This weekend's U.S. Outrigger Canoe Championships will have a peculiarly American character--not so much by design as by default.
Tahiti, the nation that has practiced paddling for centuries and the winners of the men's race last year, will not compete.
The Tahitians' decision to skip the race is believed to be a matter of economics, according to Bud Hohl, assistant race director.
Last year, the Tahitians got a $40,000 government loan in order to send four teams to the race, as well as to finance the construction of 14 canoes used by the competitors.
Race organizers learned last week that the Tahitians would pass up the U.S. Outrigger Championships in favor of attending the prestigious Molokai world championships in Hawaii in October.
"It was a disappointment because we like the field to be as international as we're able to make it," said John Rader, race director. "But Hawaii (entering) is a tremendous plus for us."
Still, nearly 300 of the strongest paddlers from the United States will gather today and Sunday for the races from Newport Beach to Catalina Island and back.
The men's teams from the mainland will be challenged by Hawaii's Outrigger Canoe Club, winners of the Molokai race. Outrigger joins the Catalina race for the first time in four years.
Outrigger is expected to face its biggest battle against the perennial local favorite, Imua. The Newport Beach team traditionally dominated the race, winning it every year since 1978, until a young, hard-sprinting Tahitian team won in an upset in the final half-mile of last year's race.
Other strong entries in the men's long boat division are the Off Shore and Newport Canoe Clubs. In the Hawaiian hull division, the leading teams are Off Shore, Monarch Bay and Newport.
The races are the longest and most grueling outrigger events in the continental U.S. Competitors consider them the zenith of the local season and a warm-up for October's 41-mile world championship race at Molokai.
On today's outbound leg, 17 women's teams will start at 7:30 a.m. in front of the Newport Beach Harbor Dept. on Bayside Drive. The winners are expected to arrive in Avalon's Lovers Cove between 12:30 and 2 p.m.
The men's race back from Catalina begins at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, and the swiftest of the 26 canoes should finish near the Dunes in Newport Beach between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.
The outcome of the women's race may be a change from the past five years. Until this season, Off Shore always was considered the favorite, winning the championship every year since 1980.
But Off Shore lost six of its veteran paddlers to retirement after last season's victory. Meanwhile, San Diego's HanoHano club has improved, defeating Off Shore an unprecedented four times this summer. The Imua women also are expected to challenge for the title.
Top competitors in the women's Hawaiian hull class are expected to be KaiNalu of Marina del Rey, Newport, Marina del Rey and second teams from HanoHano and Imua.