LOS ANGELES — Bathed in dappled, early morning sunlight, water lapping gently at their feet, six paddlers carry a 40-foot-long outrigger canoe into the water at Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey.
Grebes and diving ducks make way as the crew trots next to the canoe, then jumps in and begins digging its wooden paddles deep into the water, quickly gliding out into the inner harbor.
The athletes, members of the Marina del Rey Outrigger Canoe Club, follow the quick pace of stroker Allison Kahanamoku-Mermel at the front, working in unison and switching sides every 15 strokes to the steady chant of "Hut, Hike, Ho!"
The scene stirs childhood memories of Polynesian torch movies — storied boats gliding soundlessly over idyllic waves, powered by sun-bronzed paddlers. But that same Bali Ha'i experience is available off mainland beaches.
Currently there are about two dozen clubs in the Southern California Outrigger Racing Association, which started in 1959. Membership has ticked upward in recent years to an estimated 1,000 active, competitive paddlers. The sport is expanding even faster across the United States and worldwide, with new clubs sprouting up in Canada, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Asia.
Powering a six-person outrigger canoe is not for wimps. Paddlers hammer the 400-pound boats through 2- to 4-foot swells at about 65 strokes per minute, working the upper body relentlessly for hours at a time, reaching speeds of about 7 knots (about 8 mph) as they travel out to sea and up and down the coast.
The constant digging motion, as the athlete leans forward and pulls the paddle through the water in unison with his or her teammates, makes for an extreme workout, burning the lats and core.
"You're constantly rotating forward and then ripping back," says Ian Foo, a designer for canoe manufacturer Hypr Canoes. "It's very much like swimming," he says. Because of this, "your love handles just disappear."
In 20 minutes, a paddler might complete 1,000 strokes. "No amount of stuff you do at the gym will get the same result," says Foo.
Despite the rigors, outrigger canoeing attracts fans of all ages and fitness levels. Many clubs have special divisions for juniors (18 and younger), masters (35 and older) and senior masters (55 and older).
Generally, first-timers to the sport are either hooked by the first practice, or are never seen again. Those who stay are assigned to novice boats and practice together. As their skill level increases, they move to boats with more advanced paddlers.
Although the exact origins of outrigger canoeing is lost to history, some anthropologists believe that it originated in Southeast Asia and was used in migration to Samoa, Micronesia and Melanesia. Undoubtedly, Polynesians have used it for centuries for traveling between islands and as a means of crossing open ocean.
Outrigger clubs hew closely to the sport's Polynesian roots, says Howard Adamson, president of the association's executive board. "We continue to maintain the traditions, from giving our canoes Hawaiian names to doing traditional Hawaiian blessings."
The biggest evolution in the sport has been the growing popularity of the solo outrigger canoe. Typically in the past, these boats have been used by teams for training and to assess the capacity of individuals before assigning them to boats, and were difficult to obtain. But the boats have become more widely available in the last few years as more manufacturers have entered the market.
But the costs are still fairly prohibitive. A solo canoe will run about $3,000, whereas a six-person fiberglass canoe starts at about $8,000.
Back at Mother's Beach, Kahanamoku's canoe and a half dozen others are out in the open ocean, the skyline barely visible behind them, their crews paddling furiously. Because this is a practice session, the crew will do "piece work" of 10- to 15-minute runs, followed by short breaks.
With a little luck, the paddlers will see seals, sea lions and dolphins skittering along next to them and pelicans, terns and gulls soaring overhead on the 12-mile round trip. They will arrive back at Mother's Beach exhausted.
It's this combination of extreme exercise, teamwork and intense contact with nature that keeps paddlers coming back, says steerer and 30-year outrigger veteran Nancy Dopp.
"I think that all paddlers are in love with it," she says. "It's calming. It's hard. It's competitive. It's everything that a team sport could be."
Being out on the water erases tension, she says. "For most paddlers, there's some kind of magic involved, because even when the weather's bad, it's a good day out there."