42 miles of open water, ocean swells, wind as state’s top women paddlers face world’s best

The “Women of Washington” are going to Hawaii.

A team of 10 Puget Sound women, from Tacoma, Bellingham, and Seattle, head south this September as entrants in the Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the world’s most prestigious long-distance outrigger canoe paddling race.

Described as the “world championship” of women’s canoe paddling, the race takes place in open water between the islands of Moloka’i and O’ahu. Paddlers navigate 42 miles in the perilous Ka’iwi channel, known for ocean swells, powerful wind and unpredictable conditions.

Team member Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a 52-year-old paddler from Bellingham, spoke about the specific difficulties paddlers encounter in the race.

“It’s open ocean conditions,” she said. “Conditions in the channel can be much bigger in terms of the wave size than we see here… There’s also a really mental aspect of going that long, that hard, in potentially gnarly conditions.”

Caplan-Auerbach is one of only two of the team’s members who have raced in Na Wahine O Ke Kai before. She said she competed in the race 19 years ago, but has not raced in it since.

Around 70 crews from around the world will participate in the non-stop race. Teams from Japan, Australia, Hawaii, California and others will compete.

“It’s one of the only places that you’ll see as many women’s crews who are at that level of paddling come together from all over the world,” Puget Sound team captain Jamie Stroble said. “It highlights the strength of these women who are at the peak of the sport.”

The Puget Sound team, named “Wahine o Wakinekona,” translated as “Women of Washington” in Hawaiian, brings together top paddlers from across the region. The team has organized a gofundme to help pay for competition expenses.

“We’re team ‘Wow,’” Jill Sullivan, a team member from Tacoma’s canoe paddling club, laughed. “We have a wow factor.”

Men’s teams from the Washington area regularly participate in the Molokai Hoe, the men’s version of the race, but it’s been years since clubs have sent a women’s team.

“We really hope that this inspires other women in this region to do a race at this level,” Stroble said.

On Aug. 24, the team will compete in the 26-mile Pacific Northwest Challenge, which takes paddlers from Seattle’s Sand Point Beach Park to Mercer Island and back.

Participating in that race will qualify the team for Na Wahine O Ke Kai. A prerequisite for entering says all teams must complete a long-distance paddling race in the months beforehand, to prove the team is equipped to handle the race in Hawaii.

“It’s the culminating race of the season for the Northwest,” Stroble said. “For most of the season we’ve been paddling with our own clubs, (but) this race we all agreed we were going to do as our Molokai team. It’s a test run, really.”

“It felt like this unfulfilled dream”

Stroble, born in Hawaii, said she’s dreamed of competing in Na Wahine O Ke Kai since she was a teenager. She started paddling at the age of 12 and fell in love with the sport.

“I grew up on Oahu, and I always felt connected to the ocean and to the land,” she said. “I saw other people doing it and was like, ‘I want to be out on the water,’ so I joined a canoe club.”

In middle and high school, Stroble would take a bus two and a half hours to get to her canoe club on the other side of the island. The time commitment was worth it, she said. Paddling shaped her as a person.

“Especially as a teenager, that was where I found my self confidence,” she said. “Because I worked and put in effort, I was getting rewarded back for that.”

She made strong friendships with the other members of the team. They were passionate about the same things, she said, especially “taking care of our ocean and our land.”

The last year she lived in Hawaii, Stroble and her team participated in an international sprint racing competition.

“We competed and medaled in sprint races against some of the big names in paddling,” she said, mentioning teams from New Zealand, Australia and Tahiti. “It was such an amazing experience, and we talked about pulling together a crew for doing Molokai that year.”

She put her plans on hold when she moved to Washington later that year.

Stroble worked in an Americorps program, teaching in a middle school near Seattle, then attended the University of Washington, where she doubled majored in international studies and development and environmental studies.

Though happy with her move to Washington, Stroble, a 33-year old Seattle resident who works for the King County Climate Action Team and the Department of Natural Resources and Parks, kept Na Wahine O Ke Kai in the back of her mind.

“It felt like this unfulfilled dream I never got to do,” she said.

“When are we doing the next one?”

Fifteen years passed before Stroble considered the race again.

Then, two years ago, she met a group of paddlers from a Bellingham canoe club. They were putting together a women’s crew for California’s 26-mile Catalina Crossing race. The team needed two more members, so Stroble agreed to step in.

“We had such a blast in this race,” Stroble said. “I was like, ‘When are we doing the next one? When can I pull together another amazing crew of women?’”

Racing in California sparked her desire to go to Na Wahine O Ke Kai again. That same year, she shadowed a Washington men’s team heading to the race. She rode along with the team in the chase boat and explored the logistics of sending a team to the race.

On her return from Hawaii, she began scouting out top female paddlers from the Washington area, asking if they wanted to join. By February, the crew was complete.

“I think a lot of our top women in the Northwest have been waiting for us to pull together a big team like this,” Stroble said. “As soon as I put it out there, people started coming out of the woodwork, and saying, ‘Yeah, I’m in. Let’s do it.’”

The team brings together women from many different backgrounds.

“Many people who are on this team… have some connection to Hawaii or to some other Polynesian community or some other place in the Pacific where paddling is a really big sport,” Caplan-Auerbach said, adding that she picked up the sport while living in Hawaii.

She now lives in Washington and works as a professor of geophysics at Western Washington University.

Crew member Martha Foleni, a 50-year-old member of Tacoma’s outrigger canoe paddling club and HR recruiter for Thyssenkrupp Aerospace, said she started paddling in her home country of Samoa. When she moved to Washington, she kept it up.

“It was just a way of keeping in shape, (but) I ended up loving the sport,” she said.

Sullivan, a 44-year-old physical therapist and stay at home mom, began paddling while living in Guam with her husband.

“I started it because it was such a different experience living on an island, and it looked very different from something I’d ever get back in the states,” she said.

Women of the Ocean

Outrigger canoe paddling, a sport hundreds of years old which began in ancient Polynesia, is closely intertwined with native Hawaiian culture.

The sport has since spread across the globe, gaining popularity in island and coastal regions.

Yet for 30 years, the only outrigger canoe paddling race from Molokai to Oahu, the Molokai Hoe, was considered so dangerous women were banned from participating, according to Hawaii Magazine.

In 1975, a group of women decided to change that.

“They really advocated and said, ‘No, we have amazing women who can do this,’” Stroble said. “They put together two crews and did the channel crossing that year. They proved that women not only could do this race, but could do really well in (it).”

Because of that crossing, the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race was born. The name means “Women of the Ocean” in native Hawaiian, Stroble said.

“That’s team ‘Wow’,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “We chose that in particular because it’s exciting and it represents all of us.”

This race, the women’s version of the men’s Molokai Hoe, highlights the talents of top female paddlers in a notoriously difficult stretch of open ocean.

“The race itself is probably going to take about 7 to 8 hours,” Stroble said. “That’s a long time to be out in the open ocean exposed to the sun and exercising the whole time.The team trains together for long term endurance, but some race day conditions will be out of their hands.

“The conditions in the channel vary dramatically,” Stroble said. “Right now there’s two hurricanes that are headed towards Hawaii, which can send massive swells because of big winds.”

Hurricane season in Hawaii extends through October or November and peaks in August and September, when the race will take place. Waves in Washington don’t match the intensity of those in the islands.

“We’re just doing the best we can to mimic those conditions,” Stroble said.

The women must also plan for switching out different paddlers in the canoe, an essential part of long-distance canoe races which requires accurate timing and precise movements.

Six women paddle at a time, and a chase boat follows with the extra members, Sullivan explained. Every half hour or so, paddlers switch out positions.

The chase boat pulls up in front and drops off three women who will switch in. They wait, treading water, for the canoe to arrive.

According to The Wall Street Journal, an outrigger canoe differs from other types of canoes because of the supports attached to one or both sides. Called “outriggers” the floats help to stabilize the boat.

Traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoes are made of wood, and can weigh 400 pounds or more. Modern canoes, like those used by the team, are often made of fiberglass, but there’s an effort within the sport to protect the sport’s history by continuing to build and use wooden canoes.

Because of this, most fiberglass canoes are often manufactured to weigh the same amount as wooden canoes, Caplan-Auerbach said. For the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race, fiberglass canoes must weigh the same as wooden canoes.

Recently, the sport has developed separate divisions where paddlers using lighter fiberglass canoes which weigh less than 100 pounds compete against each other.

Though one and two paddler outrigger canoes exist, the most common canoe type is a six-person canoe. This is the type of canoe the team will use for the race.

When the time comes for a change, three women in canoe fall out on the right, while the women switching in simultaneously climb up on the left. The rest of the crew continues paddling while the switch takes place.

The group has been training hard to be able to paddle well together as a team. Along with training several days a week at their own clubs, and regular cross training, including weight lifting and other activities, the team has been getting together one or more times a month.

“Timing is a really important part of this,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “Taking your stroke to the same time, learning to apply power over the same time. We’ve been trying to get together… to get extra miles in and learn to work together as a crew.”

The members agree that working together is an essential part of the sport.

“(It’s) the mana in the boat,” Sullivan said. “It’s like the spirit, the ability to blend together, and paddle in perfect time, to really be a team.”

Pacific Northwest Challenge

When: Aug. 24, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where: Sand Point Beach Park, 7400 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115

Admission: free for spectators