No, that isn’t the marching cadence for a squad of ladies of the night. It’s the call for a stroke changeover in outrigger canoe paddling.
I write the Pinnacle Peak series, legal-themed mysteries featuring different sports. As part of my research, I’ve team-roped in a rodeo, bicycled across the country, and climbed mountains and buildings. Kayaking suited the story in my latest book, FALSE FORTUNE, enabling me to draw upon my experience surf ski paddling and outrigger canoe racing in Australia and Hawaii.
I didn’t set out to be an endurance athlete. After I retired as a plaintiff’s lawyer in my early thirties, I moved to Australia to embark upon a new career of vigorous loafing. Reading and travel, with an occasional jog on the beach or dip in the ocean, was the plan. But then a triathlete moved in next door. We went from exchanging greetings while retrieving the morning newspaper to swimming, cycling, and running together. Weight training and yoga were added to the mix. I had the vigorous right; time to work on the loafing. But then I fell for yet another sport.
Even though I grew up within sight of the ocean, paddles were for swatting Ping-Pong balls and water sports involved chlorine. But one morning while running on the beach, I saw a long, narrow craft being propelled though the waves by six women wielding wooden paddles. When they came ashore, I helped them drag the four-hundred-pound boat above the tide line.
“Our five had to quit. Ya want to give it a go?” said another.
What did a five do? “Sure!” I said.
“See ya Wednesday morning, America.”
I had a new sport, a new team, and a new nickname.
If you’ve ever watched a Hawaii Five-0 rerun, you’ve seen an outrigger canoe, a long boat with a separate float (ama) connected by two perpendicular arched cross beams (iako) on one side.
Lesson one was the paddle stroke—rotation and power come from the hips. Next I learned timing. The team faces the front of the boat. Odd numbers paddle on one side and even numbers paddle on the other (this keeps the canoe in balance), with the number six steering. The lead paddler sets the pace under the steerer’s direction, and everyone synchronizes her stroke to the person directly in front.
Paddling on one side is fatiguing, so every sixteen strokes, paddlers switch sides. To maintain speed and avoid capsizing, everybody has to switch at the same time. The paddler in the number two position calls out in time to the last three strokes—“hut, hut,” followed by a HO!” that everyone shouts while lifting her paddle from the water to start stroking on the opposite side.
Outrigger canoes move fast. This makes the canoe less stable, which is when the ama comes into play, preventing the tippy canoe from capsizing.
We set off. I was in the five seat. A salty breeze blew over my sun-warmed face. We passed what looked like a floating rock that turned out to be a sea turtle.
At first, boat speed wasn’t great, largely because of the rookie (me). But I caught on to the rhythm, and soon we were hydroplaning. When the steerer upped the cadence, I ended up a half tick off the pace. It was time for the stroke changeover.
“Hut, hut, HOLY SH—!”
One instant we were paddling along; the next, we were all in the ocean with the boat floating beside us, upside down. A huli.
We righted and bailed out the canoe, then started for home. Stroking hard, we caught a swell that carried us all the way onto the sand. My teammates congratulated me over brekkie.
“Good on ya!” said the number two paddler as I tore into a pumpkin scone like a rescued castaway.
The number four wiped orange juice from her mouth. “You’ll be apples by race day.”
Race day? Turns out she was talking about a forty-two kilometer open ocean marathon at the end of the month. I spent the next three weeks essentially learning how to be a galley slave.
The day of the competition, the waves were so high that when we came ashore during a practice run, I felt as if we’d jumped off the top of a three-story building, then had the building chase us down the street.
“Noah’s weather,” said the number four paddler. “Keep yer eye out.”
I was learning the Oz rhyming slang. Noah’s had to be short for Noah’s ark. But the word it replaced…
She saw my puzzlement. “Shark.”
I managed a tense smile. Shark?
The starter’s gun cracked. We were last off the mark.
“Come on, girls!” yelled the steerer. “Pull!”
Our lead paddler picked up the pace. We matched it, our paddles moving as one. Pain radiated from my wrist, and I dry-swallowed ibuprofen from the stash in the wet sack lashed to my seat. A silver flow of small fish, hundreds of them, knifed through the water underneath us. Each stretch between buoys, we reeled in and passed another racer.
“Hut, hut, ho! Hut, hut, HO!”
My sore wrist disappeared in a surge of adrenaline and Advil. The steerer called for another tempo increase. Sweat ran steadily down my forehead from under my cap, leaving a frosting of salt on my eyebrows. The shoulder muscles of the paddler in front of me rippled like water passing over rocks.
With the only remaining opponent barely a boat length ahead, we turned for the final leg, a perpendicular run to the beach. By now, I moved in a kind of trance. Catch. Pull. Lift. Catch. Pull. Lift.
The finish buoys loomed ahead. We were closing the gap to the other boat when a crosswind snatched the cap from my head.
“Watch the ama!” someone yelled.
I glanced at the outrigger in time to see my cap sink. It was followed by my heart when a big gust of wind lifted the ama out of the waves.
We’re going to huli.
“Drop your paddle!” shouted the steerer into my ear. “Push down on the iako.”
I reached over the side and leaned on the iako. It wasn’t enough.
I braced one foot where the iako was lashed to the canoe, and balanced the other on the boat’s edge. With a brief thought to my dental work, I lunged. The ama crashed back down onto the water.
The boat kept going, with me suspended between the float and the canoe like rigging. My ab muscles screamed while waves slapped my face. My grip started to slip on the fiberglass.
“Hang on, America!”
Beneath the water I glimpsed a rock . . . or was it a triangle fin? I shut my eyes.
We smacked into the beach. The impact jarred me loose onto the sand. I spat up salt water while my jubilant teammates pounded me on the back.
“Way to hang twenty, America!”
Later I would find out that our opponents had hulied just meters before the finish. It had been a classic yard sale—hats, bailers, paddles, and paddlers scattered into the ocean. And that we were the first come-from-behind team to ever win this race.
I momentarily passed on the celebratory champagne, rummaging through the wet sacks for what I really wanted.
Where the heck was the Advil?