Not just your average boat race


KENT ISLAND -- Cannon fire starts the sprints, and a man-made volcano erupts with steam when competitors cross the finish line -- cheered on by people wearing flowered shirts and leis.

This is boating with flair.

This is Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing.

People from Connecticut to Florida gathered at the Kent Island Yacht Club yesterday for the second of two days of outrigger canoe competition, celebrating a sport that traces its origins back 30,000 years but that found its way to the East Coast less than a decade ago.

These aren't the canoes most Americans have seen. They're longer - 43 feet long -- and thinner--just 17 inches wide. Attached to one side of each canoe is an 'ama,' a float that keeps the skinny craft from tipping over.

The 400-pound canoes hold six people, all of whom paddle.

"You have to be ready for anything ... There's always an element of surprise," said Coralie Miller of Falls Church, Va., whose crew won the women's long-distance race Saturday. "The water can change. The weather can change. Something can go wrong-- someone can fall off, the paddles can break. Every race is different even if you're doing the same course."

This weekend's competition was the third held by the Kent Island Outrigger Canoe Club and the largest so far, drawing 27 crews.

Saturday was the serious day, when the crews competed on a race course of about 13 miles. Yesterday was for fun, as children raced each other and adults.

And if the races didn't start exactly at the time announced, well, no one complained.

"In this sport, everyone operates on Hawaii time," said Debbie Hall, a club member, with a laugh. "If you say 10, it'll start 10:30, 11."

Children raced in quarter-mile sprints yesterday, with an adult steering each canoe as a safety measure. Organizers cued the 5-and-one-half-foot "volcano" that sat on the pier whenever one of the crews passed the finish line, marked by pennants.

In one boat were "the paddling Atchisons,- four siblings from Upper Marlboro, competing in their first outrigger canoe race. They raced in a yellow and teal canoe borrowed from the Kent Island club.

"It's fun, and it's different," said Harrison Atchison, 13, before his crew paddled to third place in its heat. "I like doing stuff other kids don't regularly do."

Their mother, Corinne Atchison, thinks her kids are hooked. They practice every weekend, and their sights are set on some day, some way, canoeing in Hawaii.

"It's a great sport for families because it's a team sport," she said.

Although they are experienced kayakers, the winners of the children's race were competing in outrigger canoeing for the first time. Ranging in age from 13 to 16 -- some from Washington and others from Arlington, Va. -- they leaned into their strokes and clocked in at 1 minute, 6 seconds.

Then they took on two experienced adult teams in a mile race and won that, too. The teen-agers hauled their canoe out of the water, shook their heads and said they couldn't believe it.

"I thought it was going to be a bloodbath," said Nick Carver, 14, of Arlington.

The team of adults had a dog on board.

"She's our seventh [member], our secret weapon," said Caroline Brosius of Washington, who owns Gertrude, a 7 1/2 year-old Jack Russell terrier. "She comes on all the fun races."

Competitors credit Blake Conant, president of the East Coast Outrigger Racing Association, with bringing the sport to this part of the country. Originally from Hawaii, he formed a club in New England five years ago.

"From there, it just grew," said Conant, 46, whose crew won the men's long-distance race Saturday.

He said he thinks the connection to Hawaiian culture helps fuel interest and that the laid-back, welcoming atmosphere doesn't hurt, either.

Margaret Coulombe, a scientist who lives in Washington, said the canoe itself won over members of the National Capital Area Women's Paddling Association.

"Everybody immediately fell in love with it,' said Coulombe, who says the sport has "the spirit of aloha" -- making a person feel welcome.

Coulombe raced in Hawaii three years ago. Yesterday - wearing a blue hat with the message "I canoe" -- she described long-distance events that exhaust the paddlers, make them see stars and have them wondering if the end will ever come.

But finishing is worth it.

"Then you're so glad you did the whole thing," Coulombe said of the feelings of accomplishment and pride.

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