Mendocino to Lake Tahoe, Nor Cal now home to 20 outrigger canoe clubs

By Pete Gauvin • Photos by Corlyce M. Olivieri

By day, Tony Francis is the manager of a group of technical writers for Apple Computer. After hours, he’s an avid outrigger paddler and president of the Akau Hana outrigger Canoe Club in Santa Cruz, one of 20 such Northern California clubs from Monterey to Mendocino to Lake Tahoe.

Tony and his wife Jeri Ann, both 53, got involved six years ago.

“I loved to surf and be on the water, and in summer when the swell got small, my wife and I were looking for a sport to do together. We tried sailing and sea kayaking … and then tried outrigger paddling. We enjoyed the teamwork aspect to it and the competition, and it’s a sport that we could do together, men and women. It’s a great family sport.”

Indeed, it’s an extended family, as well, one that just keeps growing as more people discover that outrigger paddling is a vigorous full-body workout that comes with a welcoming Aloha spirit of camaraderie and community, what Hawaiians would term “ohana.”

“Our club in Santa Cruz, less than three years ago had 27 people in it,” says Francis. “Now we have over a hundred.”

The club now puts three women’s crews (6-person teams) and two men’s crews in 10 to 12 races a season. Many of the club members also participate in OC1 (solo outrigger canoes), OC2 (two-person), and surf ski (kayak-style sit-on-top craft sans outrigger pontoons) races, notably with the WaveChaser Paddle Series ( in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz.


One of the oldest sports in existence, outrigger canoeing has been practiced for more than 5000 years. A thousand years before Columbus landed in America, Polynesians navigated the South Pacific in outriggers. Outrigger canoe racing is popular in many Pacific Rim countries. Modern clubs were founded in Hawaii during the early 1900s.

It made its way to California in 1959, when Toots Minville, a pioneer of outrigger canoe racing started the Newport Beach to Catalina race. The sport came officially to Northern California in 1978, with the founding of the Northern California Outrigger Canoe Association (, which now consists of 20 clubs. The clubs paddle on nearly every large body of water in the region, including the ocean and San Francisco Bay, numerous lakes, the Petaluma and Sacramento rivers, and the north and south shores of Lake Tahoe.


Paddlers race throughout the year in distances ranging from 500-yard sprints to 40-plus mile endurance events.

Last summer, the NCOCA hosted the World Sprint Championships at Lake Natoma in Sacramento. Elite teams from around the world participated. Crews came from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and multiple U.S. states, including New York and Texas.

An NCOCA club from Sacramento, Hui O Hawaii, fielded a men’s Senior Master crew and a women’s Senior Master crew, each of which finished first in the world.

The most competitive crews paddle for the San Francisco Outrigger Canoe Club, says Francis, although clubs from Redwood City, Marin, Sacramento, Santa Cruz and other cities have highly competitive crews, too.

“The competitions are fun and inclusive, with age classes ranging from children to great grandparents, and with male, female, and coed divisions,” says Francis. Teamwork is key. “Every seat position in a six-person crew has a distinct responsibility and skill requirement, and every member of the crew relies on every other member to uphold their responsibility in the boat.”

Nature and Adventure

In addition to the highly competitive aspects, outrigger crews enjoy paddling in the natural elements, the opportunity to see wildlife including whales, sea lions, and dolphins without mechanical interference, and the rush of catching a surf on rolling ocean swells.

There are also some unique outrigger expeditions. Last August, a group of paddlers from Santa Cruz joined a group of Hawaiian and other California paddlers on an open ocean crossing, paddling 480 miles in 73 hours to Kure Atoll on the final leg of a journey connecting all of the islands in the Hawaiian chain.

Community and Culture

The NCOCA and its member clubs are all nonprofit organizations.

“There’s not much commercial backing or sponsorship,” says Francis. “Outrigger canoe paddling is our passion, and we love to share it with our family, friends, and communities. It’s part of the spirit of the outrigger culture that all these people spend all this time and energy to make it happen, organize training and races and community events … and then are literally pulling the water together.”

Cultural interaction with the Pacific Islands is a fun and important aspect of outrigger canoeing. The clubs regularly host luaus, Polynesian dance performances, Hawaiian music festivals, and other events.

“Hawaii-ana – the music, dance and sports – is an appealing element for a lot of OC paddlers,” says Francis. “The California OC clubs really have a huge cultural connection with Hawaii, as well as Polynesia, Tahiti and Tonga.”

Join the Mix

There’s plenty of opportunity for outrigger neophytes to get into the mix. Most clubs have at least one training session a week that is open to newcomers. For Akau Hana in Santa Cruz, it’s Sunday at 9 a.m.

“It’s an activity that everybody in the family can participate in,” Francis stresses. “Most clubs have programs for people interested simply in recreation and fitness along with programs for people interested in world-class competition. Most NCOCA clubs have programs for children, and some clubs have programs for physically disabled paddlers.”

Northern California Outrigger Canoe Clubs