Hints of Hawaii Hit the Mainland

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Picture the opening of Hawaii Five-O: McGarrett looking tough, "Book 'em, Dano" chasing down a bad guy and a group of bare-chested Hawaiians paddling a funky-looking canoe down a breaking wave.

Now picture that canoe, actually a seagoing vessel called an outrigger, paddled by a group of men and women of various ages around the Statue of Liberty. That was the scene recently in New York, just one East Coast port city where a growing number of people are trying this newly trendy sport.

A traditionally Hawaiian sport in the U.S., outrigging is being taken up by athletes in places like Philadelphia, Connecticut and Virginia, where palm trees and coconuts are rare but thrill-seekers aren't. The sport is more popular and better established on the West Coast.

“It took root in about 1996 ... They started with one, two, three clubs with uncoalesced humans who loved the culture and the sport,” said Roger Meyer, founder of New York Outrigger. “From there, in the span of seven years, we have 40 clubs ranging from 15 to 100 members per club.”

More than 50 teams from places as varied as Hawaii, England, Germany, Australia and the East Coast competed in the seventh annual Liberty World Challenge last month. The six-person canoes followed a course down the Hudson River around the tip of Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge and back.

“I was amazed at how big [outrigger canoeing] is here,” said Jacy Youn, a 28-year-old Hawaii native who competed. “As long as they keep the culture alive and the spirit of the ocean, I think it’s great.”

Blake Conant, president of the East Coast Outrigger Racing Association, said it’s not the physical sport, but something more elusive that draws newcomers.

“I truly believe it’s the aloha spirit, and I mean that without being trite,” said the 49-year-old Hawaii native who lives in Connecticut. “These things are made of fiberglass. The paddles are made of carbon. Many people have never been to Hawaii and this is the closest they are going to get, but the fact is the sport breeds togetherness.”

Kristina Burns, a school psychologist from Fairfield, Conn., has paddled with a team for several years. She said the combination of community and competitiveness keeps her committed.

“I'm pretty competitive and the workout's good, but the teamwork keeps me going,” said Burns, 33. “Everyone kind of has the aloha spirit. It makes you feel like you are part of a larger community.”

Though she’s never visited the island state, Burns said she appreciates the laid-back Hawaiian style. “East Coast people move fast. The pace is faster than the West … [But] paddlers on the East Coast can appreciate the peace that’s part of Hawaii.”

In fact, the mystique of the tropics is partly what enthralls outrigger neophytes.

“In California and Hawaii, the sport is ho-hum. It’s like playing soccer or baseball,” Conant said. “The people on the East Coast are starry-eyed.”

And how do Hawaiians feel about mainlanders co-opting the tradition once practiced by the islands' kings?

“I think they welcome it," said Conant. "I grew up in Hanalei on the north shore of Kauai and the people are pleased as pink to see this sport growing on the East Coast."

Meyer, who is from Maine, said he’s mostly gotten support for his New York club -- despite some initial suspicion.

“There was that vein of, ‘Oh my God, New York has what could be the most popular outrigger race in the nation,’” he said. “They are a bit [apprehensive] about change, but luckily the sport is hung together by its millennia-old culture.”

So, what happens if a Hawaiian team loses to a group of guys from Boston who’ve never been to the beaches of Waikiki?

“Without exception, people would say ‘Hats off to these guys because they beat the best.’” So said Richard Lee, of the Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2006. "There's a little embarrassment involved there. The next year, they would work harder.”

Indeed, Youn seemed unfazed her team had lost to the Northeast Outrigger club in the Liberty Challenge. Instead, she said she was proud the Hawaiian culture was being celebrated all the way across the country.

“To have the aloha spirit in a city like New York, that’s great.”