August 09, 2019

Last week I was fortunate to have received the blogpost below from SCORA (Southern Californai Outrigger Racing Association) regarding their 60th anniversary.  Though I have been paddling for 31 years, I have never heard about this piece of history before.  Mahalo to all of those who have come before us and to those you continue to keep the community of outrigger alive.   

- Meg Chun, KIALOA 


The first outrigger coach in California was Noah Kalama. Infamously known as “Grandpa”. That term was rightly bestowed upon him because he had several relatives paddling for him at the time.

Before coming to California, he lived in, Kaimuki, Oahu. He had a very successful paddling career with Waikiki Surf Club, one of the formative clubs of the era 1945-1965. He also coached Kalea Canoe Club on the Windward side of Oahu. His other talents were body surfing, being the winning champ of several bodysurfing events. Slow work conditions, in Hawaii, made it possible for him to move to California for there was a building boom going on in Orange County in the fifties. Some outrigger sport promoters asked if he would want to also coach a California outrigger team composed of surfers and lifeguards when he came up. Through some help of the promoters, he got together a collection of some 14 paddlers. There were two outrigger canoes shipped up a couple of months prior to the chosen date of September 20th, 1959, for a race across the Catalina Channel.

It was a conversation of a paddleboard competitor and one of those promoters that got things rolling for this sport in California. Tommy Zahn, the paddleboarder that had paddled the in Molokai Channel race on a special paddleboard, in 1953. After that race he had several conversations with outrigger promoter Toots Minvielle, in regards to seeing if any California surfers or lifeguards would be interested in paddling racing outriggers. Tommy started his lifeguard career in Santa Monica where he grew up. During those years he took up surfing and paddleboard racing. That racing gave him the desire to travel to Hawaii in the late 40’s. While in Hawaii he joined the Waikiki Surf Club in the early 50’s and began participating in the various paddleboard races of that era. He also became a lifeguard in Waikiki, then. Tommy’s mentor was none other than Tom Blake, the famous surf inventor of the 20’s. It was TB’s stringent training regime that gave Tommy an edge over other competitors of the era.

Back on the mainland, in 1958, Tommy took a job with the Newport Beach Lifeguard Dept. It was through this job that Tommy had a conversation with the recently opened Newport Dunes Aquatic Park owner, Ira Dowd, that an event was starting to get organized. This timing also had significance in that Hawaii was just selected as the 50th state of the union. There was tremendous acceptance of this new exotic Polynesian island state. It was also Tommy’s participating in and winning a few Catalina Channel paddleboard races that got this race venue (the Catalina Channel) selected as our inaugural event.

So now we have a reader’s digest version of the actual beginning of the first year of outrigger “racing”, in California.

The early years had several regatta type events, that had short along the shore sprint races and a few medium distance events up and down the coastline. At first, the events took place between Newport Beach to Santa Monica locations until the 1970’s. Hawaiian teams would come over to compete in the Malibu to Santa Monica Race the weekend before the Catalina Race, until the mid-70’s.

Our early events were hosted/sponsored by restaurants, festivals and a few by sponsors. A few notable events were the Hermosa Surf Festival, Santa Monica International Surf Festival and the Long Beach Sea Festival, at those events we competed in mini-iron events and some regatta events. They were always sanctioned by the association and the Race Chairman and President were the contacts for each of these events’ logistics. During those days we were competing in up-to 15 weekend events a season. 

Women’s teams got an official event in regattas in 1963, then a single team crossed the Catalina Channel in 1971, but the ladies didn’t officially have a division in that event until 1980.

The regattas had a different draw in those times. We had 12 - 17 clubs attend them and you raced in experience compatible events, along with 14, 16, and 18 and under divisions for boys and girls. There were no master age divisions until the late 70’s. Each race weekend had an accumulative of points that went towards a State Championship award. Each event had up to 16 races that covered a 1/2-mile course with flag turns and lengths to extend the events longer as the day progressed through the more experienced paddlers. Until the 1980’s the canoes that were used were the Malia canoes built from the two molds in the area.  The race start was always watched with great commotion and then again at the turns, with each club declaring the unique ability that their club’s steersman had over the other crews. It came to a fevered pitch towards the final turn to the finish-line. Then the clubs would scurry their next team onto the water for another round of cheering. An occasional volleyball game would take place at the site. Clubs brought their own BBQ’s then, as there were no caters allowed. So, Kal-b ribs, hulihuli teri chicken, sticky rice and mac salad was in everyone’s camp. This was also too early for pop-up tents, so tent shades acted as the club’s central gathering spot. Within the tents, a few ukulele players would provide the background music along with a wash-tub base, again it was well prior to cassette or CD players, so we sang songs of the Hawaiian beachboy era. At the end of the day someone provide a backyard for a further gathering of get-togethers amongst the clubs. Each club had a few characters that usually created the usual mischievous activities that created discussions from the coaches the next workout day, about behavior at those events.

We’ll leave it up to the older individuals to give their side of those activities, because each time you hear them, someone else did the same thing at another time with the same outcome. Everyone has that ability to enhance the story or have creative license. Within this committee work we do not give tales of dime store adventure novels. That’s for the gossip column or Hollywood types. Or it won’t be on record.

At these coming events, grab a cold one and an elder and be prepared to be told the most glamorous tale that ever happened in the yesterdays. Make sure it was well before Facebook and selfies, cuz those weren’t documented.


Da Historical Hui

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