Cultivating Community in a Canoe

Adventure |

How photographer Gretchen Powers found a paddling community and a way to explore local waters no matter where she ends up. Words and Photos by Gretchen Powers.

The one consistency in our life is that we will live on the coast. My wife drives ships for a living. Every two to three years the U.S. Coast Guard moves us to our next port. Each time we move it’s a different ship with a different mission. In Alaska, she worked navigational aids, maintaining buoys and shore aids to keep water-goers safe. Now in Hawai‘i, she works on a safety, search and rescue ship that enforces marine regulations and is often on call to respond to missing people in the water.

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No matter which coastline we’re on, launching my kayak and cutting through the water with my paddle feels the same. Stroke by stroke, I love the way it feels to float above the water in a small craft pulling myself along. Especially living on islands, there’s really something magical about seeing the land you live on and a sunrise or sunset from the sea. Whether the water is cerulean or indigo, or I’m in a kayak or canoe—on the water, my anxious mind stills and I feel like the best version of myself.

Moving every few years has its perks: the ever-changing landscapes, new mountains to climb, and waters to explore being at the top. But my biggest gripe about moving is building a new community from the ground up—over and over again. When we packed up our bags, folded up our kayaks and got on an airplane in Alaska a year ago, (in the middle of a pandemic) I despaired that finding our island friends and family was going to be more difficult than ever. 

Gretchen Powers and Kaleigh.

After rowing for four years in college, I couldn’t wait to be part of a new crew and learn more about outrigger canoe paddling: the official team sport of Hawai‘i. Its popularity was clear the moment I tried to join a team and it took six months for me to find a crew accepting new paddlers. I’m grateful for the community I’ve found at the Waikiki Yacht Club.

My first practice was on a Sunday and I showed up fascinated, enamored, and terrified. Two and a half hours of paddling later, I knew I had my work cut out for me. Outrigger canoe paddling is the hardest, most humbling athletic endeavor I had tried in a long while. It’s challenged me just as much as crossing crevasses on Mt. Rainier and climbing granite rock faces in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—both of which brought me to tears. 

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I sit in seat three (the third seat from the front) and hear the paddler in front of me yell, “HUP” indicating it is time to switch paddling sides. One more stroke and we change sides in unison, paddlers alternating sides. My back strains against the water as I use my legs, core and arms to pull my paddle swiftly through the ocean. My eyes are hard focused on the upper hand of the paddler in front of me to match my strokes with hers.

“Big sweep!” I can hear Coach’s booming baritone from his stearsman seat in the back of the canoe.

“Feel da canoe.”

Sunset in Oahu.

I slide my blade into the water in unison with the five other paddlers and all six of us must move as one to propel the canoe forwards through the choppy swell. Lēʻahi (Diamond Head) grows larger with every stroke we take and the sun is setting behind us to the west of Waikiki lighting up this side of the volcanic cone in a burnt orange.

When it’s time to turn the canoe back towards home we get the reward of cotton candy clouds and a bright orange sun slowly dipping below a horizon of deep blue. Sailboats and catamarans criss-cross their way across the harbor and a honu (turtle) pops its head up to say hello.

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The most gratifying part of being a member of this team is not the hard workouts, the sweet sunsets, or post-paddle beers but learning about Hawaiian culture, the ocean, and building an ‘ohana (family) in the process.

Outrigger canoes were originally developed by the peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia for sea travel. The single outrigger float is called an ama and is connected to the main hull by wooden spars called ‘iako. In ancient Hawai‘i, canoes were carved from the trunks of very old koa trees, but these days canoes are often made from glass-reinforced plastic. Regardless of what they are made of, they are treated with respect and care.

Outrigger canoe paddling in Hawaii.

Modern day outrigger canoe racing is the state sport of Hawai‘i. One of the most famous races is Moloka‘i to O‘ahu, a 43 miles crossing where paddlers swap out for new crew members during the eight to nine-hours-plus journey. I haven’t had a chance to race yet—all events were cancelled because of COVID—but am looking forward to getting a chance to participate with my crew. Respect is at the heart of everything we do in and around the canoes. The canoes are blessed and prayed over, carried together, and paddled together.

Living in Hawai‘i is to know and respect the ocean. Seemingly glassy and still waters can quickly swell into waves taller than me while innocent shorebreak ripples can knock you off your feet. I didn’t grow up close to the beach so while my relationship with the sea is newer, I’ve quickly learned to respect its strength while admiring its beauty. I’ve learned that a calm and focused mind is vitally important at sea. I’ve learned to never turn your back on the ocean, always tell someone where you are going, bring a lifejacket and a phone or radio, and keep an eye on the sky. My world has slowly started to evolve entirely around paddling and while the ocean still scares me, I trust my paddling ‘ohana (family) to keep me safe.

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I find ʻohana in the high fives, borrowed paddles, shared snacks, cheers, and camaraderie that is built when you work together towards a common goal. Before we arrived here on O‘ahu, I wrote, “Home is where your feet are. Sink in, lean into it, and find the joy that is there in that moment with you. Take care of that space, care for the people, animals and plants that inhabit it.”

Coach calls out, “All together now,” and we sweep our blades above the water, catching together as one. Our six canoes paddle into the sunset towards home. I can’t tell if it’s sweat or sea spray dripping from my brow, but I smile—at home in my element.

Taking a break on the beach.
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