It’s just after 8 a.m. on a chilly Sunday morning in late March and the dock at the foot of Herald Street, just to the north of the Johnson Street Bridge, is buzzing with a few dozen paddlers eager to get out on the water.
Some, like Bob Randall, have been at this for years, and others are new to the sport, having just joined Victoria’s Latitude 48 Paddling Club. Coached by Melanie Conard and James Hill – two founders of the club – paddlers from 19 to 70 years of age launch four outrigger canoes into the waters of the Inner Harbour, with little more than a splash.
“This morning we’re heading out for our regular Sunday practice,” Conard says. “It’s gonna be about 12-14 kilometres long, which is a medium length practice.”
Randall chuckles: “Can we just emphasize it is the morning after St. Paddy’s Day? We’re very dedicated.”
Although the club started five years ago, it has seen some changes. This year’s crew has been paddling together for just over a year – long enough to clinch victories in three different races last weekend at the Crazy 8 Outrigger Canoe Race in Nanaimo.
“We’re in really good shape,” says Hill, who along with Conard is often found in one of the 6-seat boats the 40-person team practices and competes in.
The season is just kicking off, with races nearly every weekend through to late summer. This year, the goal is the Queen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race, the largest in the world held the last weekend of August in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“It’s pretty busy, it’s a big commitment,” Hill says of being a part of Latitude 48. “[But] it’s a sense of joy. You’re out there, you’re in your boat, you’re commuting with water, you’re taking part in all Mother Nature has to offer. The sky is blue, the sun is shining [and] the water is underneath you.”
The world of outrigger canoe is changing a lot right now, says Conard. Boats used to tip the scales at 400 lbs. but production has shifted to making carbon fibre “unlimited boats” that weigh in at just 170 lbs. that glide across the water much faster.
The Latitude 48 team is full of experience with members who come from a varied background of traditional canoeing styles. Marathon, voyager, First Nations canoeing, stand-up paddlers, dragon boaters, they’re all represented here, Randall says.
“It all kind of blends in to some degree to just being on the water, and being on the team,” he adds.
The team is competitive, but open to all paddlers.
“If you’re willing to commit and you want to do the training, and you want to get fast and you want to race,” says Conard, who refers to her fellow paddlers as “ohana” the Hawaiian word for family.
“For me it’s that place that you go that at the end of the day it feels great to be with these people,” she says.
Listen to James Hill describe outrigger canoeing here:
– With files from Arnold Lim