Outrigger Canoe Surfing: A Sport With Utilitarian Roots

On the long rides in, antic maneuvers are encouraged. Beth Kauwe

    Outrigger canoeing is a big sport in Hawaii that brings, according to Jeremy Grosvenor, whose waterborne repertory is extremely varied, “all different ages, sizes, and shapes together to ride waves — it’s more of a community sport than surfing, where you have egos come into play.”
    The widely traveled Bridgehamptoner, who owns an outrigger canoe, which he has made available to the curious in the summertime at Montauk’s Ditch Plain, competed recently in an outrigger surfing contest — his first — on Kauai. During a conversation about it the other day, he said, “There are four of you in a 25-foot boat with an outrigger on one side, for balance, so you don’t flip. You paddle in unison, switching sides every 10 or 12 strokes. The person who makes the calls — the one who’s second from the front — says, ‘Ahut . . . hoe! Get ready . . . switch. . . .’ ”
    “I came to like outrigger canoeing ever since I worked with some anthropologists as a young man in Micronesia. The indigenous people in the Pacific have used them to move goods back and forth and to visit each other. Now that the sport has developed, the boats are of fiberglass, not hollowed-out koa trees, but it’s a sport with utilitarian, communal roots, and that’s why I like it I guess. . . . It’s really a neat way for everybody to come together to surf, to have fun.”
    Grosvenor said that “outrigger canoes can catch a wave way before a surfboard can. The boat turns as a surfer would as it approaches the beach, though, of course, while it’s more powerful, it’s not as maneuverable as a surfboard. And, as you’re gliding on a slow, feathering wave, you can do tricks. Someone might hold up a light woman with their hands, two people might stand up and stand on their heads. . . . It’s a very long ride, on waves that break farther out — you don’t come crashing up onto the beach.”
    The Canoe Surfing Challenge in Kalapaki — this was the sixth one — had, he said, become “pretty big. A friend of mine, Chris Kauwe, an amazing canoe surfer, put it on and asked me to come. When I got there he told me he was putting me in the event. There were 24 teams. They ran 15-minute heats with four boats each from an hour after sunrise until 5 p.m. . . . There were beginners on up to very, very accomplished water people. We made it to the semifinals . . . I paddled with three people from Kauai; they were nice to let me team up with them. I was very humble!”
    Born in Manhattan, Grosvenor has had a love affair with the water ever since his parents took him sailing to Rhode Island as a 7-year-old. “It was in 1977 — was that Hurricane Belle? — and I remember we were in Point Judith and how everything changed so quickly, from tranquil to very, very windy. That fascinated me. I remember as we were having dinner in a restaurant — my father and mother had secured the boat — seeing a toad hop away at a rapid pace. I think he knew something was up. . . . We got through it; the boat did, too. But that very dynamic weather — the sudden changes in the elements, in the pressure, the humidity, the temperature — left a lasting impression.”
    As a result, “this was a very easy place to come to,” he said, “with the rough ocean and the calm bay so close.”
    He had been in open water outrigger canoe races, as well, he said: “the big 32-mile race from Molokai to Oahu, which takes four and a half hours. It’s like a marathon, steady but fast. You’re reading the ocean all the time so that you know when to go faster, when to go slower. It’s very much about the poetry of the ocean. If the wave is steep you paddle faster, if it’s flatter you paddle slower. It’s really a fantastic way of being on the ocean.”
    It all led him to think he might like to hold a canoe surfing competition here, perhaps a small event this summer, and to follow that up with an outrigger canoe race to Block Island.