December 2003

By Reinhard Zollitsch

I have been messing about in boats all my life, and while reflecting about all my “old friends” in the doldrums between Christmas 2003 and New Year’s, I noticed that they have been getting smaller over the years. I can well remember working on 1,000 and even 10,000 ton freighters and sailing on a two-masted schooner, but now I find myself sailing my minimal 22 foot swing keeler, or paddling all types of canoes and kayaks.

With my retirement only months away, my boats have shrunk even further. My funnest thing to do right now is sitting in a boat with a maximum hull width of 13.5 inches (just about my hip size), out on the Atlantic, and solo. What is wrong with this picture? With age I should be stepping up to the next size boat, take it easy, go for comfort, and be more sociable, rather than trimming down.  (I do hope, though, that this downsizing trend will not continue beyond 13.5 inches and put me back in a bathtub with a little choochoo tugboat, where all my boating began.)

So let me tell you about my latest toy. The hull of this boat is 24 feet long, 13.5 inches wide, weighing in at about 24 pounds. I paddle it with “half a paddle”, as kayakers would say, and you’ll find me out on the Atlantic where sea kayakers go, mostly solo, swishing along at a relaxed 12 minute/mile pace. I forgot to mention, this hull has two curved, black anodized aluminum arms on port, holding on to a slender five inch wide and about nine foot long stabilizing float. You guessed it: It’s a solo outrigger canoe with iakos and ama.

My new toy
My new toy


This type of boat of course is nothing new. It has an illustrious history in Polynesia and especially in the Hawaiian Islands. You may have seen the bigger 6-person boats on TV, racing the Molokai channel in Hawaii or up and down the Hudson River along Manhattan Island and around the Statue of Liberty. In recent years, outrigger canoeing in Hawaii has become part of a native revival and is a big deal, not just as a reenactment of a bygone era for the tourists, but as a sporting event with local, state and even international significance.

Australia and New Zealand caught the bug first, then California, and now practically the entire Pacific Coast up to Vancouver is into outriggers. Even Japan joined the fray. My son Mark raced the big boats in many significant races, including the Molokai Hoe Race, and introduced me to the new sport, and I was hooked, with the solo boats, that is.

Originally, these boats were open boats. Now they are often covered with elaborate spray skirts for the longer open water races and passages. The solo boats in these warmer climes developed fast from a dug-out canoe with crude outrigger to a fiberglass sit-on-top surf-ski-like boat with elegant ama. The entire boat was sealed off; only feet and butt were set up in self-draining indentations. It looked like a very wet and wild ride to me.

When you fall off, you simply flip the boat, ama and all, and get back on, surf-ski-style. Paddlers even wear leashes, like surfboarders, so the boat cannot blow away from them. A boat like that would drift faster than one can swim - not a pretty picture, a mile or more off shore.


When I first heard about these outrageous solo outriggers, I could not wait to get to Hawaii, to some Outrigger Hotel of course, to try them out. But when I checked my checkbook, I suddenly had the clever idea of bringing Hawaii to Maine - why not. I would invest airfare and hotel costs for two instead into a new boat, and paddle my favorite haunts Down East.

But what about our colder water and air temperatures? I would not last very long out there on Maine waters, not even in summer, not even in a wet suit. Going out only in the best of weather was definitely not in keeping with what these boats were designed for. I needed a plan B.

I did some research and voilá, there it was. One company along our Eastern Atlantic Seaboard had already designed my type of boat, a boat with a “roomy” Olympic-kayak-style cockpit with zippered cockpit cover and neoprene waistband. It even had room for a dry bag under the seat, and suddenly looked like a boat for all seasons. Perfect! And this company also offered this boat in different lay-ups, down to high-tech black carbon fiber/Kevlar foam sandwich for maximum strength and minimum weight. It looked outrageously cool. I was hooked.

I then checked its pedigree, passed the info by my son Mark and ordered it sight unseen, never ever having paddled a boat like that. A few weeks later I picked it up in Boston and raced the 2002 Blackburn Challenge, over 20 miles around Gloucester and Cape Ann, Massachusetts six days later (in 3:46 hours). What a boat, what speed for a canoe, what stability, compared to my Verlen Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe, especially in the rough stuff and in following seas, and what an eye-catcher.

Ready for the big race
Ready for the big race


At the end of the race I had less than a cup of water in the boat. I was psyched. So how do you keep a boat like that upright? Let me first reiterate the basic open water rule: Open water is not for beginners! A sea kayaker with intermediate open water skills, though, can quickly learn to enjoy paddling this “outrageous contraption” (a word I often hear used by local fishermen, who do not know what to make of this boat. It just does not fit their dory-shaped boat concept.). Solo outriggers also attract a lot of Olympic boat paddlers as well as USCA marathon canoeists - boaters with great balance, a need for speed, and no boat to join the fun out on the ocean.

Being a well-versed and very prudent expert sea canoeist with many successful long distance ocean trips under my belt, I felt confident I could handle the “new beast” even with only six days for set-up and practice. I am a quick learner, very analytical, and can transfer my skills from one type of boat to another. I have gone through many boat switches in my life.

I found a very good set-up for the Blackburn by quickly testing all adjustable parameters, and have only tweaked it ever so slightly since then. A proper set-up for the wind and sea conditions at hand are very important for this type of boat. And practice, as we all know, builds confidence in yourself and the boat.
My Savage River Surfrigger  (which in other parts of the world is known as the Pacific 24) has an adjustable seat and solid foot braces, the bow bulkhead, with toe steering flaps.

So you adjust the seat to get comfortable, not the footbrace, as you would in a kayak. The large deep rudder is over four feet from the stern, like on an Olympic kayak. It has a real bite and turns the boat, or better, keeps the boat tracking where you want it to go in the waves. It will nicely allow you to paddle on the side you need to paddle because of wind and sea conditions. In real rough conditions or being on a glide with waves from behind, you would want to paddle on starboard, so you can throw a low brace in case the ama lifts and you feel yourself going in on the right.

The ama on my boat has three adjustment features. You can set the ama closer or farther away from the hull. I find this superfluous, because when you set it closer, you hit it with your paddle on the port side, and of course it makes the whole shebang more tippy. So I have it set up way out, 36 inches that is, which seems to be just right for my return paddle swing. (Most other boats do not even have this adjustment. It really is not necessary.)

The second adjustment controls the trim of the ama. It can be trimmed level for flat water with easy riffles, or bow up, for heavier sea conditions, especially with following seas. “Ama up” will help the bow of the ama go over the waves rather than dig in. I now keep the ama bow all the way up all the time, since it does not slow me down enough to make any difference, and I do not like the idea of spinning out and dumping at sea.

The third is the most important set-up feature; actually it is the only one I tinker with now. It allows the boat to be slightly leaned towards the ama. Keeping the ama down on the water is all-important in a seaway. I tell myself: “Ama down! Or ‘ama’ going to dump to starboard!” And that can happen real fast if you are not paying attention to the waves and your ama. If the waves come from the left, you see, they will lift the ama before they get to the boat.

At the finish of the Blackburn Challenge race
At the finish of the Blackburn Challenge race

When the ama lifts, you will lose your balance and you will be levered unceremoniously off your bucking bronco to starboard. So, anticipate the wind and sea conditions and set yourself up for them in advance, before you head out that is. You cannot make adjustments on the water. If you haven’t set yourself up perfectly, you will have to watch the waves and your ama more carefully, and anticipate the lift by leaning to your left and be ready with a low brace on your right. (I even put bright tape on my black ama so I can see it rise better out of the corner of my eye.)

I always put in some lean to the left. It increases your stability. With rougher sea conditions, especially from the left or from behind, I put in more. Waves from the right are no problem, and heading into them is hard work in any boat and can be wet. But the spray hardly ever reaches the cockpit - I feel even less so than with most sea kayaks. 
A 50-51 inch long carbon fiber Zaveral bent-shaft canoe paddle does fine, but don’t forget to lash a spare to the rear iako. I also have a small Ritchie compass firmly mounted on the deck just in front of the cockpit rim (out of the way of my paddle swing over the bow), and I do use the boat leash and always bring a hand bailer and sponge, out of habit, I guess. And please do wear your life jacket. It won’t do you any good in the boat, especially if you get separated from it.


I raced the Blackburn again in 2003, and loved the boat even more than the previous year - I guess because I could relax more. But this boat is just as much fun on day trips with a small dry bag under the elevated seat, and spray skirt on for the colder seasons. I haven’t gone swimming off the boat yet, i.e. dumped, only a couple of times on a warm lake in summer, practicing my wet reentry. No, you cannot roll these boats; you get bucked off into the water.

A boat for all seasons
A boat for all seasons

But then you just flip the boat over from the non-ama side, bail out the swamped cockpit area (everything else is sealed off with two bulkheads) and climb back in with one foot on the ama, right hand on the stern iako. At that point you need to get reoriented and make sure you still have a paddle in hand. After that you can think of opening the self-bailer, and have it finish the job for you while you pick up speed again. Eventually you will refasten your spray skirt. By then the incident is forgotten. Once I climbed in without hand bailing, and it worked also. In any case, leave the self bailer open till you reach your destination.


Here now are a couple of web sites you might want to check out. More and more companies are offering solo outriggers for sale, even Midwestern and East Coast manufacturers like Wenonah in Minnesota and Savage River  in Maryland. And new outrigger canoe clubs are springing up everywhere, from St. Petersburg, Florida, which already boasts a membership of 300! paddlers, to the more regional Boston Outrigger Club and ECORA (East Coast Outrigger Association) .

So you see, you don’t have to go to Hawaii any more to enjoy riding those outrageous outriggers. You can buy these boats right here, or join a club. Bring Hawaii to Maine, as I have. And remember, when you next see one of these boats on the water in your neck of the woods, act nonchalant and knowledgeable, and please don’t point to ama and iakos saying: “Training wheels, eh?”


Info sources: (Oakland/Swanton, MD ) (Winona, MN) (Milford CT) (Boston, MA) (ECORA) (A great source of information for outriggering along the Atlantic Seaboard from Florida to Maine. Also check out their LINKS)

© Reinhard Zollitsch