DANA POINT — Looking like some rare water-walking insect, an outrigger canoe with six sets of arms performing in unison is silhouetted by a shimmering orange blob of sun sinking into the horizon beyond Dana Point Harbor.
You can't help but wonder when the beer commercial is going to start.
Outrigger canoe racing is one of the fastest growing sports in the Southland, and on a summer evening like this one, it's not hard to understand why. For the members of the Dana Point Outrigger Canoe Club, however, there's still a lot of sweat and aching muscles before it's time to relax.
The Dana Point club is one of 18 between Santa Barbara and San Diego competing under the auspices of the Kalifornia Outrigger Assn., which is spelled that way so the acronym is KOA. (Koa is a treasured wood used for centuries by the Hawaiians to build outrigger canoes.)
Paddling is attracting the fitness crowd in increasing numbers these days. After all, it's a great way to burn some body fat and build a buff upper body . . . all without having to get out of your seat.
The level of competition is skyrocketing and rosters are bulging. Dana Point's membership has swelled to about 100 this season, twice that of a year ago. And more than 40 are youngsters.
"Our kids will be the ones who'll be beating San Diego (Canoe Club) and Offshore (Canoe Club in Newport Beach) some day," says Dan Van Dyck, one of Dana Point's youth coaches and a top-flight paddler. "They're the future of this sport."
And don't forget the present. Last week, when Dana Point won the La Jolla Shores Regatta, the youth boats earned 16 points. Dana Point's margin of victory was 14 points.
"Yeah, we're basically carrying this team," deadpanned Jason Crowley, a 15-year-old from Mission Viejo who joined the club this year. "See that boat. That's my favorite boat. We won our division last week in that boat."
This youth movement is visible--and vocal.
"The same thing happened last year when we won the KOA state regatta title," Van Dyck said. "The kids were all jumping around, screaming about how they won the title for us. It's great. That's what this sport is all about.
In Hawaii, a regatta is the ultimate celebration of family. You will see 10-year-old kids competing on the same day as their 80-year-old great-grandfathers and there are thousands of people watching from the beach.
"We've come a long way as a club and we're not going to settle for being an average club, so there is a great deal of intensity to win," Van Dyck said. "But in the end, win or lose, it's about togetherness as a team and a family."
"What I like most about canoeing is that it's intense and passionate," says Leslie Davis, president of the 85-member Newport Blue's Offshore Canoe Club. She is also a member of the women's team that has won six consecutive world championships in the 40.8-mile Molokai Channel race, the Wimbledon of outrigger canoe racing.
"I thrive on the physical release. There's never really a time when I don't want to go to a workout. Even if I feel really yuk, I know I'll be uplifted."
Davis, who is also president of KOA, has spearheaded the drive to include women's competition in the sport. The Offshore club welcomes women of all ages to give the sport a try, but only the hardy need apply.
"We usually take them along on a regular workout (of at least two hours) in a canoe with veteran paddlers," Davis said. "I guess it's sort of a sink-or-swim approach, but you can tell pretty quick who's going to make it. They're the ones who come back the next day."
More often than not, the men, women and youngsters embracing the sport are dedicated athletes, so working your way up to a club's top boat takes a devotion to training. Outrigger canoe racing is no longer an excuse to barbecue on the beach. There's a national-team kayaker or two in many teams' No. 1 boat.
Most of these world-class athletes came to the sport as a form of cross-training, but the evolution went the other way for Rich Long, co-coach of the Dana Point club. His background in outrigger canoes vaulted him into a status as one of the country's top kayakers in less than three years.
Long finished 16th at the recent Olympic trials. The top 10 made the team.
Long, 28, says his athletic endeavors while a student at Dana Hills High School amounted to surfing every chance he got. He saw a guy at the beach wearing a T-shirt from a regatta and asked, "Is that stuff for real?"
"I checked it out because I loved the ocean and thought it would be a good way to stay in shape when the surf was lousy," Long said. "That was nine years ago and it was very informal then. We trained for a couple of hours every Sunday morning.
"It's changed a lot. Now, if you want to be competitive in outrigger canoe racing, you not only have to be an athlete, you have to train like an athlete."