The Gorge Outrigger Race - A steersman's point of view
This story was written to honor all steersmen who are courageous enough to steer an outrigger crew in treacherous waters, especially those individuals who steered crews in the annual Gorge Outrigger race, July 20th 2013.
The Columbia River Gorge is a canyon of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and is well known for its extreme wind and fast waters. As you read this please keep in mind that the teams who participated in the Gorge Outrigger Race come from different types of waters…some practice in the ocean or sounds, some flat rivers like the Willamette and some practice on large lakes. Steersmen in this race will get the same amount of time (15-20 minutes) to hone in their upwind and downwind steering skills in the strong Gorge winds before the start of this 9 mile race. In the past the female and mixed crews have always been spared the really harsh Gorge conditions that usually blow in for the men’s race later in the afternoon. Not that day…
Driving in from the Oregon side I needed to cross the Bridge of the Gods to get to the little town of Stevenson, site of the Gorge Outrigger race. Here you will find one of the most beautiful views in the Pacific Northwest and definitely one of nature’s most challenging race courses. After digging up a dollar for the toll, I rolled down all my windows and continued across the bridge. The view here is simply breath taking…and so was the gust of wind that was hitting my car!
Since I don't belong to an OC club, I have had the pleasure of filling in for a variety of different outrigger clubs at various races. I have steered for novice crews who were experiencing their first time racing the Gorge and I have steered crews with years of experience. This year, I paddled with a crew that's comprised of several paddlers from Canada, Seattle, Puget Sound and Portland…everyone experienced and primed to tackle this race. We are Pacific Northwest Wahine! Later this year as our ultimate goal, 10 of us Pacific Northwest (PNW) Wahine will be competing in Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the Super Bowl of our sport - crossing the Kaiwi channel from Molokai to Oahu. This Gorge Race would turn out to be a great primer.
Hui Wa'a O Puget Sound Outrigger Club offered their beautiful red and yellow Bradley Lighting for our race. They carefully rigged the canoe for the rough conditions we were about to experience and it was blessed with a new spray skirt. I was armed with a brand new Kiaola (Foti) Steering blade and a lucky new Corona hat. Everyone from our crew was excited and anticipated a hard but crazy fun race.
An hour before the start of the race JD Davies, the race director, had everyone attend a mandatory steersman meeting on the dock. He went through the usual warnings and concerns, reviewed the race course and then reviewed the warnings and concerns once again. Every year we hear JD stress over and over his concerns and the dangers of this race. Every year we nod our heads to let him know we understand the risk and that’s when the "game faces" come out.
After the meeting we returned to our canoe and made final preparations. Once the prayers, hugs, and well wishes were over my crew pushed out into the lagoon and we were soon weaving in between sand bars, rocks, under a bridge to the open river. To my surprise the crew in front of our canoe stopped quickly to avoid a rock or sandbar. With the wind pushing us and very little water to maneuver in I was forced on to a sandbar to avoid colliding with the other crew. My crew quickly freed us from the sandbar, pushed us back into deeper water and away from the stopped canoe. Whew! We were back on track.
Once out on the river it didn’t take long for me to realize that the conditions were going to be rougher than I had ever experienced in the past. Already, the downwind swells were running big and fast. Then as we made the turn into the wind and to the starting line, my lucky Corona hat flew right off. This was my 15 minutes of practice to get the feel of the canoe, crew and water conditions before the start of the race, a race apparently I was going to do without my lucky hat. A Gorge race start can be a very tricky time for a steersman and the crew. The constant wind and strong current tossing everyone’s canoes around can make the starting line-up very nerve-wracking. This year the mixed crews started the race first and 15 min later the female crews took off. With the mixed crews on their way and not in our starting lineup, there was plenty of room for the women’s crews to keep their line for a good start.
After the start, the pack of OC’s soon begun to break up with crews from Canada taking the lead. Before we came to our first turn, I was surprised to see a couple OC6 crews had hulied. It was obvious they were having trouble getting their canoes righted with the swells breaking all around them. I knew the crew was in danger and I couldn’t help them in any way without endangering my own crew and my only choice was to pass by them safely and to continue on. I found out later that because so many crews needed assistance that a few crews who were unable to recover their boats were in the water over an hour before rescued. JD did warn us.
Our first turn was good and I was so glad to get out of the head winds. As soon as I swung the canoe around the marker, it was as though someone gave us a great push…only the push never stopped until later when we turned back into the wind. I could see that the river was pushing me to the south so I changed my line and moved further north, well into the center of the river and the biggest swells. My crew quickly got the hang of the surf and was calling pushes taking advantage of the fast water. It was definitely hang-on time in the steering department for this gal because we were flying down the river at a fast clip.
We passed several canoes, including a couple of mixed crews before we made it to buoy 18, our 2nd turning point and a really scary turn. When making this turn, you are turning straight into the roughest part of the race course with ripping winds and large swells coming right at you. One wrong move here, one weak moment in your steering as you make this turn and you can easily find yourselves in one of those upside-down canoes in a really bad spot that JD had warned us about.
I swung our canoe around the buoy and straight into the oncoming swells and head winds, slowly working my way over to the north shore and the marker we were required to pass through before starting the 2nd lap. As I watched our canoe head into the surf I could see my seat one and two disappear and reappear in and out of the water and waves. Several times the back of the canoe came out of the water and my seat 5 was there ready to assist me. After finally passing though the marker point I noticed there were only two crews left in front of me, False Creek and GRPC, both Canadian teams.
As we made our final turn back into the wind, we encountered the largest swells yet….head on. Our canoe came out of the water smashing down time and time again. Several times I flew out of my seat only to be caught by the spray skirt which held me in tight. Thank goodness for the new skirt! It took all the strength I had to keep my crew on a straight course into the waves and avoid capsizing here. I remember watching my seat 5 get slapped hard in the face with a wave…right before it hit me, almost taking me out of the back of the canoe. The final leg was definitely the hardest but my crew stayed strong, knowing the only way out of this situation was to power down and get the hell out of there. We zigzagged our way into the waves as I worked my way over to the north shore again and the finish line. I have never been so glad to end a race.
Our crew took 3rd place out of 16 crews total with a 1/3 of those crews failing to finish the race. Exciting stories from racers experiences on the race course were endless that night. I think everyone came away from this race with a good story to tell and isn’t that why we do this?
Nattie Blue (seat 4), Terri Mayeda (seat 5), Christine Pogue (stroke), Jackie Kaya (seat 2), Lori Hiroko Hashimoto (seat 3), Rhonda Bintliff (steersmen)
Coached by: Lance Mamiya
Written by: Rhonda Bintliff Portland, OR
Pictures by: Scott Moody