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The Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club team competes in the 2007 Catalina Crossing. (Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club photo)

Scores of outrigger paddlers will propel their canoes from Newport Harbor on Saturday, setting a course for Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, 27 miles away. The next day, another group will paddle back.

The paddlers, more than 1,000 of them, are taking part in a historical race — the U.S. Outrigger Championships, Catalina Crossing. Women’s and mixed teams race the first day to the island; men make the return journey to Newport Dunes the following day.

Now in its 49th year, the huge competition began as a two-boat race — California vs. Hawaii — from Avalon to the Newport Dunes. It grew to a larger, men-only race, finally developing into the two-day co-ed series it is today.

“The Catalina Crossing has undergone a series of changes as the years progressed,” said Cheance Adair, race committee chairman of the Southern California Outrigger Racing Association. The race is organized by SCORA and hosted by the Offshore Canoe Club in Newport Beach.

“Those many years ago we had the men racing to Catalina, but too much hell was raised and the island asked us to reconsider our options,” Adair said. “So now we race the women and mixed divisions to the island, and let the men race back.”

This is not to say the women don’t know how to have a good time once they reach Catalina after more than five hours of severe strain on their bodies.

“It’s a mental drain — just endorphins and you can barely walk. We get out of the boat (at Catalina) and either laugh or cry,” said Annette Gilkeson, a veteran paddler who will be racing again this year. “Then we go have a mai tai and toast each other.”

Santa Barbara has two clubs participating this year — Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club and Ka Nai’a Outrigger Canoe Club. Gilkeson just returned from outrigger sprint races and will be competing for SBOCC in the Catalina Crossing.

The official outrigger season, between March and the end of September, is a trilogy of races. First there are the iron distance races, which are anywhere between eight- and 12-mile excursions. Next is the sprint season, which involves short races but more agility work. Finally, there are the change races. In the change season, which culminates in the Catalina Crossing, paddlers are on nine-member crews that regularly switch out for the races that are 12 to 31 miles long. Six people are always in the canoe with three waiting on an escort boat to substitute in.

“There’s a lot of strategy,” explained Carol Schick, SBOCC’s head coach. “It’s usually two or three people at a time every 15 minutes. You might even do one change with one person every five to eight minutes, fast and hard.”

Changing paddlers means actually jumping into the water from one boat to another, which Schick says is “part of the skill.”

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Six crew members are always in the outrigger, with three substitutes waiting on an escort boat. (Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club photo)

A change master sits in the escort boat, calling which seat positions will be rotated out. The boat serves as a medical, refueling and rest facility.

Safety is a big part of the Catalina Crossing — the Friday before the first race is spent talking over weather patterns, discussing emergency procedure and making sure boats are rigged. All escort boats are connected during the race via radios.

“Because it’s over four hours, we normally have fatigue factors,” said SCORA safety officer Bud Hohl. “Last year we experienced a lot of mild hypothermia — it was a windy day. Also sea sickness because it was windy and choppy.”

Hohl is hoping the weather won’t be like last year’s race, with wind that picked up around 8:30 a.m. and was in the paddlers’ faces the entire time. Five safety boats will be on the race course, each with a trained emergency medical technician on board.

On the first race day crews begin to show up at the dunes by 5 a.m., loading the escort boats, braiding hair, putting on sunscreen and making sure the canoes are race-ready. At 7:30 a.m. the canoes will being the long warm up out of the harbor to the jetty.

“We line up off the jetty and wait for the start boat to give us the green flag … and off we go!” exclaimed Adair. “The escort boats follow behind the last canoe or well off to the port or starboard side of the canoe fleet — 20 minutes after the women start we start the mixed crews.”

The men, meanwhile, are either ferrying to Catalina or serving as change masters on the escort boats.

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The Mayor’s Cup and some hearty partying await women outriggers upon their arrival in Avalon. (Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club photo)

Schick said a lot of the racers participating in the Catalina Crossing are testing the waters for the Outrigger World Championship, Molokai Crossing later this fall. It’s a grueling 41-mile trek to Oahu from Molokai across the Kauai Channel.

“Some participants who come to this race (Catalina Crossing) come to see how they do against each other,” Schick said. “A lot of them will be going to Molokai.”

Festivity is mixed with historical tribute during the weekend. When the women reach Catalina there is an awards ceremony at Descanzo Beach where the first place crew gets the Mayor’s Cup, in honor of past mayors of the island who have supported the event.

“After that, the paddlers take over Avalon,” said Gilkeson. “A lot of people travel in golf carts, so you see golf carts with paddling stuff sticking out everywhere.”

The partying really begins at the end of the men’s return race to Newport Beach.

“It’s huge,” said Schick. “It’s the culmination for the season. We all go into a depression afterward.”

Four awards, first through fourth, will be given for each of the six divisions of paddlers. In 2006, Gilkeson came home with first in the 35-and-over Master’s Division. The awards are hand-designed tiles created by a local Catalina tilemaker.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at