir is just a gorgeous place to paddle,” Martin said. “It’s a great way to stay in shape and do something you enjoy.”

Roberts said that while it may seem odd that Calgary was chosen as the host city of a championship that is typically held in places such as Fiji and Samoa, the Glenmore Reservoir was an ideal venue. He said this is because for sprint races it can be difficult to set a fair course in the ocean over short distances.

“You have big waves, a lot more wind and different water depths,” Roberts said. “We have an amazing facility here with sheltered, relatively uniform water. So it was a natural for us to host it.”

Roberts said that hosting the world championships has provided the sport with an opportunity to become better known, not just in Calgary, but across the country. He also says it will leave an important legacy for the future of local paddlers.

“I see joy in the faces of our junior competitors who have now discovered that there is a world of paddling that they didn’t know about — it’s a very big world,” Roberts said.

He added that part of the appeal of outrigger canoeing is that it is has an element of glamour.

“I’ve raced outriggers in Tahiti, New Zealand and Hawaii, as well as on the Thames River in England,” Roberts said.

“It’s a world-wide sport and is much more exotic than traditional style canoeing.”

Sense of community

While Roberts estimates that the outrigger program at the Calgary Canoe Club has about 70 current participants, he said over 500 people have gone through the program over the past 15 years.

“We have a core group who has kept racing,” Roberts said. “This past spring, we took 30 people to Maui for a spring training camp.”

“It’s a small but very dedicated group.”

Terms commonly used in outrigger canoeing derived from Polynesian and Micronesian languages:

  • ama: the outrigger/float
  • hoe: paddle
  • pikao: hull
  • wa’a kaukahi: single-hulled canoe
  • wa’a kaulua: double-hulled canoe

In addition to canoes designed for single paddlers or pairs, there are also six-person outrigger canoes. As well, two of the six-person boats are often rigged together, catamaran-style, to form a double canoe with 12 seats. Roberts says the bigger boats turn outrigger canoeing into a true team sport.

“It’s a very big deal to try to get six people to be a crew, as opposed to a one- or two-man race,” Roberts said. “That team aspect attracts people and brings a great sense of camaraderie into a club.”

Outrigger racing also provides a unique opportunity for participants to race in the same boat with paddlers of different ages, sexes and abilities.

“It’s amazing when you get out on a boat with a mixed group,” Roberts said. “Once you are in the boat, you are just one paddler on the team.”

Martin adds that the relationships she has built up through paddling have become very important to her.

“It’s just such a great community. It feels like a family,” she said. “Once people start paddling, they don’t seem to leave. Many of us have been involved for years.

“I feel like it’s the best kept secret in Calgary.”

Weather permitting, the Calgary Canoe Club operates on the Glenmore Reservoir from May 1 to Oct. 31.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca