This spring a small knot of people gathered on Ventura's South Jetty Beach. Armed with ti leaves from Hawaii, they meticulously swept a small section of sand. Leis were brought out and tossed in the ocean.
Tradition demanded that the ceremonial kickoff of the Hokuloa Outrigger Canoe Club's inaugural season follow certain guidelines. Sweeping the beach with ti leaves and tossing leis into the ocean ensured the goodwill of the gods of both domains. One rule, however, was overlooked. When the club's outrigger canoe was pushed into the water it was manned, in part, by women.
"Hawaiian fishermen never take women on their boats," said Johnna delCastillo, smiling. "Women are bad luck. But here we need the women."
Formed last fall, the Hokuloa club (Hokuloa means "the goddess Venus") is a small group of dedicated paddlers, men and women hooked on a pastime they say is like no other.
"It's a really exhilarating sport," said Frank Parong, a beefy 34-year-old Venturan who was instrumental in forming the club. "Once you get it in your blood, there's no letting go."
While Parong and delCastillo are experienced paddlers, many of the club's 30-some members are beginners, drawn to a sport that combines the allure of the ocean with a lung-popping workout. The aftermath of a hard paddle varies from sore muscles to blisters in choice, and inconvenient, places. But according to paddlers, the sense of satisfaction and teamwork far outweigh any temporary need to sit down. Riding low across the water, paddles dipping and grabbing as one, a well-honed crew exhibits a choreography that would make Baryshnikov envious.
"It's almost a spiritual thing when you have six guys that are all concentrating together," Parong said. "When everybody's together, it's just like a machine."
There are, of course, drawbacks to this uninterrupted cadence.
"If you've got an itch on your nose," said club member Lori Poole, "it'll drive you crazy."
On rare occasions there are interruptions that stop both paddles and hearts. Club member delCastillo, paddling at the time for a Santa Barbara club, remembers an afternoon when crew members suddenly found themselves stroking across a solid surface.
"All of the sudden we seemed to be over this huge thing and then we went over this eye," said delCastillo, who won't likely forget her brush with an enormous, and fortunately docile, basking whale. "He just kind of laid there and we went right over him."
Continuing a Southern California tradition that began when A.E. (Toots) Minville introduced outrigger canoeing to the Mainland in 1959, the Hokuloa club is an eclectic mix: carpenters and chemists share strokes with nurses and hairstylists. Consisting of 40 to 45 feet of tapered fiberglass, the outriggers are manned by six or nine paddlers. Like with a canoe, crew members paddle on opposite sides of the outrigger. Striking up a cadence, paddlers traditionally pop off 15 strokes before swinging paddles to the opposite side of the boat.
The Hokuloa club currently has two outriggers. The one they own was purchased for $3,000 from a club in Santa Barbara. The second outrigger is on loan from KOA, the California Outrigger Assn. (Koa is the name of the wood Hawaiians carved to make the original outriggers). In a sport rife with Polynesian traditions, the boats, oddly enough, are dubbed Virginia and Ben. According to Parong, the club plans to rechristen both vessels.
Though the emphasis is on fun, the club's intent is competition. KOA hosts a fiercely competitive series of races from April through September. The season opens with "ironman" races of 9 to 13 miles, then segues into regattas (short sprints of 1/2 to 3 miles) before coming full circle to the endurance races of late summer and early fall. The most prestigious race of the California circuit is the annual Catalina Island race, to be held this year Aug. 25-26. Women's crews will race from Newport Beach to Avalon. The next day the men will race back.
The Hokuloa club plans to compete in the Catalina race. Next summer the club also hopes to revive the Anacapa race, hosting a 22-mile event from Ventura Harbor to Anacapa Island and back.
According to Parong, this summer will be a building season. Newcomers must learn the basics of stroke and teamwork. Old-timers also have their work cut out for them.
"I've got to lose about 40 pounds," Parong said with a grin. "We tipped the boat in the harbor the other day and I had trouble pulling myself back in."
Parong stretches his shoulders and shifts in his seat. Most of this interview has been conducted on a three-mile Sunday afternoon paddle from Ventura Harbor to the Ventura Pier. Boat and crew bob just off the pier, catching their collective breath before the run back. Tomorrow means a return to a world of deadlines and commitments. But now the afternoon sun is spreading itself across three miles of tantalizing smooth water.
"OK," Parong barked, starting up the paddle back. "Take it easy. Nice and easy and reach. Relax and enjoy yourself because tomorrow we start working out hard."