Central Saanich’s Tsartlip canoe team preparing for 2017 Tahiti event

Geronimo Canoe Club training relies on a lifetime of traditional padding in war canoes.

Members of the Tsartlip First Nation's Geronimo Canoe Club steel themselves before hitting the water of the Saanich Inlet for some paddle training.

The  lack of an actual outrigger canoe is no barrier to members of the Tsartlip First Nation, as they prepare for an international competition in Tahiti next spring.

Years of training and competing in their traditional war canoes have prepared them to paddle strong in almost any small boat — all they need is the chance to practise a little and get used to the dynamics of the different craft.

They learned that the hard way on a couple occasions.

“We have actually flipped over in a couple of outrigger races,” said Gus Morris, a member of the Geronimo Canoe Club based on the Central Saanich area indigenous community. “One was during the Canadian nationals.”

In both cases, recalled team member Joe Seward, they were able to right their vessel and continue the race. They didn’t place first, but battled back to finish second on one occasion, sixth in the other.

It is thanks to their training in war canoes that they were able to right the ship both times.

“Our war canoe events usually have tip-over races,” Seward said, adding they involve flipping their canoes over on purpose, baling them out and continuing the race.

Plus, their traditional canoes are a lot lower in the water and can flip easily if a paddler doesn’t have experience in them.

That’s not the case for club members Seward, Morris, George Horne and Len Morris Jr. They have been paddling since they were children. They grew up on the Tsartlip reserve, to parents who were part of the canoe club as well.

“Our grandparents started the club,” said Gus. “Then our parents took it over. Now it’s our turn to run this.”

Since childhood, the four friends and teammates have paddled and competed in their traditional war canoes. They typically train in the spring and summer, taking part in events among other Island, mainland and Washington State first nations communities. Even in the winter, they spend time on the water to stay on top of their game and put in some gym time to stay in shape.

A few years ago, they decided to try their hand at outrigger canoe racing. The skills are much the same, said Gus, only adjusting their paddling to a different canoe.

“It’s quite a bit different, said Horne. “In outriggers, you sit in a seat and your legs are bent. In a war canoe, you’re sitting on the bottom with your legs stretched out.”

Being able to properly adjust while paddling, Horne added, is the difference between smooth sailing or turning over.

Without an outrigger canoe of their own, the paddlers have had to borrow or rent them to compete in races. Horne added because they don’t train regularly on them, they typically lean to one side of the canoe, dragging its outrigger in the water, to help prevent a sudden flip. The Geronimo Canoe Club is hoping to raise enough money to buy an outrigger canoe of their own — and also to help pay the cost of flying to Tahiti next spring to compete in the 2017 IVF World Distance Championships. From June 3 to 5, 2017 they will paddle against some of the world’s strongest teams from New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti and more. Len Morris Jr. will also be competing in the men’s solo race — an event he won in Canada.

The Tsartlip team won the Canadian Outrigger Racing Association’s open men’s race in August — sparking their desire to compete against top international teams next spring.

They will be going to the event without a canoe of their own but Horne said they will be provided one when they arrive. They will bring their own paddles and supplies — and will have a short time to prepare to face those elite teams.

“I don’t think we’ve ever raced against competition like that,” said Gus. “It’s a good opportunity for us to see where we stand with the best in the world.”

“We’ve worked so hard all our lives,” added Seward. “We’re following our traditions and we’ve been through a lot personally. We’ve had a lot of losses in our family. I feel like we’re finally being rewarded for our hard work.”

He added they hope to do their best to represent their community and Canada.

“I wouldn’t go with anyone else,” added Horne. “These guys … we’re like brothers. We’re all about the same age and there’s a lot of love between us.”

Club spokesperson Marla Sampson said they will start their fund raising effort later this month with online campaigns announced through the club’s Facebook page (Geronimo Canoe Club Tahiti 2017).

She said they hope to raise around $150,000. That will help pay for the trip to the competition, as well as an outrigger canoe for the organization.