Paddling Upstream

First person essay by alumnus and Superior Court judge

Written by John McCarthy, '71
Photography by John McCarthy
October 6, 2011

The 14th Va’a World Sprint Championships were to be held in New Caledonia, May 19–25, 2010, and I was on my way.

I had trained all winter. As a member of a Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club in the Pacific Northwest, I was going to this distant French territory located northeast of Australia, northwest of New Zealand and east of Fiji, with a team of six paddlers to compete in the Golden Master division of the World Sprint races. At 60 years old, I may not fit the typical profile of a paddler.

Va’a is a Polynesian term in the Pacific cultures used to describe the original outrigger canoes for travel within the islands. A va’a owes its stability to a single float or outrigger fastened to the hull. Va’as are propelled by a paddler using a single blade paddle.

I remember the race as if it was yesterday.

I’m at the starting line of the final race of the V-6 Golden Master division 500-meter race at the World Championships in Noumea, New Caledonia, in a V-6 (six-person outrigger), otherwise known as an OC-6, with a select crew representing the Pacific Northwest. I have a chance to be the best in the World at 500 meters. This is the premier event of outrigger races for any men or women’s division.

More than 1,000 paddlers from 18 countries had made it to this Island. They have been battling it out in the world’s largest lagoon that surrounds New Caledonia on a beach called Ansa Vasta in Noumea in the country the French call Nouvelle Caledonie. We have paddled and raced through two days of practice and five days of competition in three different divisions and are here on the start line for the event in the finals for our age division. There are eight boats in this division, representing the best in the world.

The sun brilliantly reflects off the water. I stay focused on the paddler in front of me in my boat, Shane Baker, born in New Zealand. My head is in the boat, physically and mentally. I don’t look at any of the other boats to my right or left. We are in lane four of eight lanes, directly in the middle of the field of eight elite teams on the starting flag of the Final Championship Race.

I have visualized being here before. The race will be over in roughly 2 ½ minutes after it starts. The Golden Master World Championship will be decided with seconds separating the top boats. I am like a gunfighter, locked, loaded and ready to draw. I am Kurt Russell in Tombstone, Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. I am clear, cold, focused and prepared to make every second be deliberate, strong and the best a 60-year old body can offer. I am pure of heart. Water drips off my nose, my feet are planted on the bottom of the boat, ready to shift when we alternate paddle stroke from side to side. My consciousness is focused on the moment so I can seize the enjoyment it has to offer.

Our crew has a cast with birth ties to Hawaii, New Zealand, California, Canada, Oregon and Washington. We share a common passion and vision quest.

The race begins and we are off. I pull, recover with a quick feather move, reach, plant, breathe and pull, every stroke is in perfect harmony with the three paddlers in front of me and the two behind me. We alternate paddling from side to side to keep the boat upright, our path straight and our strength at maximum. We are totally in sync, driving downwind in this race and accelerating faster. We settle into a pattern of approximately 15 strokes per side depending on the waves, wind and other conditions.

This is the third World Outrigger Sprint race in which I have competed. They are held every other year, the first in 1984. I went to the World Championships in New Zealand in 2006 and in California in 2008. The championship races in New Caledonia historically attract the best paddlers from the Pacific Islands.

In New Caledonia, more than 320 races are run over a period of five days after two days of practice. We started fast off the line, knowing we would struggle at the halfway point.

As we approached the three-quarter point and for the last 125 meters of the 500 meter race, I could hear the public address system and the muffled English and French play-by-play announcers calling the race from the shore. The beach had 10,000 screaming fans as the race was close. We drive on, fighting for our kapuna lives against the best from Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Hawaii. This was our shot to be champions of the world. What a moment.

When we crossed the finish line, all was spent. But it was not to be on that day as our time of 2 minutes, 18 seconds put us nine seconds out of medal position. We finished sixth, ahead of the Tahitians and one of the Aussie teams.

Later that evening I expressed my disappointment at a bar in Noumea to a French-speaking resident. He told me, “Congratulations, you are the sixth best in the world, in a world of lifetime paddlers.” I hadn’t looked at it like that until he said it and he meant it with a tip of his glass to our crew.

John McCarthy, ’71, is a Superior Court Judge in Tacoma, Pierce County. He has been a judge for 19 years and a lawyer for 36. For the past 20 years he has been an avid paddler in kayaks, dragon boats and outriggers. He shares his experience of a lifetime competing in last year’s world championships in the sport.  

John McCarthy, '71, in his courtroom as a Superior Court judge in Pierce County, Wash.
McCarthy during one of his runs in New Caledonia, New Zealand, prior to the race.
A happy group: McCarthy with fellow race paddlers in New Zealand.