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Paddling with Island Flair 

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Josephine Johnson

Outrigger paddlers take to Humboldt Bay, aboard a smaller canoe brought up from Shelter Cove (left) and the larger, Humboldt-based outrigger (foreground).

It's 7 p.m. on a cloudless Thursday, and Humboldt Bay shines like liquid silver under blue skies. Luke Besmer, a Hawaiian outrigger canoe enthusiast, has assembled a crew of six other paddlers eager to get out on that smooth shine.

"OK, we need to get the ama attached," calls out Besmer, "so a couple of you can strap down both iako to the hull. Everyone needs a life jacket, too."

With agile hands, two paddlers begin attaching the outrigger to the boat. They use sturdy red nylon straps to cinch into place the iako, the side spars that jut from the side of the canoe. Once firmly attached, the iako supports the ama, or the outboard float iconic of Hawaiian outrigger canoes.

By 7:20 p.m. the paddlers are primed and ready to put in. With paddles in hand and life jackets secured, the canoe of seven launches at the foot of the Samoa Bridge. We navigate around Woodley Island and catch a bit of the Eureka Boardwalk summer concert series. Then, a harbor seal pokes its head above the surface. We can hear its forceful exhale just a few feet from the canoe. Two dark eyes briefly inspect us before descending again beneath the murky tide. Gulls fly overhead. The sun sinks lower, and the bay glows in crimson, orange, and gold. Paddling an outrigger canoe on Humboldt Bay at sunset really is a little slice of heaven, especially after a long day of work.

The outrigger is here at all thanks to years of work and multiple donations, much of it fueled by Besmer. He has helped create the Humboldt Outrigger Canoe Club, which organizes at least two weekly paddles on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

Since last summer, 40 different paddlers, ranging in age from 5 to 60, have taken a turn. Besmer and fellow outrigger enthusiast Neil Kalson maintain a list of interested folks, and they announce paddling days and times on the club's Facebook page. Regular paddlers can also get text messages from Besmer. For now, the paddles are free.

Rhea Ellis-Anwyl, who has been paddling with the group since January, relishes her time on board. "I get to get out on the bay and paddle with a great community of people who like doing this," she says. "It's a great workout with great people." Ellis-Anwyl looks forward to when the group gets another boat and — ultimately — creates a Humboldt outrigger racing team for competitions on the bay and beyond.

Sharon Kramer, a fish biologist at H.T. Harvey and Associates who is also an avid paddler, is helping the club become a nonprofit organization, to make paddling more sustainable for the long term. "I'd like to help the paddlers establish a more solid presence on the North Coast," she said.

She and her husband fell in love with paddling several years ago when they lived in Australia, she said, partly "because of the great sense of community you get in paddling in a group."

Humboldt's outrigger scene has its roots in Besmer's days of paddling outrigger canoes in Santa Barbara, back in 2004. He enjoyed it so much he joined a club and began competing. "I love the water and feel of paddling," says Besmer, "I knew then it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life." A few years later when he moved to Humboldt for college, he set out to start a paddling club here.

The first thing he needed was a boat. In 2010 he sent out more than three dozen letters to outrigger clubs from San Diego to Sebastopol asking for a boat donation. Three months passed. No luck. Then a reply came from a club in Monterey. It had a burly fiberglass canoe from the 1970s, a real rhino of a boat, but watertight. With some labor and elbow grease, Besmer was told, it would be ready to take on the bay. It also came with its own trailer. By networking online with other outrigger enthusiasts, Besmer found Don Smith, a Eureka local who was willing to tow the boat from Monterey.

When they got the canoe back to Eureka, Besmer and Smith realized they didn't know exactly how to repair the fiberglass, which needed more work than they had anticipated. So, it sat on its trailer for a year near the Zerlang dock in Fairhaven.

That's when Neil Kalson got involved. While driving the Samoa bridges, he'd noticed the beefy outrigger and wanted to know who owned it. Via Facebook, Kalson tracked down Besmer and the two created a plan to get the beast sea-worthy.

Besmer, Kalson and a host of enthusiastic volunteers — including Jesse Bareilles and Monty Martin, former Greenhouse Board Shop owners — spent a month sanding and refinishing the boat. The Beneficial Living Center on South G Street in Arcata let the crew repair the boat outside in its parking area. Kokatat donated life vests. And a paddling club in Marina Del Rey donated six carbon fiber paddles. Besmer's dad even built two new iako for the canoe.

On a gray day in June 2012, the paddlers launched their maiden voyage on Humboldt Bay. Since then, Besmer has organized Thursday and Saturday paddles, and he's planning a paddle on Tuesday evenings as well, especially now that the weather is so gorgeous.

Do you want to get out there and see what it's all about? Your chance is coming. The Humboldt Outrigger Canoe Club will be part of this year's Paddle Fest, held in Eureka at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center on Saturday, Sept. 14. Can't wait that long? Give Luke Besmer a call at 707-342-7354. Or email him lukebesmer@gmail.com. Check out the club's Facebook page, too — Humboldt Outrigger Canoe Club — the pics will amaze you!

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Josephine Johnson

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