Outrigger Canoe Race – The Catalina Crossing: 1959-2023

Courtesy photo Catalina Crossing Display.

The first Catalina Channel Crossing race in outrigger canoes took place on September 20, 1959 one month after Hawai’i became the 50th State. Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Olympic swimmer and surfing legend was the first Grand Marshall of the event and oversaw the race and festivities. Two teams – one Hawaiian All-Star crew and one California crew which included Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison and other surfers from Doheny Beach – competed for the first championship.

The Catalina Channel Crossing race was organized by A.E. “Toots” Minvielle (founder of the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association and the Molokai Channel Outrigger Race – the Molokai Hoe) and Tommy Zahn, a former Santa Monica lifeguard, renowned surfer and exceptional paddleboard racer. Tommy had raced a paddleboard in the 1953 Molokai Hoe and talked with “Toots” about how to expand the outrigger sport in California. Since Tommy had competed in many paddleboard races across the Catalina Channel in the 1950s (winning the race to Manhattan Beach in ’55, ’56 and ’58), the island location was a natural setting. When Tommy was hired by the Newport Lifeguard Dept. in 1958, he contacted the Newport Harbormaster and the president of the newly opened Newport Dunes Aquatic Park, and the idea of an outrigger race across the channel became a reality.

Louie and Sam Kahanamoku (brothers of Duke) selected and coached the Hawaiian All-Star team and Noah Kalama, who previously coached the Waikiki Surf Club and Hui Kalia Canoe Club, was asked by the organizers to coach the California team. “Whitey”, who had befriended the Waikiki Beach Boys and gave rides to tourists in big surf canoes, steered the entire race for the California crew using a 30 lb. wooden paddle compared to today’s paddles which weigh barely one pound. The Hawaiian All-Stars won with a time of 5 hours and 4 minutes.

A historical display of the Catalina Crossing Outrigger Canoe Race and the evolution of outrigger canoes and paddles from several Pacific Island nations can be seen in the window box of the Avalon Surf Company on Front Street. This display includes a wooden paddle used in the original 1959 race, laminated photos of the first crews that challenged the channel, and the perpetual Catalina Channel Crossing trophies awarded to the winners:

  • Overall Winner: Men’s & Women’s Division; Seaplane Trophy (Cruzan Rum, former sponsor).
  • Mayor’s Cup: 1st Place Women’s Crew, Silver Loving Cup on Koa pedestal.
  • Co-ed Division Award: 1st Place Co-ed Crew, Koa framed shadowbox.

The 2023 Race Schedule is as follows:

  • Saturday morning, September 9th: Women’s and Co-ed Crews race 28 miles from the Newport Harbor entrance to Avalon Casino Point. Award ceremonies on Wrigley Stage at 3:45 pm.
  • Sunday morning, September 10th: Men’s Crews race 32 miles from Lover’s Cove in Avalon to Newport Dunes (Back Bay) in Newport Beach.

The Catalina Island Outrigger Canoe Club is part of the City of Avalon Recreation Dept. and supports both recreational and competitive paddling practices. Club membership continues to grow and is currently at approximately 45 persons. A new “Unlimited” class, carbon fiber racing canoe (weighing just 135 lbs. compared to 400+ lbs.) has just been purchased and may be raced for the first time in the 2023 Catalina Crossing. The club is selling special edition paddling jerseys to the general public to help fund the canoe and other on-going club activities.