Category Archives: outrigger

The Ocean & Me

This post is about my experiences with the ocean, and is one of a series to support my 39th Birthday Wish

My maternal ancestors come from the Isle of Man, a peculiar piece of land that’s situated in the Irish Sea. My ggggrandfather and his kin were ship captains, and were certainly smugglers like most who hailed from Manx ports.  A few years ago when we visited the Isle we saw his warehouse in the main port city.  We also saw the ancestral farmlands and the parish cemetery where nearly every headstone had a familiar name.

I didn’t see the ocean myself until I was 14 years old, having grown up in Oklahoma and Colorado.  I’d just completed a year of chemotherapy treatments and my family planned a HUGE trip to California.  My first glimpse of the ocean was from PCH, driving towards San Diego from LAX.  By that time I’d already lost my leg and was ambulating rather precariously using crutches and an ill-fitting prosthetic limb.  I don’t recall actually dipping my toes into the Pacific during that trip, though it’s possible that I did.  Much of my memory of that era is long gone–which may be a blessing given how tough a time it was for me.

Shortly after that trip to California my family relocated from Denver to Bakersfield, which meant that we lived close enough to visit the beach a few times every year.  However, because none of my prosthetic limbs were water-proof (or even water-resistant), I had to use crutches when I wanted to be on the beach.  And the logistics of trying to “crutch” in the waves was so frustrating, I never went more than shin-deep in the ocean until about two years ago.  Isn’t that crazy?  My first swim in the ocean was at age 36!  That summer John & the kids helped me do so by fetching my crutches back and forth as I needed them to enter & exit the ocean.  And I had the opportunity to swim in both the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean that year because of our family vacation to the outer banks of North Carolina.


When I decided to take up the sport of outrigger canoeing, I met with my prosthetist and discussed the possibility of crafting a waterproof leg that I could wear in and out of the canoes.  He’d never made a leg like the one that I wanted, but was willing to see what he could come up with!  He ended up cobbling together a “pirate” pegleg with an ankle joint at the knee (the only waterproof joint he could find that could be locked into both straight and bent positions).  There’s a little knob that I turn at my knee when I transfer from walking to sitting in the boat, that locks the knee in either position.  Perhaps the most questionable part of this leg was whether it would stay on when I fell out of the boat or needed to jump into the ocean (such as in 9-man season when we change seats for the long races).  The first time I tried was on a “huli drill” where I had tip our 6-man canoe to practice the recovery process.  I was in charge of tipping the boat because I was the steersman.  I can’t tell you how scared I was about that–not even knowing if my leg would stay on once I fell into the water, much less knowing how it would work to swim in the ocean with it attached to my body!

But what I learned from my huli drill & from the other times that I wore it in the ocean, was that leg does stay on and that it’s quite a gift to be able to walk autonomously from beach to water.  Each time that I’ve jumped out into the waves and started swimming is a miracle to me.  I don’t take it for granted even for a second!  It took me 36 years to swim in the ocean and when I did, it felt so “right.”

I suspect that my love for the ocean runs gene-deep, coming from my island ancestors who sailed the seas. But whatever the reason, when I’m in the ocean I feel connected to the universe in a way that I’ve never felt in any other space.  With the water buoying me up, the rhythm of the waves rocking my body, the sun warming my skin, and the thrill of the unknown below…it’s there that I feel the complete perfection of my life and this world.

C, Suz and me in the waves
Picture of me in the Atlantic Ocean with GameBoy and my little sister.

My 39th Birthday Wish

Many of you probably remember my birthday wish last year, where we raised over a thousand dollars for HandReach to purchase prosthetic limbs for Huang Meihua, a survivor of the Sichuan earthquake.  What a wonderful experience that was, particularly because I was marking the 25th anniversary of my cancer diagnosis with that event.

I wanted to do something similar this year, and have thought a lot about what might be an appropriate organization to support with birthday donations.  Because here’s the thing:  I have everything I need and want.  And my birthday would be so much more meaningful if we could “gift” something together.  So I’ve got a plan…

But first, a story:  Nearly two years ago when I was just starting to recover from my leg infection and wanted to “get healthy” again by exercising, I was chatting with my neighbor.  I was telling her how frustrated I was with nearly every athletic activity that I’d tried, because I always had to ‘adapt’ the activity to me–to do different poses than the rest of the yoga class, to ride a heavy 3-wheeler instead of regular bicycle, and so forth.  I told her that I wanted to find a sport that I could do without having to alter it for my different body.  She then told me about some of her friends who had lower-limb issues (from  amputation to blown out knees to nerve damage) who were outrigger or dragon boat paddlers.  She then suggested that I try it out and told me about her team (IMUA Outrigger Canoe Club).

Well, most of you have already heard what happened after that…and you have been all-too-kind in indulging my paddling passion in the meantime…

So here’s how this is relevant to my birthday:

First and most importantly, I want each of you to think about someone you know that should know about paddling, and share my story with them.  Tell them about the one-legged 39 year-old blogger that you discovered through the magic of the internet and let them know that paddling is the perfect sport for someone who has lower limb issues (or for anyone who loves the water and wants to move their body!).  Send them the link to my website.  Spread the good word of the paddle far and wide.  Really, truly, this is what I most want for my birthday.  I want to reach the folks out there who need to know that outrigger canoeing just might be the perfect sport for them.  Here are some relevant links that you could send them:

My first race–when our boat tipped over just after the starting line

Learning to steer the canoe 

On Cancer, Canoes, & Connectedness

My thoughts after racing from Newport Beach to Catalina Island

So share this with your friends and drop a comment below to let me know how it went.  I can’t wait to hear about it!  To know that others might find paddling as satisfying as I have, would be the perfect gift.

Second:  As I’ve become more involved in the outrigger community, I’ve learned that there are some “Adaptive” racing opportunities out there for those of us with disabilities.  For example, you might remember that originally I’d planned on spending birthday #39 in New Caledonia, paddling for an Adaptive team at the World Va’a Champs.  But our racing division was canceled because there weren’t enough Adaptive teams signed up for the event.  What I’ve learned from this is that I don’t really need to paddle for an Adaptive team. Outrigger is a sport the ‘levels the playing field’ and I can compete with bipeds just fine.  And this is where the second part of my wish comes in…

My Team, IMUA, has three lower-limb amputee paddlers.  When I showed up on the beach for practice for the first time, no one suggested that I wasn’t “able” enough to compete with the team.  Though team members were more than willing to make sure that I could get in & out of the boat okay (which, before I got my waterproof prosthesis, meant stowing my crutches on the beach above the tideline as we launched), there was never a moment where anyone suggested that I needed to be on a different team because of my disability.  And the fact that IMUA has three amputee paddlers when I don’t know of any others in our league says a lot about our team’s openness.  Not only do we have amputee paddlers, but we have paddlers with bodies of all shapes and of all ages (from 7 years-old to 70 years-old!).  Some of us are elite athletes and some of us are just keeping fit.  The diversity of the team is its biggest strength!

So if you’d like to give a donation to celebrate my birthday, I’m asking that you donate to IMUA in my name, to carry on the good work of the team that has embraced me this past year.  Our team is doing so much good in the world of paddling–from sending a Senior Masters Team to race in Hawaii this week, to developing a full-fledged Children’s program that includes 3 groups at different age levels (my kids’ teams), to being the most enthusiastic group at the local races.  To sweeten the deal, for everyone who donates $39, I’ll take you out on the water for your own personal outrigger lesson!  We’ll go out for a few hours in the Newport harbor on 1 or 2-man outrigger canoes.  If you’re not local, we’ll take a raincheck for the next time you’re in SoCal (because everyone tends to get down here for one reason or another!).  My birthday goal is to find 10 friends who’d like to donate $39 for a personal paddling lesson.  (Note: If you want to donate, send me the funds via PayPal to janaremyATgmailDOTcom.  I’ll have a button up on my site in a day or two where you can make direct donations to the team, but until then, just send the money to me and I’ll pass it along to the team).

So it’s really simple, friends.  Don’t bother with birthday cards or cake or anything like that.  Just tell my story to someone that you know and pass along the link to this post and/or some of my other outrigger posts.  And if you’re ready to join in the fun, pledge some money and we’ll get you all set up for your very own lesson.  By doing this, you’ll give me a super gift.  Because if we can share this sport with just a few friends and friends-of-friends who really need to hear that there’s the perfect mode of exercise out there for their particular body, then I’ll be thrilled!  That will make my day and my year just perfect!

some lessons from the sea

Just returned from a family adventure to the Santa Barbara coast.  Catgirl & I had races launching off of Leadbetter Beach on Saturday morning, so it seemed a great excuse for the family to “get away” for a couple of days.  [Note: Why does “getting away” in LA necessarily mean hours of time spent fighting traffic (sigh). Next year we will plan better so we can take the train instead of driving…]

Our campground was one of those where there is more space for cars and RVs than for tents (hello, SoCal), and our campfire was only about 10 feet away from that of our neighboring site.  But the location was incomparable.  On the other side of that campfire was a chainlink fence and on the other side of the fence: traintracks! (oh, how I do love me a train!).  Periodically the Surfliner and freight trains would come crashing through–so loud that the ground shook and it felt like they would soon come barreling into our campsite.  Perfect!  Oh, and on the other side of a row of RV campsites was the water–the waves crashing loudly against cliffs of natural bitumen.  Scrambling along those cliffs was quite the adventure for us!  Amazing shells, rocks and other wonders.  Because we arrived at dusk we mostly explored the cliffs (at high-ish tide) in the dark that first night.  As I sat on an outcropping with my legs dangling down far enough to catch the spray of the waves crashing beneath me, all was right in my world.

Saturday morning we arose before dawn to prep for our race.  Catgirl launched with her canoe into the ocean around 8am. It was their first surf entry and their first paddle in the open ocean.  When we could see that about a mile out a boat huli’d, we quickly asked some race officials whether it was the Keiki girls.  But it wasn’t and they were quite safe and invigorated by their 4mi paddle! They hardly even look weary in this post-race photo!

Just after they returned, I set out for my own race, a 13mi triangle out on the open ocean.  I was slated in an “Open Coed” boat with a new-to-me crew.  I’d only paddled with the other two gals a few times and the three boys I met for the first time as we hopped in the canoe. My past experience with new-to-each-other crews is not so good–often it means that you don’t blend well or know how to support each other.  I had resigned myself to having a tough (meaning: long and frustrating) race.  On top of that, I’d been asked to sit in seat #1, which I’d only done a few times at practice, and never for such a lengthy race.  Seat one is particularly tough because you set the pace for the entire boat.  And every time you set your blade, you’re putting it into ‘dead water’ because you’re out in front.  It’s hard to sit up there and keep a good rhythm for any length of time–especially out on the open ocean where you’re often taking the full force of the wind and waves and having to “keep time.”  Adding  to the difficulty is that you often can’t hear what’s happening in the boat behind you, because you’re sitting so far forward of the rest of the crew.

The race started and we were dead last.  Last.  In a sea of 50+ boats, that is pretty discouraging news, indeed. I tried to remind myself that I was paddling for the fun and experience and not just for medals.  I was looking at the scenery.  I was trying not to focus on all of those other boats out there in front of us, getting smaller by the second…

And then somewhere between mile three and five, something changed.  Other crews that had started out fast were starting to fatigue.  But I could feel that my boat was just getting warmed up.  We’d figured out each other’s rhythms.  Things were starting to gel (and, especially, the guys in seat 2 and 3 were keeping us all motivated).  And then we started passing other boats.  Two, then three, then four.  More than I could keep track of.  Seat #2 kept pointing out to me how tired those crews looked and how strong we were.  We kept going.  We neared one of the oil rigs off the coast–our first turning point.  Kathy, our steerer, took that turn beautifully and we gained more ground.  By the second turn at about mile 8, we were gaining on the other crew from our own team.  I whooped as we passed, knowing that we weren’t supposed to be passing them.  But…wow!  In those last few miles the wind picked up and we started to get catch some bump.  We were surfing the swells and then we saw off the left hand side of the boat a group of about 40-50 seals, all frolicking around us–undoubtedly curious about this odd group of canoes crossing their kelp beds.  That sight alone was enough to give a second wind, but then I also heard the train off in the distance.  It whistled as it sped by us on the coast (or was this just my dazed imagination? I’m not even sure now).  I let myself feel that sound–the sound of an engine on its tracks–and kept my arms going, even though I realized that the paddle was feeling so heavy I wasn’t sure that I keep hold of it!

Heading into the finish line we were neck-and-neck with another coed crew–so close that I’m not even sure which one of us crossed first.  We didn’t place in the top three boats of our division, but  I do believe we were 4th or 5th–a huge change from dead last!  After we crossed the line and slowly turned the boat around, one of my teammates pointed out the dozens and dozens of other boats still crossing the line behind us.  We had passed all of those.  It was more than I could wrap my head around.

I was so sore, I needed help getting out of the boat and walking thru the surf to the shore.

In a daze I wandered back to our team’s camp and ate and drank and curled up on the grass for a nap.  I can’t even express just how great it feels to have worked so hard, and especially to have worked so hard as a team. I’m glad that they all believed in me, and that we kept powering through the race even though we had such a rough beginning.  And I’m learning that that’s exactly what it means to wear the IMUA jersey.

Later that night we returned to the beach near our campsite and I had lots of time to think about what I’d learned. 

Note: all of these gorgeous pictures were taken by John Nakamura Remy.  How fortunate I am to be tied to a man with such vision. A full set of pictures from the race day are here.

It’s time for a new carrot

harbor mouth with the nose of my boat
The past few days have been the most extreme tides of the year–the water so high that it’s barely possible to paddle under some bridges, then the water so low that the Back Bay is mostly mudflats. This has also resulted in HUGE amounts of debris being pulled into the water–some chunks of it are large tangled island masses of branches and trash that are 4 or 5 times the size of my boat. Much of it is just random floating crap–so paddling through the channel is a bit like a slalom race. Yesterday I veered around something that looked like a tree branch, only to learn seconds later that it was a huge log (most of it submersed under water) and it made a loud thwack it collided with my outrigger. I was afraid that I’d cracked something and might even be taking on water. But the next few minutes went smoothly and I forgot about it until I brought my boat up to the deck for cleaning. I found an ugly gash on the ama (the outrigger float), exposing the carbon fiber shell under the gelcoat finish. Fortunately, it seems that the damage is purely superficial. It was still discouraging, though.

The scratch on the ama was on my mind when I went out again this morning. I work pretty hard to keep my boat in good condition–taking good care of her so she’ll do her best for me. I hate to see her get dings and scratches. And then I had this ‘aha’ moment: the best way to keep my boat in ‘pristine’ condtion would be to keep her stored away safely. She can’t help but show some wear if I keep taking her out on the water. And it was right then that I decided to wear out my boat–by paddling regularly and hard. Of course, I’ll still be on the watch for floating tree trunks…but I won’t stop getting out on the water just because I’d like to keep the pretty paintjob.

The other thing that was foremost in my thoughts as I paddled this weekend, was the news that I got on Friday: our division was canceled at the World Champs because too few teams could afford the trip to New Caledonia. I knew this might be a possibility because several teams had already pulled out. But the final news was pretty disheartening. I’ve used that upcoming race as a “carrot” to keep up my practicing and cross-training all winter long. And I was so looking forward to paddling the waters in the South Pacific in May. But of course I still aim to do so…someday.

So now I need a new carrot, a new goal to work towards. It might be a special race or reward for reducing my per-mile speed by a specific amount. I’m not sure yet. But if you have any good ideas, I’m all ears. (oh, and I’m also looking for a new way to ring in my biggest birthday yet now that I’m no longer planning to win me a shiny medal that week).

And just like the inevitable scratches on my boat, I’m sure I’ll continue to encounter a variety of bumps as I continue paddling–canceled races, bad weather, damaged boats, etc. But if I was gonna let the challenges stop me, I’d never have gotten back in the canoe on that memorable first race…

let it splash…

When the ocean surges, don’t let me
just hear it. Let it splash inside my chest!

Kuroshio Sea – 2nd largest aquarium tank in the world – (song is Please don’t go by Barcelona) from Jon Rawlinson on Vimeo.

via worldhum

I can’t even express how deeply it thrills me to realize that these creatures are swimming below and around me when I paddle on the ocean–thus, I need poetry (and photography)! The ocean itself seems a kind of creature, its cycles and rhythms are at both completely regular and completely unpredictable. Added to that is the beauty of all that finds home within its depths…

On Saturday, for the first time, I tested out a waterproof camera setup to take out with me on my outrigger canoe. I snapped pics of pelicans and shorebirds, and the various landmarks that are part of the Newport channel. And here’s me, on my boat*:

me & my boat!!

I wish the ocean was as clear and blue in the Newport area as it is in the Japanese aquarium captured above. I rarely ever actually “see” anything swimming in the water except for the trash floating on the surface. So that’s one reason I’m really thrilled to be headed to the South Pacific in a few months–to see some really clear blue water. Of course the other reason for my excitement is that I’ll be competing in my first international outrigger competition. And that, my friends, is as amazing and unbelievable as life can be…

*We rigged up a sweet steering system for my canoe so I can maneuver with just one foot pedal.

last night

Full Moon over the Back Bay, originally uploaded by mind on fire.

John captured this picture of the full moon over the Back Bay last night. I went out paddling by the light of this moon, which worked well until my rudder got stuck (the tide being so very low that I couldn’t navigate through a familiar route). I had to hop out of my boat and walk it back to deeper waters (brrr…it was a bit chilly to be soaked up to my waist!).

I feel so fortunate to have such beauty around me…and so many opportunities to enjoy it.

From Mary Oliver, “How Would You Live Then?”

…What if you saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver
of money? What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
and every day–who knows how?, but they do it–were
more precious, more meaningful than gold?


this rose has a song to sing, originally uploaded by pilgrimgirl.

I feel like I need to plan something special towards the end of this month, to celebrate the fact that this is not last year, that John is not rushing home to see me admitted into the hospital, that I don’t have any surgery looming, and that I am HEALTHY.

Do ya’ll have any suggestions on a special way to celebrate?

(Oh, and let me just add that last night I steered our canoe on the most amazing swells so far–each one brought our boat up high and the nose crashed down with a resounding splash. We went out a few miles into the open ocean with just the roar of the waves and the quiet calling of the paddlers. I think the gals in the front of the boat were a bit spooked by the big swells–because they were staring down into the abyss as the canoe plunged downwards. Yet from my vantage point in the back it was like riding the most amazing and unpredictable roller-coaster, but I never had a moment of fear. I just kept looking out at that big wide ocean and I felt as if it was one of the most ‘real’ experiences of my life. I continue to marvel at just how wonderful and varied the ocean is, how amazing it is to be one with it and with the sky and with the wind. That sensation is more than I could ever have dreamed of a year ago!

PS: If you want to try your hand at paddling, our team is sponsoring event for just that and I’d love to have you join us! I’ll even steer your boat if you sign up!)