New York Outrigger: Beginnings of the Waterfront Community
Roger Meyer, Founder and President (1996-2004)
It was in 1996 at the Queen Liliuokalani Canoe Race in Hawaii that two New Yorkers, Linda Santos and Roger Meyer, came up with the idea for New York Outrigger. The inspiration came from Hawaii’s rich waterfront culture. There, the water is a part of life and renewal that connects communities and the ages. The outrigger canoe is not just a boat. It is regarded with reverence weaving together a story of many lives and journeys.
So could the City of New York, an archipelago in its own right, with its walled off waterfront be the next frontier and home of a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe club? Will the sport take off in the East?
New York Outrigger’s first test came at the 79th Street Marina where we made a brisk maiden voyage in November, 1996. The outrigger canoe came as a generous loan from Ellis Gaskell, a pioneer of the sport on the East Coast and founder of Westport Canoe Club. In this photo the proto NYO crew consisted of a champion from the General Clinton Canoe Regatta, a heavy weight Norwegian pugilist and other hardy souls who would rather hit the water than the gym.
Thanks to dock master Ron Boudreau of New York City Parks & Recreation, we enjoyed a slip at the marina before being kicked out four months later by the new dock master. By February 1997 our nascent club was homeless and searching the water’s edge for a place to put a 45‐foot canoe. A glimmer of hope came and went with Chelsea Piers Sports Complex as we tried to make the nonprofit model work with a sports club. We left Chelsea Piers that day only to come across a rusted rail‐barge docked to the bulkhead a block north. Buzzing with maritime activity, the barge had men hauling scrap iron, grimed welders, and an assortment of boats including Lightship Frying Pan.
I met John Krevey on the barge that day. I told him our saga – our dreams – and he walked me over to the planking that lined the barge. “Can the canoe fit here?” he asked. I said yes. “I want nothing other than for you to make it happen.” And that’s how NYO got its home.
Enough can’t be said about magnanimity of John Krevey other than he may be the most influential person in bringing life back to the waterfront in present‐day New York. What better soil to root the club than in a real waterfront culture at Pier 63 Maritime?
NYO quickly grew with new faces and hosted the first Liberty World Challenge at Pier 25 near the World Trade Center. Seven or eight outrigger canoes made the inaugural race.
Linda Santos 3rd from the left, then Debbie Abram , Jackie Cooper, Mike Pidel, and John Ziegler
Later that season we took our first road trip to Rochester. We fielded two women’s crews, one racing to within seconds of first place. 1997 also marked the inaugural year of the East Coast Outrigger Racing Association. Year one was looking very bright for the club and the sport.
In the spring of 1998 we bought our first canoe, a used Pacific Islander from Imua Outrigger Canoe Club of Newport Beach, California. We named her Haulani. It was a grand feeling trailering that beautiful big red, white and blue canoe into New York City. A feeling like, wow we are really doing this! I felt a huge amount of appreciation to Imua for their generosity.
We also bought an industrial relic of a dock to place our growing fleet upon, including T‐bars to hold the smaller vessels. These were NYO’s scrappy years. Everything from ramps, docks, shackles, chain lines, mushroom anchors, to tugboats had to be worked out in order to get canoes on the water. Back then there was no Hudson River Park and the Westside waterfront was more like the wild west, full of grumbling personalities, private fiefdoms, unsavory activities, and padlocked gates. Getting anything done took friends and persistence. Water access was a bear. But that was the beauty of growing an outrigger canoe club in a culture like Pier 63 Maritime. Generous people helped out and we were fortunate. Pier 63 Maritime was an oasis of good people, without whom NYO among others would probably not be here today.
Year two of the Liberty Challenge got a shot in the arm with the appearance of Team Hawaii, an all star men and women’s crew. Along with them came ESPN2 coverage with cameras on media boats and helicopters.
To top it off, the race was covered by the Associated Press, World CNN, and even hit A1 front cover of the New York Times. We received letters of support from as far as Korea.
Despite the great media coverage, the 1998 race came close to disaster. The water was rough that day, canoes were getting swamped at the Battery and the NYPD was dropping rescue divers by helicopter. At one point there were so many huli’s that the Coast Guard and police threatened to end the race. Our men’s crew swamped leaving Haulani tethered to the Battery wall to get hammered by the waves. The Daily News ran an unrecognizable story the next day about catamarans capsizing and miraculous rescues on the high seas. Thus began NYC’s confused baptism of the sport of outrigger canoeing.
As it turned out drama on the high seas only attracted more crews the following year. The good news was that NYO really helped the sport’s media exposure, particularly in Europe.
By 1999 the NYO men’s crew finally galvanized. Steersman extraordinaire Heath Hemmings joined the club, along with a few high‐kneel Olympic medalists from Lithuania and Hungary. Suddenly the men’s crew had what it took to bring home the hardware.
The night before training run with Geirdrus, Roger, Zsolt, Shane, Rob, and Heath. Liberty 1999. Photograph by Guy Meyer
The 1999 Liberty Challenge was one to remember. Team Hawaii was there for the second year. Outrigger Canoe Club brought a crew. When the starting line horn went off NYO men briefly held alongside some of the best teams in the sport before settling into 3rd place. This lasted for about 2 minutes before another canoe connected with our hull spinning us about in the Battery. By the time we got back on track we were in 11th place and the race had just started. So we marched. By the last mile we were battling Santa Barbara Outrigger for 5th. We didn’t place but it was still a sweet start to what would be a great season.
Later in the season we went to Virginia Beach for a replay of Liberty. The race began with crews on the beach running their canoes into breaking waves. In the first 20 seconds we flipped, swamped, and were bailing like crazy. By the time we got moving we were a quarter mile behind last place with 19 miles to go. Two and half hours later we finished in second place.
That year we hired a Brazilian sculptor from Pier 25 to create the Liberty World Challenge trophy, combining a tribal look and Koa paddle with Lady Liberty. The same company that makes the ubiquitous green Statue of Liberty painstakingly assembled the trophy for us every year. It was special seeing it in the trophy rack of Outrigger Canoe Club in Hawaii.
By year three NYO was making great gains, but our home on the waterfront was less than secure. Pier 63 Maritime was frequently under attack by waterfront interests including neighboring business and government agencies. We witnessed forced closures of the barge, abuses of power, trumped up charges, and false characterizations in the news.
So we attended public meetings to defend the right and value of our waterfront community. A senator bemoaned the barge and historic vessels as commercialization of the Park while members of the local community board bemoaned the eyesore of the less than orderly barge.
Pier 63 Maritime was not in the master plan of the park and the organic occurrence of a buzzing waterfront culture that brought together maritime, historic ships, waterside cultural happenings, and recreational energies in one place was a real problem for those who envisioned a waterfront of open space, esplanades, benches, and compartmentalized activities in proper places. The broader story of our home is really about solidarity, resilience, and the rumble of changing values as NYC finds its way back to the water.
NYO found a place to root in the concrete shores of New York because of a few good hearts and a bit of Hawaiian ohana. Imagine what NYC’s waterfront would be like if waterfront culture was the policy and not the exception – if there were public spaces that welcomed a diverse community and sea‐faring activities and entrepreneurial energies. What would happen would be an authentic community‐driven waterfront, grown from the bottom up, anointed from the top down, much like what millions of New Yorkers leave New York every year to enjoy.
Also in 1999, a sponsorship with Quiksilver gave us coordinated race wear. We took this sponsorship seriously. At one point we hauled the Huki across SoHo and hung it in a Quiksilver store for effect.
With NYO taking shape came the pride in carrying the mantle for New York. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, New Yorkers would line the shores in the thousands to watch New York and England rowers compete for cash winnings that today would rival that of NASCAR. What would it take to raise the profile of NY water‐sports to the next level?
We fielded 2 men’s crews, 1 women’s crew and a mixed, in the 2000 Liberty Challenge. It would be the last year for holding Liberty Challenge at Pier 25. The event was too big. In 2001 we added a Force 5 to our fleet and named her Puapana, meaning fishing spear, hence the barbed looking graphic on the hull.
During this time the club was active in the community, including helping the YMCA create an outrigger youth program. We organized beach clean ups along the Hoboken shore in order to help restore a natural beach for public use. We partnered with environmental firms and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to collect water quality samples. We learned that getting people on the water is one of the best ways to encourage them to become environmental stewards.
In 2001 we moved the Liberty Challenge to Pier 84 by the Intrepid Air and Space Museum, filling the entire pier with canoes, vendors, and live music. The dock system was elaborate with a partially submerged barge, dual ramps for entering and exiting, and multiple finger piers.
Everyone was pitching in to make it a great event including the Mayor’s office, Hudson River Park Trust, the National Park Service, Circle Line Statue of Liberty, Chelsea Piers Marina and the Intrepid who loaned us the barge.
Coaches meeting at the 2001 Liberty Challenge, Pier 84
In 2001 the sport had officially taken off on the East Coast. Over 50 crews competed in Liberty with a truly international field, including Olympic paddlers from Germany, Tahiti, Guam, and England.
That year there were epic races within the race, including Germany’s fine‐tuned Olympic machine (foreground) against Team Tahiti. In the end, the race favored the crew with open ocean experience: Tahiti. Later in the evening the Tahitians would play traditional songs on the deck of the Frying Pan. At the time John Krevey said, “this is what I love most!” The scene was magic and certainly was and still is what this waterfront needs most: life.
At this time NYO had about 30 members. Road trip adventures down the Eastern Seaboard solidified friendships and strengthened our organization.
At that time the competition in the Mixed division was fierce. The classic rivalry reemerged between New York and England. That year in Liberty our Mixed A team had a commanding lead in the race until a missed buoy turn. We battled back to within seconds to settle for second place. “I have had the joy of racing and winning the Molokai Hoe, but my experience with NYO Mix at Liberty was at par and truly epic!” said Bo Eastabrooks.
In 2002 NYO Mixed would take back the gold from England. Our public programs also took root then and would go on to become a major part of the NYO’s commitment to the community.
By 2003 Liberty had almost 80 crews. The Circle Line Statue of Liberty ferry became our official spectator vessel. At this point 100 crews seemed like a realistic goal for Liberty. Again NYO pinned hopes on the Mixed race and again the contest was a cliff hanger for first place. We settled for the silver, but not without due respect for Washington Canoe Club who made it an unforgettable race.
To summarize: we didn’t just presto appear on the waterfront. It took a herculean effort and commitment from NYO members working closely with the broader community, year after year, to ensure we would have a place today in the Park. To this we thank the Hudson River Park, John Krevey, Angela Krevey, John Doswell, and all the waterfront activists and good people for thier support. We will return the favor by continuing to give others, hopefully for generations to come, an amazing experience on the water.
Category: News & Updates