Jericho Canoe Club's senior masters crew prepared to practice off Kailua Beach with a borrowed outigger canoe from Kailua Canoe Club. The crew consists of mostly paddlers from Vancouver, B.C.

Canadians seek

These guys tote "sticks" and share the accent of hockey players -- at least the ones from Canada.

But this team's sticks are used to pull water rather than slap pucks; its members prefer the open ocean to the frozen rink. Known as Jericho, this is three crews' worth of dedicated and ambitious Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddlers. ... Yes, the ones from Canada.

Hawaii Modular Space Molokai Hoe race

What: 52nd annual Hawaii Modular Space Molokai Hoe, men's outrigger canoe race

When: Tomorrow, race starts at 7:30 a.m. with first finishers expected around 12:30 p.m.

Where: 41-mile crossing of the Kaiwi Channel starting at Hale O Lono Harbor, Molokai, and finishing at Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki

Who: An international field of more than 100 teams expected, including representatives from Hawaii, the mainland, Australia, Tahiti, New Zealand, Italy and Canada

How: Koa and fiberglass canoes, with nine-person crews, six men paddling at a time, rotating with open-ocean changes in Open, Masters 35-and-older, Masters 45-older and Masters 55-older (12-man teams)

"Outrigger canoeing in Canada has just grown exponentially -- just gone nuts -- in the last five years or so," said Melanie Whittall, a Canadian manufacturer of solo canoes and owner of an online paddling store. Whittall also serves as a support coach for Jericho. "It's appealing: a bigger boat, working with a team, the distance aspect. And we live on the water, too."

"I remember the first race I did there were three or four canoes," said Jericho paddler and coach Gabe Somjen, who started with outriggers in Canada 15 years ago. "Now, sometimes there are over 40. That's pretty good."

Canada actually has a rich paddling history, starting long ago with its native Indians and continuing more recently with flat-water sprinting in kayak-type vessels. Paddling with open-ocean outriggers is a comparatively new sport for these Canucks -- but it's one to which a growing number of them are showing the highest dedication.

Practicing year-round, wearing fleece vests and stroking in pitch dark during the short days of winter, Jericho, formed just more than a decade ago, is a strictly outrigger organization based in Vancouver. The club is in Hawaii for tomorrow's 52nd annual Hawaii Modular Space Molokai Hoe, a 41-mile race from Molokai to Oahu across the treacherous Kaiwi Channel that's considered the world championship of long-distance outrigger canoe paddling.

Rai, of Tahiti, is the defending champion. Team New Zealand/Hawaii, the 2001 champ, is another favorite, having dominated the Hawaii events leading up to this year's Molokai Hoe. An international field of more than 100 crews is expected to participate, including Team Italia, a crew of Italian nationals living in the U.S. and in Italy.

"We paddle all year long specifically with the idea of doing well at this race," said Paul McNamara, the club commodore and men's coach, as well as the steersman for Jericho's top open division crew. "We've been kind of the dominant club in Canada for the last five years, but we'd obviously like to do well here, too."

Seventeen clubs comprise the Canadian Outrigger Racing Association, but besides Jericho only a single crew from False Creek Racing, also based in Vancouver, will race tomorrow. For Jericho, this will be the ninth time it has participated in the last 10 years.

And this club has done well -- not just in Canada. Last year, out of 106 crews, Jericho secured its best-ever men's result with a No. 16 finish in the open division, the 18th boat to cross overall. Just two weeks ago in the Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the women's world championship, Jericho finished fourth in the open, sixth overall -- best ever for a Canadian team in either race.

"The pressure's on," said McNamara. "The standard has been raised."

The club has brought two open crews to this year's Molokai Hoe, as well as the first senior masters (45-older) crew to represent Canada -- or, basically, almost all of the 30 or so male paddlers in the 60-person club. Because not everyone could make the trip to Hawaii, the senior masters is actually a composite crew of six Jericho, one False Creek and two Mountain Home (Portland, Ore.) paddlers racing under the Jericho name.

The goal for Jericho's top open crew is to finish among the top 10 overall. All but one of its nine members has competed in the race before, with McNamara having the most experience in going for his 10th consecutive crossing (he paddled with a California club the one year Jericho didn't participate). "We have good quality paddlers for this race," McNamara said.

The other two Jericho crews -- with many rookie Molokai Hoe paddlers -- are simply gunning to race as well and as quickly as they can. Not that they're slouches, though: The senior masters went undefeated in local competition this year.

According to Jericho members, their two biggest challenges during the race will be the heat and wave action -- two things they just don't experience regularly back home in Vancouver. But the open crews arrived in Hawaii two weeks ago and the senior masters a week ago to better cope with these concerns.

Right now, "there's definitely excitement, anticipation," said Stu McMaster, the lone Molokai Hoe rookie on the first-string open crew. "I started (preparing for) this in January, and each one of us has put in a lot of hours, in the water, training. ... We had a goal in mind ... to put a strong crew together for this year's race. If we placed in the top 10, that would be quite an accomplishment."

Said Peter Forand, a senior masters member and another first-time participant: "This is the Super Bowl of paddling. The excitement is mind-blowing for us. This is our Holy Grail."


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