Rigging out to canoe

Niecy Nelson displays a typical paddle. Decorative and almost delicate, it  is all business when it's applied to the water correctly.
File photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Niecy Nelson displays a typical paddle. Decorative and almost delicate, it is all business when it's applied to the water correctly.

Vineyard paddling enthusiasts should be on the lookout for a new opportunity coming to Island waters this summer: outrigger canoeing. Developed as a mode of intra‑Island transport by South Pacific natives, today outrigger canoe racing is an international sport.

With three decades of outrigger experience and two 45‑foot long, 18‑inch wide, 6‑seat canoes, Neicy Nelson is working to establish an outrigger canoe club (0CC) and eventually a racing team on Martha’s Vineyard. She’s looking for strong, ocean‑loving men, women, and children paddlers to join her.

“I’ve dedicated my life to canoe racing,” said Ms. Nelson, whose love affair bloomed in the waters of Hawaii, where the sport is so popular that it’s the official team sport of the state. Her involvement has taken her to races all over the world, from lagoons in Tahiti to the storied Molokai Channel, home of canoe racing’s oldest and most prestigious event. She’s been involved in all aspects of the sport, from paddling and coaching to designing and building outrigger canoes.

When Ms. Nelson saw an island without a canoe racing team, she wanted to do something about it. “I feel like Martha’s Vineyard is ripe for this,” she said recently, surveying the shoreline at Bend in the Road Beach. After six summers on the Vineyard, she’s identified the stretch of State Beach between Big and Little Bridges as an ideal spot for club practice.

With long white locks tied with two long black and white feathers, a nod to her Rappahannock roots, Ms. Nelson described the specific stroke that powers an outrigger canoe, even as she demonstrated it in animated pantomime. “It’s a big reach out, a straight up and down stroke. You bury the blade, push the water underneath the boat and launch it forward.”

To Ms. Nelson, canoeing is a natural activity for everyone, whether you’re into low-impact recreational paddling or rigorous sprint-training for competition. She once had a four‑year‑old with his own little paddle in her boat, and encourages all ages to give it a try. “You can paddle until you’re 90,” she said.

With her two boats Ms. Nelson hopes to foster a healthy spirit of competition. “It’s fun to have two canoes,” she said. “Neither canoe wants the other to beat them.” While she considers herself a competitive person, and working toward a goal of winning is something that comes naturally, ultimately she’s out on the water to have a good time. “It’s fun to train,” she said, “and it’s fun to win.”

“I want to give back to the community because I need the community,” Ms. Nelson said, “You can’t even move these boats” unless you have several people. Canoe racing is a team sport, where individual efforts must be coordinated for the benefit of the entire boat. “It’s about synchronicity and working hard.”

There is, however, an individual benefit. Paddling can be rigorous, and those who dedicate themselves to the sport can expect to “get ripped,” Ms. Nelson said. At one time she ran marathons as part of her canoe race training regimen. “You build up your strength, even when it’s hard.”

Having recently added both a windsurf board and a standup paddle board to her flotilla, Ms. Nelson is working on making personal connections to get the club up and running, while familiarizing herself with the details of the coastline. “I need people who know these waters,” she said.

Ms. Nelson has also been making plans for a camp for kids, where she will introduce her “junior waveriders” to the joy of slicing down the face of an ocean swell. When you start kids paddling young, she said, they can learn to love it for life, and some become ambassadors for the sport.

With a supersized aloha spirit and an abiding love of the ocean, Ms. Nelson invites anyone who is interested in outrigger canoeing to contact her. “I believe this is the foundation of a very good sports club,” she said.

Neicy Nelson can be reached at nativecanoe@yahoo.com.