Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Just shut up and paddle

I’ve just spent the weekend racing in Guam with my team, the Hong Kong Outrigger Association (HKOA - although for some reason the vacuous commentator consistently referred to us throughout the tournament, over the PA system, as “HKOC”). We flew in to Guam extremely early on Saturday morning and went straight to our hotel, the Marriott, overlooking the beach where we were going to be racing. We just had time to change and rush down to the beach which was a long, narrow strip of sand overlooking a bay of clear blue water with huge waves breaking on a reef a few hundred metres from the shore.

The US formally purchased Guam (“Where America’s Day Begins”) from Spain for $20 million in 1899. It’s an “unincorporated organised territory” (according to the US federal government) and a “non-self-governing territory” (according to the UN) - I think this means it’s voluntarily part of the US, not pressganged into being a colony, but falls short of being a proper US State. It’s the place where, amongst other things, Ferdinand Magellan anchored in 1521 on his ill-fated circumnavigation of the globe. During WWII, it was occupied by the Japanese and retaken by American forces in August 1944 - a mere 18,000 soldiers died in the process. It was home to the Japanese soldier, Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi, the poor devil who was discovered hiding in a cave 28 years after the war was over.

Guam itself is a rather weird, almost wholly Americanised place. If you woke up there without knowing your location you really would think you were in any anonymous town in the American mid-west - with the same wide roads lined with the same chain stores and chain food outlets. It was jarring to see US flags everywhere and a large picture of George W. Bush in the airport. It sounds fatuous given current events, but it’s easy to forget just how patriotic Americans are - I can’t imagine any public place in the UK displaying a cheesy snap of a grinning Tony Blair.

The beach where the races took place was actually very nice and the water was clear and blue - a vast improvement on paddling in Hong Kong in murky water you dread falling into. Paddling is exciting; reports of it are not. Here they are anyway.

A day at the races: Saturday
The sun shone and it was already very hot by the time the first races started - 1,500 metres, with four turns around a buoy. The turns are exhilarating and exhausting, with everyone yelling and the paddlers at seats one and two (the latter being me on this occasion) leaning out of the boat to draw on the left while the water, with the texture of just-setting concrete, seems to resist every effort our bodies are making.

We had an alien paddler at seat four in both the 1,500 metres and the 500 because our steerswoman had hurt her back and couldn’t do turns, so the other team (the A Crew, who are all more experienced paddlers) got one of our team and we had to ask the other Hong Kong club to lend us someone for each of the races on Saturday. Paddling with six women in a crew has taught me a lot about teamwork - it sounds trite, but we work really well together and had all been training together at least three times a week at least for the weeks leading up to the race, so it really felt like there was something missing when she went in to the other boat.

A day at the races: Sunday
I was at seat 3 for the 16K race - an hour and a half of hard paddling, for which we went out beyond the reef into the big wide ocean. Seat 3 calls the changes, which means that every 15 strokes, in what must seem a rather quaint exchange, I call “Hut!"; everyone responds "Ho!" and we all swap sides from paddling on the left to the right, or vice versa (we paddle on alternate sides down the boat). The B Crew triumphed by beating the B and C crews of our main Hong Kong rivals as well as the A Crew from our own team - a victory that was, probably perversely, very sweet. The picture above is of the victorious team (well, we came fourth, but it felt damn good as we are all new to outrigging this year) in our eye-wateringly bright kit in front of the canoe.

I can't believe how much this has changed me: starting with dragon boating, and now moving on to outrigging, two sports I'd never even heard of before coming to Hong Kong. I am now so far gone that I am convinced that a paddle is a beautiful thing - I am even going to buy one of my own. Clearly I am now nothing more than a Paddle Zombie, standing lifeless and unmoving, waiting only for the cry “Paddles Up!”

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