From the Bay, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

Hawaiian Outrigger Canoes Making Waves in the Chesapeake

By Jeremy Cox

Skipjacks, deadrises, log canoes, tall ships, bugeyes — the Chesapeake Bay has no shortage of iconic boats. But if a core group of devotees has anything to do with it, a vessel closely associated with the South Pacific could be next.

The outrigger canoe is practically synonymous with Polynesian and Hawaiian cultures. Many Americans of a certain age, though, likely received their notions about outriggers from the closing credits of the original version of the TV crime drama Hawaii Five-O, which showed a sequence of muscly men vigorously paddling through waves.

That depiction — of brute strength and more than a whiff of masculinity — continues to loom over the sport of outrigger racing in the popular imagination. But the brand practiced by Maryland’s Kent Island Outrigger Canoe Club tends, by intention, toward inclusivity and working in harmony.

“People of all ages and abilities can do this,” said Bill Key, 72, a longtime member. “You can’t screw it up. We’re thrilled to have you out here no matter what.”

To that end, during routine club practices, members are often found welcoming newcomers who want to try their hands at the ancient sport. This spring, they hosted a series of outings explicitly geared toward coaxing novices onto the water, with the hope of boosting membership.

So, there I was on a Sunday morning in April, standing with a strange-looking paddle in my hands and absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.

The first thing you notice about an outrigger canoe is how long and narrow it is. Single and tandem versions are available. But, like the one in the Hawaii Five-O intro, the craft I boarded could comfortably seat six adults. Most outriggers in this class measure more than 40 feet from stern to bow, roughly the length of a school bus, but the main hull might be a mere 16 inches across.

This is where the “outrigger” part comes into play. Two arms (iakos in Hawaiian) project from one side of the canoe. These connect to a float (the “outrigger” or, in Hawaiian, the ama). Without these second hulls, the vessels would be highly unstable in the open seas.

Now, let’s turn to the paddle. The shaft isn’t straight like a traditional canoe oar or kayak paddle; it’s slightly bowed, and the blade is angled back a bit to compensate for the bend. At the opposite end of the paddle is a t-shaped handle. Your palm wraps around it, kind of like a bicycle handlebar. Your lower hand should be gripping the shaft just above the blade. It feels more like digging into the water than sweeping through it.

The setting for the club’s practices is the Kent Island Yacht Club, situated on a narrow peninsula bordering the channel through Kent Island Narrows. Here, you’re practically in the shadow of the U.S. 50/301 Bridge. The high-arching structure looks impressive until you remember it is only a prelude to the more famous Chesapeake Bay Bridge found 6 miles west.

The scenery can be summed up as Outer Banks-lite. Wooden piers frame gleaming-white fiberglass fishing boats. The ramshackle tiki bars in the distance compete to outdo each other’s color schemes. But the splashes of salt marshes and pine-dominated woods serve as reminders that nature hasn’t been completely crowded out yet.

The outrigger club here traces its history back 25 years, when John Fulton, who had recently returned to Maryland after a few years living in Hawaii, raised enough money to purchase a communal outrigger canoe.

“It’s the state sport of Hawaii,” he said. “Just about everybody does it.”

The sport has long since migrated to the mainland United States, but its presence on the East Coast remains limited. The nationwide parent organization for outrigger canoe racing chapters lists 70 clubs operating in the three continental states that border the Pacific Ocean. The East Coast boasts a mere 17 clubs.

The Kent Island club, the only outrigger group with a Maryland address, counts about three dozen active members. They compete in races up and down the East Coast and host their own event over Labor Day weekend, a 35-mile relay race in which paddlers circumnavigate Kent Island.

From what I could gather, outrigger canoe racing tends to attract experienced standup paddleboarders or kayakers looking for a team environment.

“This is a great way [to] get out on the water with people who become your friends,” said longtime member Nancy Wallace. “I think I knew one person when I first started. It becomes a family.”

In this way, the sport embraces another Hawaiian cultural export: the concept of Ohana. For a definition, let’s turn to the 2002 Disney movie Lilo & Stitch. In it, viewers are told, “Ohana” means family. Family means nobody gets left behind — or forgotten.”

About the Author: Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland. You can reach him at This column printed with permission of the Chesapeake Bay Journal. For more like this and all things related to the Chesapeake Bay, check out


Pubishers Note: If you would like to read this column in its entirety including more information about Jeremy’s experience and the Kent Island Club as well as other clubs located in the DMV, log on to the Bay Journal and search for outriggers.

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