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Ocean warriors

Outrigger canoe paddlers push themselves to the limit to maximize speed through synchronicity.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 2001


Outrigger canoe paddlers push themselves to the limit to maximize speed through synchronicity.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Through wind, rain, hail and cold, they paddled. All winter long, three days a week, Andy Gerber and J.P. Atherholt worked on their stroke.

"It takes time," said Gerber, a veteran outrigger canoe paddler who lives in Indian Rocks Beach. "We're close, but we are not there yet."

But like all ocean athletes -- be they surfers, paddlers, free-divers or open-water swimmers -- Gerber knows that the secret of the ocean warrior lies not in the destination, but simply staying on the path.

"We live to train," Gerber said. "You have to be on the water even when you don't want to ... when it is cold, nasty ... that is what it takes."

And persistence pays. Gerber and Atherholt, from Clearwater, leave today for Hawaii to represent the Sunshine State in the World's Largest Long Distance Canoe Race, the Queen Lili'uokalani. Named after Hawaii's last reigning monarch, the Queen Lili'uokalani (Sept. 1-2) will draw more than 100 six-person canoe teams from around the world.

"Florida lags far behind Hawaii, California and Australia as far as the sport of outrigger canoeing goes," the 50-year-old Gerber said. "But we have the water for it. Now there are seven or eight teams in the state. The sport is growing."

Today, outriggers are relatively one-dimensional crafts, used primarily for exercise and competition. But ancient Polynesians proved their seaworthiness, using them for fishing, war and colonizing vast tracts of unexplored ocean.

Florida has its own colorful history when it comes to canoes. Historians believe the state's first residents regularly traded with other indigenous peoples in and around the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

While Gerber and Atherholt will be part of a six-man outrigger team in Hawaii, they have made a name for themselves on the local racing circuit in their 28-foot, 40-pound, two-man outrigger canoe.

On the Fourth of July, Gerber and Atherholt established a record for the Treasure Island Ocean Challenge when they covered the 8-mile course in 1 hour 11 minutes, beating all challengers, including those on the fast, sleek, surf skies.

"You can cruise at 9 or 10 mph," Gerber said. "But if you get in some big water, you can hit 15 to 20 mph running down the face of a wave."

In a six-man outrigger, teamwork is the key. The paddler in the bow (No. 1) sets the pace. The No. 2 and No. 4 spots paddle on the opposite side of the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 5 paddlers. The No. 6 paddler, usually the captain, steers from the stern.

In a six-man team, the paddlers must stay synchronized, or the boat will lose speed. On a two-man team, however, mistakes are obvious because there is nobody else to blame.

Gerber and Atherholt do about 72 strokes a minute and switch sides about every 15 strokes. But when they get to Hawaii, they will be in a new boat, with a new crew and a steep learning curve.

"That is the hard part," Gerber said. "You have six different personalities to deal with it. Is important that you all get along."

Gerber and Atherholt admit they have had their moments during the past year. "We all have our bad days," said Atherholt, a 32-year-old triathlete who has completed an Ironman distance event. "But what can you do ... you just come back and hit it hard the next time."

Gerber, a teacher at Largo High School, likes to joke that Atherholt's motto is "Train easy. Race hard."

But Atherholt said it is all strategy. "I am always tapering for a race," he said.

Team Florida will have about a week to train in the waters off the Big Island's Kona Coast before the Labor Day weekend event.

Gerber hopes a respectable showing by the Florida crew will put the state on the outrigger map. The sport is gaining popularity, and with its blue water and thousands of miles of coastline, the Sunshine State could some day compete with Hawaii and California.

In the meantime, Gerber and Atherholt will keep paddling their two-man outrigger canoe, taking it one stroke at a time.

Outrigger Outreach

Want to learn more about outrigger canoeing? St. Petersburg-based Outrigger Outreach has three 45-foot long canoes and holds weekly practice sessions on Tampa Bay.

Outrigger Outreach welcomes new members, regardless of skill level or athletic ability.

Call Jon Edwards at (727) 823-8000. Also, you can check out y2kanu.com and pacificpaddler.com.

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