In Hawaii, there wouldn't be much newsworthy or even noteworthy in the following sentence:

Almost 85 crew members in 14 outrigger canoes are scheduled to line up today starting at 7 a.m. for three separate races that will cover 12 to 15 miles of open ocean.

But since today's races will go from Atlantic City to Margate and back, that makes this event a bit more unusual than it would be in Hawaii - where more than 1,000 paddlers routinely race 40 or so miles between the islands of Molokai and Ouahu each October in a 59-year-old tradition called the Molokai Hoe.

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The Atlantic City race, the Hoe Wa'a Challenge, will start and finish at Gardner's Basin on Absecon Inlet. The event is sponsored by the Philadelphia Outrigger Ca-noe Club, whose members expect the race to draw teams from as far away as Toronto - and hope their first-ever race in the local ocean will spark some South Jersey interest in a sport that hasn't made much of a splash around our shores before now.

"I never thought I'd be paddling in a race here," says Mike Cordi, 50, who now lives in Ocean City, but was a longtime Hawaii resident before he and his wife, Tara, moved back to her home state in 2001.

Mike, a computer specialist at the Federal Aviation Administration, made that Molokai Channel crossing seven times in his Hawaii days, but figured his outrigger-canoe career was pretty much over when he headed east with the family in 2001. He stumbled across the Philadelphia club online a few years later and joined, and since then, he has been driving an hour and a half or so to get to practice with his team on the Schuylkill River.

Now he isn't the only the POCC member who hopes the club can find a spot to keep one of its 45-foot-long, outrigger-stabilized canoes somewhere near the local shoreline, both for the convenience of the move and the rightness of it.

"These boats in Hawaii are paddled in the ocean. They're really made for the ocean," says Cordi, who adds that for a few summers around 2004 and '05, the club did find a home for a boat at a North Wildwood marina.

Today's race will be the POCC's second event within the last few weeks at Gardner's Basin, which Cordi says has been "a perfect location" as a South Jersey base from which the club can try to expand. One Sunday morning earlier this month, POCC members invited anyone - even people who had never seen an outrigger before - to have a seat and try paddling, with help from club veterans.

More than 30 people showed up and got turns on the boat, and most were outrigger rookies - although some had experience rowing or paddling different kinds of boats or boards, ones more commonly seen in our local waters. A bunch of members of the Brigantine Rowing Club were there, and so were people who have paddled the Ventnor-based dragon boat brought to the area by Gilda's Club of South Jersey, the cancer-support group.

But then there were Jack and Diane McKeefery, now of Mays Landing, who lived for almost 20 years in Hawaii - and who spent many hours of their lives paddling outriggers around that state, and well beyond.

Jack, 61, who has owned a bar in Cape May and tended one in Atlantic City, figures he made that Molokai Channel crossing 18 times - 15 of them in a six-man boat, and three more in a solo canoe. He also traveled and paddled "all through the South Pacific, Fiji, Samoa, Australia ..." and more, he said this week, recalling some of his outrigger adventures.

So he was shocked, and happy, to see the Philadelphia club was holding an event close to his home, and he and his wife - a seven-time veteran of the Molokai race - definitely wanted in. But for all the outrigger traveling they've done in their lives, they didn't want to have to add Philadelphia to their itinerary.

For one thing, practicing for a grueling outrigger race is already plenty of work: For some Molokai crossings, Jack remembers "a practice could be six or seven hours. ... So I'm not going to drive an hour and a half to Philadelphia just to practice," he says.

"I've never paddled anywhere but the ocean, or open bays," Jack adds, including in "20- to 25-foot seas. It didn't feel that big to me, but that's what the weather reports said. ... It's such a rush - you can go for half a mile on one big swell without paddling. ... And being out there, seeing whales and porpoises - there's no rush like it."

Sure, he knows Hawaii's waves and other water conditions are different from New Jersey's. But he says when he was out in the ocean last week for a practice session with some POCC members - in a canoe steered by Cordi, a guy McKeefery used to race against in Hawaii - the team was still catching some swells to help move them along faster.

No one could say this week how close the boats will be to shore when they start racing this morning in three divisions - men's, women's and mixed. Cordi was sure everyone would stay out past the breakers as they paddle down to about Lucy the Elephant in Margate and back, but just how far out that will be depends on how big and busy the waves are.

McKeefery expects the paddlers to stay as close to shore as the surf will allow them to - on the old shortest-distance-between-two-points theory. They would waste energy and lose time if they go out too far out into the ocean, he says.

But the one place where the organizers are confident spectators will be able to see the races well is right along Absecon Inlet in Atlantic City. The Boardwalk is damaged and closed in places there, as it parallels Maine Avenue, but there are still spots where it's open.

If you're thinking of going, though, be advised there will no doubt be long gaps between when the races leave Gardner's Basin and when they return. Cordi figured the fastest teams, the men's division, should cover their course in about two hours - if conditions are good.

Both these veterans hope today's races can draw some new fans and participants to a sport they love. Cordi's goal is for the event to help find a South Jersey base for the Philadelphia outrigger club. Plus his fellow POCC member, Margo Pellegrino, of Medford - who once paddled a canoe solo from Florida to Maine - adds the club plans to be a good neighbor to the shore area by setting up youth programs to pass on the skills of the sport and its old-school values to a new generation of paddlers.

Here's how McKeefery sums up the benefits, after decades in outriggers.

"It's a fantastic way of getting in shape, of getting in touch with the ocean and the elements, and meeting new people," he said. "So I hope we'll be able to get a club started down here."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


Hoe Wa'a Challenge races

Scheduled to start at roughly 7:30 and 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at Gardner's Basin, 800 N. New Hampshire Ave., Atlantic City. For details on the race or to contact the club, see

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