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Outrigger Canoe Paddling

Outrigger Canoe Paddling on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam

By Reid Tokeshi
Photos by Theresa Valadez
(This story originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of the Great Life Hawaii magazine)

Imagine this…you’re sitting in a narrow canoe, maybe two feet wide.  The only way to propel it through the water is you and your team, using 3-ft long paddles.  You need to be in sync or the canoe will slow down or won’t go straight.  You’re using muscles in your arms, shoulders, back, abdominals and legs.  All this, and it’s FUN.  That’s a session of recreational outrigger canoe paddling.  The best part about it is you can make it what you want, an intense workout or a relaxing time on the water with family or friends.

I’ve noticed Recreational Outrigger Canoe Paddling in the Outdoor Recreation section of the Great Life Hawaii magazine for a long time and was always curious.  Tourists sign up for it in Waikiki as an “only in Hawaii” experience.  They see it as fun in the sun, with unique photo opportunities.  As someone who grew up in Hawaii, I’ve always seen canoe paddling as an official sport and a tie to the island culture.  Friends who have competed tell me it’s an effective form of exercise.  I don’t like running and am not a ‘gym rat’ so the hunt for activities that combine fun and exercise is ongoing for me.  I decided to take the plunge for a session at Rainbow Bay Marina.

Instructor Scott “Scotty” Hee has been canoeing for a long time and says outrigger canoe paddling can indeed be good fun and exercise at the same time.  It all depends on what kind of customers he has that day.  “Some people want to take it seriously.  Sometimes I just make it fun and easy.  I adjust depending on the people.”

As an example, Scotty also teaches the PT canoeing every weekday morning for active duty commands.  “I make it a little harder for them.  I work them hard because it’s physical training and they like that because they’re competitive.”  He says the more experienced paddlers in the recreational classes also like to be pushed more. 

In contrast, Scotty has also taken out groups who are just looking for fun.  He recently took a whole family of more than 10, which included visitors from the mainland.  “They like it better that way because it’s good to keep the family together,” says Scotty.  “I say the family that paddles together stays together.”

Now, when I arrived on a sunny Friday morning I was surprised how many others were there.  It turns out this activity is one of those that not many people are aware of, but is really popular with the ones in the know.  There were almost 20 people ready and waiting to jump in and get paddling.  Normally there is only about six people in a canoe, so how were they going to accommodate all these eager patrons?  Fortunately, “Scotty” had help on this day (normally he’s alone) and it turns out the marina has a variety of canoes.  They were using two double-hulled canoes today, each able to hold up to 12 paddlers.  Scotty would later tell me they have smaller canoes available when there’s less people.

Scotty gave a short lesson to the group covering what they need to know before getting in the water:  how to hold the paddle, the proper stroke, how to work as a team, etc.  As mentioned earlier, you need to be in sync with the other paddlers to be effective.  Scotty then broke the group up into two teams, pairing up the rookies and veterans equally so each canoe had an even distribution.

It shortly turned into a “what did I get myself into?” moment when it was revealed that most of my fellow paddlers are regulars who do this not only for the exercise, but as a social activity.  That, combined with there being two canoes in the water meant one thing:  they want to race.  As a group, we helped lift and push the canoes into the water.  I, the newbie took a seat near the back of the canoe so I could watch and follow my more experienced team members.  Scotty got the two canoes lined up, then called out to start and we were off.

As we raced towards a buoy in the distance, I was frankly a liability.  My timing was off and it looked more like I was just a kid splashing around instead of paddling.  But something interesting happened when we started racing towards the second buoy: I actually started to get the hang of it (if just a little).  My paddle wasn’t flailing around as much, I was using my legs more and I felt a little more in sync with the rest of the canoe.  The saying “experience is the best teacher” proved to be true.  Still a newbie for sure, but I wasn’t embarrassing myself as badly as when it began.

We spent a little more time on the water before eventually heading back to shore.  I was a little surprised how far we went out in that short time.  It took a bit of paddling to get back and as we pulled the canoes ashore I could feel that my muscles got a workout.  More importantly, I could see why the others come back again and again.  This was fun and you don’t have to be competitive to enjoy it.

Katie Korka, whose husband is active duty Navy, has been in Hawaii for three years and paddling for a little over a year.  She says, “I’m sorry I didn’t discover it right away, or I’d be doing it for all three years.  It’s great exercise.  It’s doing something that traditional Hawaiians do.  There’s a lot of camaraderie associated with it.” 

If you’re looking for a workout, Katie says, “You get out of it what you put into it.  It can be very challenging, but you have to do it right.  You’re getting core, arm, leg, the whole thing.  I think it’s great exercise.”

Katie’s part of a group of friends that come regularly, but she adds part of the fun is also meeting new people and bringing them on board.  She’s had friends who were here years ago return for vacation and take part in the paddling.  “There’s an older couple that comes back every year, it’s really neat.”  Scotty shares similar experiences of patrons coming back a few years later when they’re in town, humbly saying “They must have liked it.”

Katie says Scotty is a big reason why customers return.  “He is awesome.  He’s very encouraging, he wants to teach you the right way to do it.  There’s a lot of moving parts and practice.  He doesn’t mince words.  He lets you know if you’re doing something wrong and how to correct it.”  Because her group is more experienced he pushes them a little more.  “If the boat isn’t efficient because we’re all chatting and not really working together he’ll scold us for that but nicely and gently,” says Katie.

What if you’re like how I was, curious but not sure?  Katie says, “You won’t know unless you try.  I encourage anybody to try at least once.  It’s good exercise, it’s good fun.  You’re not going to have much opportunity to do this anywhere else in the world.  This is a Hawaiian thing.”  She also suggests bringing a buddy so you won’t be uncomfortable.  Plus, once the two of you get hooked, you’ll push each other to continue.

Scotty echoes Katie’s sentiment.  “There’s a lot of people that are scared to do it but I tell them just try it.  Once they try it they keep coming back.  I always ask if they had fun and they say they enjoyed it because it’s so different.”  Even people who don’t know how to swim and are scared to even touch the water have tried it.  “I give them a lifejacket, tell them don’t worry, they’re safe, and all it takes is one time, they come back.  It’s amazing to see their face, they’re so happy.”

Scotty adds, “It’s about learning to work together.  In the canoe, it’s not all about paddling and exercise.  It teaches you how to work with people, get along and do the same.  Whatever you have on land, you don’t take it out in the canoe.  In the canoe you just want to be one.”

Recreational Canoe Paddling is offered every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.  Because Scotty often works alone, space can be limited and he feels bad when he has to turn people away.  Scotty suggests signing up for a private group session.  It can be scheduled in advance and helps ensure your group doesn’t get turned away. 

“Go to the OAC (Outdoor Adventure Center) at the Fleet Store, and let them know the date, time and how many people,” says Scotty.  Private groups can go out any time before 1 p.m. Monday-Friday that doesn’t conflict with the normal PT or Recreational sessions.  Minimum participants for a private group is only four, maximum is 11 and some advance notice is required.  No experience is necessary and it is open to 10 years and older.  Some restrictions may apply so Scotty recommends talking with the OAC staff if you have any questions.

For more information on Outrigger Canoeing sessions, check out the current issue of Great Life Hawaii magazine, visit the Outdoor Adventure Center call 808-473-1198 or visit

UPDATE:  Outrigger Canoeing is now also available at Hickam Beach on select Fridays from 8:30-9:30am for ages 10 and up.  Call 808-449-5215 for more information.




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