Outrigger Ohana

by Oct 19, 2022North Brunswick, Sports

Centuries-old Hawaiian outrigger canoe culture inspires the members of Wrightsville Beach Outrigger Canoe Club.

Outrigger canoes, those long, slender vessels with a supporting side arm, were built to battle the open ocean, and humans have been using them in Polynesia for nearly 2,000 years. British explorer Captain James Cook reported seeing thousands of the strange canoes when he visited Hawaii in the late 1700s. Today, you can see members of Wrightsville Beach Outrigger Canoe Club (WBOCC) paddle six of them in the Intracoastal Waterway just off Wrightsville Beach.

Six paddlers provide the boat’s energy, three paddles on each side, each one joining the others to propel the canoe forward. Watching this ecstatic dance on water becomes a spiritual experience. The paddlers became the boat.

“Hut ho!” the middle paddler calls, and six paddles rise into the air with a beauty and precision that would be envied by any ballet corps. When the paddle is over, they carry their vessel back to shore and chant: Ekahi! ‘Elua! ‘Ekolu! Imua! Imua! WBOCC! (Translation: Ekahi! ‘Elua! ‘Ekolu! = 1, 2, 3; Imua = to move forward with strength.)

Paddle Outrigger Wrightsville Beach NC

The first outrigger canoe club in North Carolina, WBOCC was started in 2016 by families with ties to Hawaii, says Bernadette Burton, a founder, along with Emily and Rob Disroth, Reggie Barnes, Susan and Lou Devinish and Jarrod Covington. Covington owns Wrightsville SUP, a watersport rental company, and stores the outrigger canoes. The club has grown to more than 80 members, ranging in age from the 20s to the 70s.

Kerri Allen, manager of North Carolina Coastal Federation’s southeast office, got a taste of outrigger paddling when living in Hawaii and then rediscovered it in Wrightsville Beach.

“I was walking the Loop at Wrightsville Beach one day, saw the canoes and ran back to my office, where my boss told me about the club. I came that night to novice practice and never looked back,” she says.

Outrigger paddling is steeped in Hawaiian culture, and all commands are called in Hawaiian. The Hawaiian proverb Malama i ke kai, a malama ke kai ia ‘oe, which means “Care for the ocean and the ocean will care for you,” guides the paddlers.

“Malama means to take care of in Hawaiian,” Allen says, “We talk about taking care of our canoe, our community, the ocean. We’re all ohana, family.”

Wendy Smith, an original member of the team, found paddling to be “unlike any sport I had tried before.”

“With outrigger, you are completely at the mercy of nature, the winds, the tide and the swell of the ocean,” Smith says. “My favorite thing about paddling outrigger with my team is the unwavering ability for us six women to come together with one common goal to perform at our best in every practice to compete at the level we know we are capable of.”

Smith says she has traveled with her crew to California for the Catalina Crossing, Washington, D.C., for the National Outrigger Championship Race (4th place finish) and Dunedin, Florida, for the Shark Bite Race (1st place Mixed) and Cape Canaveral Ocean Regatta (3rd place mixed).

Paddler Barbara Costella says she’s involved because she loves all things water.  “If there is no motor involved that’s even better,” she says. “I moved here and a novice camp was starting two weeks later, so I signed up. I love kayaking and standup paddleboarding and I have also been on two adult rowing teams in Virginia.”

Peggy Daughtry remembers her first paddle out to the sea buoy. Looking back at Wrightsville Beach, she thought to herself, “How fortunate I am to live and enjoy such a beautiful place. I’ve met a wonderful group of people that I consider my second family.”

Smith agrees that teamwork is part of the allure of the club. “There’s a true sense or moment of awe at what you’ve just accomplished,” Smith says of her single canoe racing. “And as sweet as that feeling is when it’s just yourself, multiply that feeling times a thousand and that is the honor of sharing the paddling experience with your teammates, your sisters, your Wahine.” Some members of WBOCC, including Barbara Costella, Wendy Smith, Kerri Allen, Vicky Zubieta-Hunt, Peggy Daughtry and Bernadette Burton, also paddle with a group known as We the Water to tell the story of the North Carolina coast, from its threats and risks to its solutions and triumphs, and to show others how to protect and restore our beloved coastal environment.

Over the next three years, the club will paddle all 325 miles of the North Carolina coast advocating for clean water.

For more information:
Wrightsville Beach Outrigger Canoe Club, go to wbocc.com
To learn more about We the Water, go to facebook.com/wethewater

Photography by Eric Sills