The Canoe is alive, sensate, surging. Its paddlers' strokes are not the smooth windmilling of kayakists but a downward punching and pulling, a stabbing and ripping that make the 44-foot, 400-pound craft pulse and throb. Six women from the Outrigger Canoe Club of Oahu are propelling the boat at 72 throbs per minute across the Kaiwi Channel in the annual outrigger race from Molokai to Oahu.
A six-foot swell angles in from astern. The paddlers sense the lift of the sea and drive the canoe down the blue slope, yelling as they surf for a moment. Not that this constitutes a rest. Traci Phillips, the two-time Olympic kayaker in the stroke's bow seat, keeps pounding out the pace, and the crew stays in forceful unison.
The island of Molokai has almost vanished in their wake, and Oahu is still a low, cloudy shape ahead. Flying fish, escaping something dark and cylindrical, explode from wave crests and skitter over the swells, gliding on fins of translucent purple. Phillips doesn't notice until one hits her on the arm. These paddlers are temporarily blind to beauty. They gasp and dig, concentrating only on holding their form, on pulling their weight.
They have paddled like this for almost three hours, and they will stab and rip for another three before completing the 40.8 miles from Molokai's Hale O Lono Harbor to Waikiki Beach. Yet no paddler need go all the way. Each women's team is allowed 12 members, twice as many as the canoe has scats. Every 20 minutes or so, an escort boat drops two or three relief paddlers into the ocean ahead. When the canoe reaches them, they duck under the outrigger struts and haul themselves into seats just vacated by winded teammates who have gone over the opposite side. It is all accomplished in the span of two or three strokes. Such crew changes make this race not a carefully paced marathon but a furious relay.
Down the wind come howls from Outrigger's closest pursuer, the Offshore Club of Newport Beach, Calif., which has won this race, the world championship of women's long-distance outrigger canoe paddling, the last six years. Offshore is a quarter mile back and gaining. A couple of Outrigger paddlers in the escort boat, studying the margin, seem near tears.
There are 27 canoes in the channel, but the red hull of the boat in third place is a speck on the horizon. The race is between Outrigger and Offshore.
Outrigger considers these waters its own, even though it has not won since 1985. Offshore has dominated the race with an all-star team powered by U.S. Olympians like Cathy Marino and Sheila Conover. "We're always intimidated by them," Malia Kamisugi, Outrigger's youngest paddler at 20, said before the race. "But this year we have our best chance in a long time."
That is because Outrigger has several former mainstays back after grad school or travel, including its own Olympian, Phillips. Among them are kayakists, triathletes, surfers, water polo and volleyball players. Overachievers all, they include a teacher, a graphic artist, a biology major, a practitioner of spiritual massage, a potter, a Special Olympics staffer and a fertilizer distributor. They are mothers to nine children.
They have been nudged into a team by their coach, Steve Scott, a manufacturer of sandals and sportswear. Scott is blond, pink and quiet, a sea-smoothed rock among the frantic athletes on the Outrigger escort boat. "Offshore's gaining about 20 seconds a mile," he says. "It's because they have their fastest combination in the canoe, and we don't. But I think we have enough of a lead. I don't want to cut this rotation short."
The swells are rising. Offshore is surfing them, its yells becoming predatory shrieks. Ahead, two of Outrigger's starting six leap into the sea ahead of their canoe. "Pay now," shouts Cathy Ho from the escort boat. "Pay now!"