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Curious California sea lions have front row seats during the Whitey Harrison Canoe Classic in Dana Point. The 20-mile race, hosted by the Dana Outrigger Canoe Club, began just outside of Dana Point Harbor and finished at Doheny State Beach.

DANA POINT – Outrigger canoe teams from all over Southern California convened in the Dana Point Harbor on Saturday to participate in the 43rd annual Whitey Harrison Classic, the first in a series of nine-person Hawaiian outrigger canoe races.

Hosted by the Dana Outrigger Canoe Club, the 20-mile race began just outside the harbor, where paddlers traveled north along the shore to Main Beach in Laguna Beach and then turned around to return to the finish line between the harbor and Doheny State Beach. The women and co-ed teams raced in the morning while the men raced at noon, waiting for the arrival of the earlier teams to swap positions and boats.

The nine-person race varies considerably from other outrigger races because it consists of a team of six paddlers sitting in the canoe and three paddlers riding in a nearby escort boat. Upon receiving the signal from the steersman every 15-20 minutes, three paddlers jump out of the canoe and are replaced by the team members on the boat, who float in the open water ahead before boarding the moving canoe.

“The nine-man race is the most exciting because there is so much going on,” said Kathy Blue of San Clemente, a Dana Outrigger board member and the race chairwoman. “It’s not just you and the boat…You have your team on the support boat cheering you on. Jumping off a moving boat into openocean is a phenomenal, indescribable feeling.”

The club was founded in 1971 by Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, the renowned surfer and diver for whom the race is named. The nonprofit organization has 150 members, and the Classic is its largest fundraiser.

Paddling has become a family sport for many racers, as is the case for Ruben Ruiz, 47, of Imua Outrigger Canoe Club in Newport Beach. Ruiz coaches in addition to racing and has passed on the love for the ocean, the competition, and the tradition to his 16 year-old daughter, Jasmine, who has been competing for eight years in the Keiki Program, the younger division

“The Polynesian sport of outrigger canoeing has always been about family,” he said. “It’s part of the culture.”

Heather “Guppy” Barbosa, 42, of Newport Beach is an eight-year racer, and her team finished first in the open spec boats competition.

“Every person on the boat is in sync,” Barbosa said. “When it hits and you blend, it’s magic.”