Born Again as a Paddler

April 24, 2015 Paul Gagnon

by Paul Gagnon

I grew up near Mission Bay, in San Diego, CA. I spent many days of my youth near the ocean, in the ocean or on the ocean. Lot’s of sand found it’s way between my toes, into my ears and onto the floor of the car. We used to go to the beach and bay regularly to swim, bodyboard, make sand castles and later cruise the boardwalk as a teenager. My Dad took my brother and I fishing on Mission Bay numerous times.

As high school faded into memory, and my life as a young adult became cluttered with college, career and kids, something sad happened. One day in 2012, I realized that I had not been to the ocean in over 5 years, even though I never left San Diego, though i had moved away from the immediate coast. My initial reaction was one of disbelief that so much time had passed without a taste of the briny waves. I had become comfortable with a home-bound sedentary lifestyle away from the ocean, and it was having a severe impact on my health. I weighed over 310 lbs, and was so out of shape, I couldn’t climb a couple of flights of stairs without needing some deep breaths.

It was time for a major change.

My brother had discovered outrigger canoe paddling a few years prior. He enjoyed the sport, but I had never really taken a close look at his new hobby. In 2012, when he and a group of paddling friends decided to form their own outrigger canoe club, I decided it was time to take a look at returning to the waters of my youth. As a member of the first novice class at a newly formed outrigger canoe club, I had a chance to meet and paddle with a group of paddlers who taught me some profound life lessons.

Outrigger canoes are rooted in ancient polynesian culture, taking kings between islands, warriors to battle, fishermen to sea and a basic form of transportation for pacific island peoples for thousands of years. I won’t go into great detail about the heritage of this sport here, but around the middle of the last century the sport found its way to the mainland, and scores of people have found this amazing experience. A team of 6 paddlers join as one to propel these magnificent craft through the waves into the open ocean.

The first experience of paddling, working with a team towards a common goal and blending with one another to make the canoe fly is something I’ll never forget. I’ve since paddled in many races ranging in length from a few hundred yards on a still lake to 42 miles across some of the most treacherous open ocean on the planet. Yet, the experience each time can be boiled down to three common things that keep me paddling now and for as long as my body will allow me.

Connection to the Ocean

As I mentioned, I had lost my connection to the water after growing up very close to it. Outrigger canoe paddling has allowed me to reconnect in a way I never thought possible. From the back of the bay and it’s calm waters to the thrill of punching over windblown swells offshore, each touch of salt water is so meaningful to me. The first time when I jumped into the open ocean when a mile offshore, I was intimidated. Looking down, you can only see deep blue and wonder what lurks below. But once I found within myself that I belonged here, even needed to be here, the deep ocean holds only limitless possibility for me now and I relish every chance I get to be out there.

Connection to ohana

Ohana is the hawaiian word for family, but I have learned its meaning is much broader. Ohana to me means the entire circle of people (and things) that mean something deeper to you. When I paddle with my club or paddling friends, I truly feel part of a greater extended family. Working as a team to go a little faster or a little further, or coming together to celebrate an accomplishment, is very rewarding to me. In my experience, I have never come across a group of people outside of my immediate family with which I share such an effortless bond. It may not be the same for everyone who paddles, but I suspect my observations are not rare.

Connection to myself

More than anything, I have found purpose and passion in a lifestyle like no other. Prior to paddling, few outdoor activities engaged me as much as paddling. I can really focus on myself, carefully observe my actions and adjust. It’s very zen-like. Especially after getting a one-man outrigger canoe, the instant feedback to adjustments in technique and power is amazing. Although we paddle as a team, the focus on all the little things that require fine tuning is a very personal experience.

I suspect many paddlers go through a similar progression of curiosity, leading to discovery and finally all-consuming passion. If you find the right group of people and a positive initial experience, it’s hard not to find yourself thinking about when you will get to push off on a paddle next. It’s also hard not to talk all things paddling when surrounded by other paddlers, and that’s not a bad thing. For me, the whole family is involved, so needless to say, there is a lot of time spent talking about paddling.

Since those first days of paddling with a team in an outrigger canoe, water sports have consumed my free time now. I have purchased an OC-1, standup paddleboard and surfboard all in the three years since first paddling, and love spending time with each. Even more so, paddling has given me a sense of freedom unobtainable with land-based sports. I look forward to many years of paddling and adventure with my ohana!

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