USA News

Outrigger race, now in its 50th year, pays homage to ocean icon

Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison’s love for the ocean was infectious, a passion for the saltwater that helped spread the Hawaiian aloha spirit across the sea and beyond.

Harrison was a true waterman, one of the best surfers and paddlers of his time who spent countless hours in the watery playground. After he adopted outrigger canoeing in Hawaii, Harrison helped popularize the sport here on the mainland in Orange County and beyond.

Now, outrigger clubs dot the country’s coastlines and are even found in lakes far from the ocean, decades after Harrison and a handful of others first introduced the sport to Southern California’s waters.

Hundreds of paddlers from across the state will hit the water Saturday, Aug. 13 off Dana Point and sprint toward Laguna Beach and then journey back to Doheny State Beach for the 50th annual Whitey Harrison Classic, an event Harrison founded with the Dana Point Outriggers Club half a century ago.

Women competitors in the Whitey Harrison Classic at Dana Point Harbor start their 20-mile outrigger canoeing race on Saturday, August 10, 2019. This year, on Aug. 13, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the event. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Harrison’s family is coming from all around the country — from Hawaii, Oregon, and some who still call Orange County home — to kick off the milestone celebration in his honor. Though he died in 1993, the event continues to embody his stoke for the sea.

“Sharing that wonderful stuff the ocean gives you — the confidence, the enthusiasm, how beautiful it is in every way,” Jennifer Van Swae said of her father’s life mission. “If you were going to say what was the biggest thing that could come from his life, it was to tell people how wonderful it is out there and show that enthusiasm about how much fun we have being in the water.”

Outrigger canoes are among the early forms of Hawaiian water transportation, with fishermen using them as early as 800 A.D. to catch meals or to move among islands, according to Bud Hohl, a historian for the Southern California Outrigger Racing Association.

In the late 1800s, the boats would be used for competition, a sport enjoyed mostly by royalty. The outrigger, or “ama” as it’s called in Hawaiian, sticks out from a canoe and helps to balance the boat.

Harrison stowed away to Hawaii in the 1930s and was among the first early-era Southern California surfers to make the pilgrimage to the warm Waikiki waters. It was there he became enthralled with outriggers, learning how to make his own by digging out koa tree trunks.

Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison building his first outrigger canoe in a back yard in Huntington Park, 1936. The skeleton of this canoe still resides on the original Harrison property in Dana Point. Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison building his first outrigger canoe in a back yard in Huntington Park, 1936. The skeleton of this canoe still resides on the original Harrison property in Dana Point.
Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison built his first outrigger canoe in a backyard in Huntington Park in 1936. The skeleton of this canoe still resides on the original Harrison property in Dana Point.  Photo: Harrison/Van Swae Family archives courtesy of Surfing Heritage & Culture Center

The first official outrigger group was the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Racing Association, formed in 1951, which helped start the Molokai to Oahu race, the biggest outrigger race still going today.

Harrison, also a Santa Monica lifeguard who often did Hollywood stunt work, was tapped to help organize California’s first outrigger race in 1959 from Catalina Island to Newport Beach, which is still occurring.

The popularity grew and a few outrigger clubs sprouted up around Orange County. By 1972, Harrison formed the Dana Outrigger Canoe Club, holding the first Whitey Harrison Classic from Newport Beach to Dana Point, held as part of the opening ceremonies for the Dana Point Harbor when it was built.

Van Swae remembers those early years fondly, a simpler time when she would ride her horse from their Capo Beach home down a tree-covered trail to the beach. Her father, inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in 2016, was always sharing the beach lifestyle with others.

“If someone said, ‘Can you show me how to surf,’ he was out there in a heartbeat to help someone learn something he loved so much,” she said. “He was the most enthusiastic person. He loved the ocean. Anything to do with the ocean, he was a fanatic.”

Her father taught her at a young age how to navigate the waters, and soon she too was one of the racers, one of the few women competing in the sport at the time. After one of the male racers burned his hand, she was brought on board for a 22-mile race off Marina del Rey, becoming the first-ever female to do a distance competition. Later, she became a coach.

But it was the Dana Point event in Harrison’s name that remained his favorite, designed in the waters he knew so well.

File source

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button