JD Davies Outrigger Northwest

Bringing Outrigger Canoes from the Hawaiian Islands to the Pacific Northwest

JD Davies, a master of water sports on the Columbia River, revives an ancient floating art form

By Christopher Van Tilburg 

Few know more about navigating the Columbia River’s white water than JD Davies. From kayaking to surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, and stand-up paddling (SUP), he has mastered just about every extreme water sport possible in our corner of the country. And over the past 22 years, Davies has also helped transport the ancient sport of outrigger canoe paddling—a sleek, swift twist on traditional canoeing involving a lateral stabilizing outrigger float for big waves and high speeds—from the South Pacific’s periphery to Oregon’s signature waterway. In July, his 19th annual Gorge Outrigger Race will draw teams from Canada, California, and Hawaii. As this year’s race approaches, we caught up with Davies about innovation, extreme conditions, and catching waves.

Thirty years ago, I started paddling six-person outrigger canoes at the legendary Lanikai Canoe Club on Oahu. I had just moved to Hawaii with a background in white-water kayaking and windsurfing. I made the team, and raced the Molokai Hoe World Championships, the pinnacle of six-person outrigger canoe racing. It’s all about riding waves: on a windy day, I can catch a wave, use the energy of the river, and see how far I ride it. Only a surfer knows the feeling.

We didn’t have one-person outrigger canoes back then, so we used surfskis—high-performance, sit-on-top race kayaks, originally developed by Australian lifeguards. We made some of the early one-person outrigger canoes by filling the surfski seat well with foam, fiberglassing on a wae (wood bracket), lashing on laminated wood iakos (crossbeams) that we made in a homemade jig, and strapping on the fiberglass ama (outrigger float). We used old bicycle tubes for straps.

People are always looking for something new. Twenty-two years ago after moving to the Gorge, I’d fly down the Columbia River on a surfski or outrigger canoe among all the windsurfers and kitesurfers. Since I still spent winters in Hawaii, I brought over as many used canoes as I could. They started selling quickly. What was old design in Hawaii was new here, and the sport began to take off. That was the beginning of Portland’s Mountain Home Canoe Club. Now I sell 70 canoes and surfskis a year, from Washington to Northern California.

I started building outrigger canoes in the late ’90s. I wanted to build a custom boat for myself, but I was too busy building them for others. My partner and I built bent-shaft white-water and touring kayak paddles—still in production today. Then I designed the first true bent-shaft SUP paddle. In 2003, I helped design and build one of the first stand-up paddleboards in the Gorge by splitting a tandem surfboard foam blank, adding four inches of foam, and laminating the 12-foot board with sheets of fiberglass.

The Gorge Outrigger Race started on an airplane 20 years ago. I sat next to the organizer of the Gorge Games, and we put together the first race as part of the weeklong sports festival in 1997. We had 20 canoes race. This year, the 19th Gorge Outrigger Race will have close to 60 crews.

Conditions are difficult in the Gorge. It can be brutal for a crew or steersperson inexperienced in rough water and high wind. In 2013, with heavy winds and big swells, we had seven swamped canoes and another four that didn’t finish the race. Even the experienced teams had trouble facing three-foot swells and 35 mph wind in their face.

Sometimes I’ll surf the wake of the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. With a stand-up paddleboard, it’s difficult to catch the rolling waves. But with an outrigger canoe, you pop a few quick strokes, accelerate quickly, and catch the wave easily. Downwind runs are more fun, though, because the waves and current are constantly changing.

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