N.Y. Outrigger brings spirit of Hawaii to the Hudson | East Villager & Lower East Sider

N.Y. Outrigger brings spirit of Hawaii to the Hudson

New York Outrigger members paddling up the Hudson River. Club members often go for paddles of up to 15 miles.  Photo by Eric Ratkowski

New York Outrigger members paddling up the Hudson River. Club members often go for paddles of up to 15 miles. Photo by Eric Ratkowski

BY LAUREN VESPOLI  |  Despite living on an island, few Manhattanites think of the Hudson and East rivers as prime locations for water sports. However, the members of New York Outrigger, the city’s only Hawaiian-style outrigger canoeing club, are trying to change this perception.

One Saturday afternoon in early June, nine novice paddlers gathered at N.Y.O.’s Pier 66 boathouse, at W. 26th St., for a tutorial in outrigger technique and a session on the water. N.Y.O. coach Will Chang explained the sport’s history and basic technique, as well as the Hawaiian terms for the canoe — the “wa’a” — and the outrigger — the “ama.”

The style of outrigger canoeing practiced by N.Y.O., in which the rigger is lashed to the left side of the boat, descended from a traditional form of Polynesian transportation. Historically, the boats were used to explore and eventually settle the islands of Southeast Asia, Polynesia and the Pacific. Now, the N.Y.O. team explores the waters of New York in six-person, double- and single-hull boats. Club members go for paddles as long as 15 miles, and occasionally pause to enjoy some of New York’s waterfront delights, such as lobster in Red Hook, Chang said.

There are two keys to mastering the outrigger paddling technique: pulling with your core, rather than your arms, and closely following the paddling rhythm set by the stroke, or the person in the first seat. And if you’d rather not swim in the Hudson, leaning left — toward the outrigger — is also crucial.

However, those basic tenets were easy to forget once we were out on the water. After crashing through the swells that had accumulated by the pier, once we were out on the Hudson it was hard to keep from staring up at Manhattan’s glittering towers. But any reverie was quickly broken by the demands of moving the boat. The successful movement of the boat relies on the synchronization of everyone in the canoe. All paddlers follow the stroke, while the sixth seat controls steering, and a designated caller signals when to switch paddling sides. In our boat, the signal was “Hi, hi, ho!” with the switch on “ho.”

New York Outrigger, founded in 1996, now boasts about 60 active members, according to club member Julie Ran. Ran, a public health professional, has been paddling with N.Y.O. for three years since discovering the club through a friend.

“In New York, it’s sort of a fascinating process,” Ran said. “We don’t know what day jobs we all have, but we are all working together [in the boat]. It’s a very equalizing sport.”

Chris Chan, who has paddled with N.Y.O. since 2010, discovered the club after reading about it in Time Out New York.

“I saw the article, and decided to come check it out,” he said.

Member dues, at $350 a year, provide the club’s funding. In the years that Chan has been with the club, he says membership has been relatively steady.

“But we’ll always welcome new people,” he said.

Most new members are introduced to the club through novice sessions like the one I attended, run by N.Y.O. volunteers from June to September.

“It’s our way to give back to the community,” Ran said. The novice session I participated in was a part of New York Outdoorfest, a 10-day festival that opened a variety of outdoor club activities across the city, in order to raise awareness of the surprising diversity of outdoor opportunities in New York.

When N.Y.O. is not paddling recreationally or leading novice sessions, some of its members race competitively, both on the East Coast and all over the world. In March, N.Y.O. members represented the club at an Australian race in Sydney Harbor. Outrigger canoeing is an endurance sport. Races are long — 15 to 20 miles — and take around two hours to finish.

However, Ran noted, “Most of the paddlers are recreational. They’re interested in the community aspect.”

New York Outrigger’s main mission is a simple one.

“For New Yorkers to feel more comfortable and to take advantage of the water,” he said. “Our long-term goal is to create a community of safe watermen.”

For those who’d like to learn more about the sport and culture of outrigger canoeing, N.Y.O. will host its own annual race, the Hawaiian Airlines Liberty Challenge, on Sat., June 21, at Pier 26. Crews from around the world will race on a 15-mile course that includes views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In addition to the race, N.Y.O. and Hawaiian Airlines are sponsoring a festival of Polynesian and Hawaiian culture, which will include dance and storytelling performances. If the spirit of ho’olaule’a (celebration), moves you, N.Y.O. will also be offering its popular free novice sessions.