Al Ching was at the workbench in his garage applying a bead of ruby red epoxy to the edge of an outrigger canoe paddle.
“She smacked it pretty good,” Ching said of the woman whose paddle he was repairing.
He held the paddle up to the low morning sunlight streaming into the one car garage behind his early California bungalow in Redondo Beach.
“Look how it glows,” he said.
He wasn’t referring just to the blade’s ring of gem-like epoxy, but to the whole paddle. The shaft and T-top were white poplar. The blade was western red cedar, the same wood used to skin racing shells before carbon fiber. Some outrigger canoes are also now carbon fiber.
But Ching has no interest in carbon fiber. “Carbon fiber doesn’t flex and causes shoulder and elbow injuries,” he said.
Ching can make a good argument for wood paddles. Last year, his son Danny won the 2013 OC1 (one-man outrigger canoe) Molokai to Oahu race with one of his dad’s paddles for the second time. Danny is the only non-Hawaiian ever to win the race.
But even if a superior synthetic material were found, Ching would not abandon the centuries-old tradition of wood paddles.
“No two wood paddles are alike, just as no two paddlers are alike,” he said.
Ching’s garage was stacked to the ceiling with boxes of paddles, most nearly empty because it was the end of the iron outrigger canoe season.
The Outrigger Iron Championships in San Diego, the fifth and final race of the 2014 iron series was set for June 28, just two days away.
While repairing the broken paddle Ching received a call from another female paddler. She needed a 50-inch paddle for the San Diego race.
Ching hung up shaking his head.
“She’s shorter than me, and I use a 49-inch paddle,” he said. “Her boat probably wanted a 50 because when we switch out paddlers, we don’t switch out paddles. So she’s paying for a paddle that’s too big for her to help the team.”
He pulled down a 49-inch paddle.
Ching began making outrigger canoe paddles 25 years ago out of frustration with his sport’s notoriously unreliable equipment manufacturers.
“The paddle you ordered at the start of the season would arrive at the end of the season,” he said.
When demand for his paddles threatened to put him behind in deliveries he found a recreational paddle maker in Wisconsin to help him.The father and son shop was called Mud Brook, after a nearby creek.
Today, Ching’s Mudbrook Racing Paddles sells nearly 1,000 paddles a year. Like the woman who phoned him, and the woman whose paddle he was repairing, many go to members of the Lanakila Outrigger Canoe Club in King Harbor, which he help found in 1970.
Ching grew up in Waikiki in what he recalls as an “era of innocence.”
“We hitchhiked everywhere and knew everyone,” he said. In high school, he rowed crew, played football and surfed. With money earned as a utility boy at the Hawaii Village Hotel, he dropped a bored-out Mercury block into a ‘46 Ford.
“Every weekend night my friends and I would race on country roads, trying to outrun the cops. One night I tried to lose them in a cane field. But they knew the outlets and waited for me.
“The chief recognized me and called my dad. My dad competed in hunting tournaments and the only gun range on the island was the police range.
“He told my dad he’d wipe my record clean if I joined the Marines.”
The offer was readily accepted. Ching’s dad had been climbing a telephone pole when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Ching spent the better part of the next four years as a radioman in Taiwan, then still known by its Portuguese name Formosa, eavesdropping on North Vietnam transmissions and relaying classified communications to U.S. advisors in South Vietnam.
After being shipped to Camp Pendleton and discharged, he enrolled at Pasadena City College, and then Los Angeles State College.
“On weekends, my friends and I would go to all the beach towns to play volleyball. We liked Hermosa the best. So after college I rented a place on Ninth Street, across from Fat Face Fenner’s Faloon and lived there for 25 years.”
One morning during breakfast at the Surfboarder, Jim and Jane Gierlich, who were regulars also Surfboarder regulars, asked him to do some carpentry work on their Strand home. That led to cleaning the couple’s home and the couple’s friends’ homes and finally a cleaning service that would be Ching’s livelihood.
But his life was outrigger canoes.
In 1970, at the Little Hawaii bar in Los Angeles, Ching met Sanford “Sandy” Kahanamoku, nephew of Duke Kahanamoku, and co-founder of the Marina Del Rey Outrigger Canoe Club.
“Sandi invited my friends and I to watch a race in Santa Monica the following morning. When we showed up, he counted six of us and put us in a canoe. We raced in our undershorts and placed second. That evening we went back to Little Hawaii and danced on top of the piano bar with a bunch of the paddlers. We were hooked.”
Ching, his brother Ralph and and a few friends rebuilt an old canoe they found half buried in the sand next to a fraternity house on The Strand. They named it Kaku (barracuda).
Then they built a second boat out of marine plywood that was too thick to bend, so it had a vee bottom. It was fast, so they named it Papio after the popular Hawaiian game fish. But the vee bottom also made it track to port, creating a constant problem for its steersman. That was usually Ching because, despite his prodigious power, at 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, he was the smallest member of his crew.
With two canoes, Ching decided he and his crewmates didn’t need to drive to Marina del Rey. They would form their own club and paddle out of King Harbor. They named their club Lanakila, which can mean victory or determination.
King Harbor was known by its boaters, and not pejoratively, as Champagne Harbor. It was more private club than public harbor. There was a public boat launch, but it was inaccessible. When Ching’s brother Ralph asked the city council for permission to launch their canoes inside the harbor, the council suggested they launch from the beach south of the harbor, instead.
The paddlers spent a year trucking their canoes to and from the beach and launching through the surf before the city reluctantly agreed to let them store their canoes under the Harbor Master station on Mole B. Launching the 400 pound canoes required jerry rigging a block and tackle to clear the rocks protecting the main channel.
One day at the start of practice Ching told his crew to walk a canoe down to a vacant lot on Mole B and then down the rocks to the water. To protect the paddlers’ feet, he covered the rocks with carpet remnants. Over the following weeks, he covered the lot in carpet remnants and began leaving the canoes there. The lot has been known as Carpet Beach ever since.
Periodically, the city looked for reasons to evict the increasingly numerous paddlers. One day while Ching was sanding the canoe hulls in preparation for an upcoming race, the harbor master told him sanding boats in the harbor was not permitted.
The following day Ching went to the harbor master station and asked to speak to the harbor master in private. The harbor master said their was no need to speak in private. So Ching made his plea in front of the harbor master and his patrolmen. He had spent $300 of his own money on sandpaper to get his boats ready to race. It wasn’t practical to truck the canoes in and out of the harbor to work on them. Everyone in the club volunteered their labor, he said.
The next day the harbor master pulled Ching aside and told him to do his maintenance work when he wasn’t around.
Other, more pedestrian problems threatened the club’s future during its early years. In 1973, several dissatisfied paddlers broke off to form the Nahoa club. The following year, Ching’s brother divorced and returned to Hawaii. Ching had to recruit to fill his boats. He distributed flyers at El Camino and local high schools. One of his recruits was a recent Redondo High graduate named Erin Shea. Two years later they married. Erin’s 7-year-old brother Josh was Al’s best man.
The recruiting effort also paid off that same year with Lanakila scoring an upset, second place finish at the Liliuokalani Outrigger Canoe Race in Kona. With its growing racing success, membership began to grow exponentially. One of the attractions was the luaus at the Chings’ Redondo home, with Ching on ukulele and Erin cooking. Outrigger club paddlers from throughout California and Hawaii attended a paddleout for Erin when she passed away from cancer in 2008.
The Chings had two sons, Danny and Kawika. Both grew up to be competitive paddlers. Danny is now Lanakila’s men’s coach and a paddler in its elite boat. He would miss the Iron Championships in San Diego because that same week, he was competing at the Lost Mills Stand-up Paddleboarding Sprint Championships in Germany. He sped down the 200 meter course at an average of 15 kilometers per hour, setting a new stand-up paddleboard speed record.
Al and Erin also helped raise Erin’s brother Josh, who also grew up to be a Lanakila coach.
“I lived with my mom in Puget Sound during the winters and in Redondo with my dad during the summers. But since my dad traveled a lot, I spent most of my time at Al’s and Erin’s. When we’d go to Hawaii for races, Al introduced me as his Hanai child.” A hanai child is a child taken in by friends or relatives.
“Al put me in a lifejacket when I was 10 and made me a steersman. Outrigger canoes started as my daycare and then became a way of life.
“What other sport lets you have three generations of family all on the water, all racing at the same time,” Crayton said. His 14-year-old son Garrett has raced across the Catalina Channel twice in a two man outrigger with his dad, and half a dozen times in six man outriggers. Both would race at the San Diego championships.
Ching is retiring by nature and prefers to keep to himself in the hours before a race. That was not possible at the Iron Championships, hosted the Kai Elua Outrigger Club. Friends spanning five decades of paddling wanted to say hello and have their photos taken with him.
Nearly 100 six-man outrigger canoes were on the beach at Mariners Point in Mission Bay for the competition. The staging area was covered in pop-ups and colorful banners staking out sand for the 28 clubs who are members of SCORA (Southern California Outrigger Racing Association).
The top paddlers would be racing lightweight, carbon fiber unlimited canoes. The other paddlers would race one-design Spec or Bradley canoes.
Iron races are typically 12 miles in open water, with no crew changes. Ching’s boat was 4-0 going into the championships. His club also had a narrow lead over Dana Point for the Outrigger Iron Perpetual Trophy, which is awarded to the club with the most points at the season’s end.
The day’s first race, under a gray sky, was novices and juniors. Lanakila paddlers filled 10 of the 89 canoes lined up for the six mile, short course race inside the bay. Their men’s novices won the Bradley division, but its junior boats did not fare well and its unlimited men’s novice boat was disqualified after finishing third. The club had been unable to find a seat in its junior boats for a 12-year-old girl. So a paddler in the men’s unlimited gave her his seat. Moving up a division is allowed, but not crossing gender boundaries. After a heated discussion with the judges, Ross Crayton told told his paddlers to let it go. He the promised he’d find a medal for the girl and work on getting the rule changed for the future.
The women and co-ed iron race that followed had 81 entries, seven from Lanakila. The 12 mile race started outside the bay. It followed the coast north four miles to Crystal Pier, then turned out to sea two miles, then south another four miles and finished inside the harbor, in front of the staging area at Mariners Point.
Lanakila women teams won the Bradley and masters divisions, and finished first overall to win the unlimited division.
The sky was still gray in the early afternoon when 10 Lanakila men’s canoes set out together from Mariner’s Point. Outside the harbor, they were met by a stiff westerly wind, accompanied by two-foot chop. The 57 entries struggled to hold their positions behind the start line, prompting repeated threats of disqualification, announced by the starter over his bullhorn. Unlimiteds, Specs, Bradley’s, masters (50 and over) and golden masters (55 and over) would all start at once.
Ching and three of the paddlers in his golden masters boat had raced together for the past eight seasons. Two dated back to Ching’s recruiting days.
“I was drinking beer on the Hermosa Strand in 1980 when Al came up to me and asked, ‘Do you want to paddle,’” recalled Karl Fjoslien, whose athletic experience prior to meeting Ching was schoolyard handball. What attracted Ching to Fjoslien was his mountain man size. “The next day I went to Carpet Beach and Al pointed to the number four seat, and said get in. The three and four seats in a canoe are the boiler room.
“I’ve been sitting two seats in front of Al ever since,” Fjoslien said.
The second recruit from that era was Mike McKinney. He’s almost as big as Fjoslien. He began rowing in Ching’s number two seat in 1979.
“Al’s the kind of guy you just want to hang around with. Easy going, kind, fair,” McKinney said in explaining his dedication.
Ching’s stroker is Jerry Marcil, a colleague McKinney enlisted eight years ago.
Relative newcomers Mark Miyamoto and Chris Harper filled the three and five seats.
Ching slid in downwind of a San Diego canoe whose steersman he knew and trusted and whom he knew he could beat off the line. He wanted a quick start to avoid entanglement with another boat. Crashes at the start are common. He also wanted to get out front of the turbulence paddlers leave behind them. And most importantly, he wanted an early lead to get in the other teams’ heads.
Marcil took the boat off the line at 70 strokes per minute, an unsustainable sprint pace, but it did what it was intended to do. The boat quickly found clean water behind a scattering of unlimiteds. Ching shouted congratulations to his paddlers for hitting hard on the start.
Then, halfway to the turn buoy at Crystal Pier, he saw Dana Point’s number one golden masters boat downwind, several boat lengths ahead. A few minutes later, his concern deepened when he saw Lanakila’s number two golden masters boat, steered by Rich Davis. It was upwind, several boat lengths ahead.
During the previous Tuesday’s practice, Davis’ boat had beat Ching’s, prompting Ching to email an uncharacteristic reprimand to his boatmates.
“Here’s what I see many nights,” he wrote. “We are basically nonchalant at the start … The canoe has no speed until two changes go by. ‘Wait till we turn down wind,’ we say. By then the damage is done…The other Golden crew knows us and on the first stroke they are in the water digging together. Their intensity is way above ours on every start… We have to crush our Golden opponents in practice, uphill and downhill so we can do the same in races.
PRACTICE THE WAY WE DESIRE TO RACE,” he wrote.
What he had warned about was happening. Lanakila’s number two golden masters’ boat was walking away on the uphill leg.
Paddlers in the number two boat had more in mind than just winning the Iron Championships. They wanted seats in Ching’s boat and the only way to do that was to beat Ching’s boat. Davis’ boiler room, Sam Edgerton and Steve Cannella, made no secret of their ambition. Though still short on experience, in only in their second year of paddling, both were as big and strong as anyone in Ching’s boat, and younger, having just turned 55.
Marcil, McKinney and Fjoslien were all in their early 60s.
“I thought, ‘Oh man. Don’t panic. Stay calm. stick to your game plan. Steer perfect and don’t hit anyone,’” Ching recalled thinking.
Steering straight meant constantly correcting the canoe’s inclination to broach. The quicker a steersman corrects hooking into the wind and swells, the quicker he can resume paddling.
“Reach, clean entry, clean exit,” he exalted his paddlers.
Harper, who called the side changes, knew Ching always wants to be first to the buoy. First to the buoy gets the inside line and the inside line hasright of way.
Harper ordered his paddlers to “bump it up for three changes.” The stroke that had dropped to a sustainable 60 strokes per minute went up to 70 per minute.
The boat responded and began reeling in Davis’ boat and Dana Point. Then Ching lost his steering paddle. A wave clipped the blade as he was making a change. Incredibly, the wind blew it forward and it floated back by. Ching leaned over the gunwale and grabbed it.
At the Crystal Pier buoy, Ching and McKinney poked the water on their left and Marcil swept wide on the right. The boat slowed almost to a stop and pivoted seaward. Then the paddlers, instead of reaching forward, stuck their blades straight down, into the heart of power range to get their boat back up to speed. Ching’s boat spends hours practicing turns and he was happy with this one.
After exiting the turn Ching looked around. The Dana Point boat had fallen back, but Davis’ boat, inexplicably, appeared to be far ahead.
After the first turn, the course went directly into the wind, but only for two miles. Then it rounded it was four miles downswell, down wind to the harbor mouth.
Other outrigger clubs spend most of their practice time in smooth water because it takes so long to reach open water from their large harbors. Carpet Beach is 500 yards from Redondo’s harbor mouth, and the wind blows almost every evening. So almost every Lanakila practice involves upwind, downwind and crosswind pieces.
“We were screaming down waves, walking past other boats,” Ching said of the downwind leg.
He had lost sight of Davis’ boat, but Dana Point’s number one boat was hopelessly behind.
Once inside the harbor, Ching steered to the center of the main channel. He was hoping to surf the lingering swell as it bumped up against the outgoing tide. But there were so many boat wakes the swell was too disorganized to surf.
Shortly after entering the harbor, McKinney shouted a warning that a Dana Point boat was about to pass them. It was hugging smoother water along the rocks.
Ching didn’t recognize the paddlers and assumed they were in a younger division. But that didn’t matter. He yelled for his paddlers to focus and drew a bead on the final turn buoy, 200 yards from the finish line. Harper bumped up the stroke.
Dana Point swept by and reached the buoy with a two seat lead. Its steersman poked his oar early and hard to close off the inside lane.
Ching took the inside lane anyway, clearing a path by banging aside the buoy and threatening to ram the Dana Point boat with his ama. Then he jammed his steering oar in the water and leaned back until the white poplar shaft bent and 1,500 pounds of boat and men spun toward the finish line. Lanakila exited the turn with a half boat lead and went on to cross the finish line with a half boat lead.
“Everyone in the boat was celebrating. By then I realized the boat we beat at the finish was Dana Point’s second golden masters boat, which is why I didn’t recognize them. But I still thought our second boat had beaten us. I kept saying we should be good sports and go ashore and congratulate them. Then I saw them come in behind us. We must have passed them when I dropped the paddle,” Ching said.
In the unlimited division, Lanakila lead on the downwind leg, but fell back to third when the boats hit flat in the harbor. Ching’s old club Marina Del Rey finished first overall and Newport Aquatic Center finished second overall.
At the awards ceremony that followed, Ching sat on the edge of the stage, surrounded by all 162 Lanakila paddlers who had raced that day, holding aloft the SCORA Outrigger Iron Perpetual Trophy.
Ching will be 75 on July 22. That evening, Redondo Beach city council meeting Mayor Steve Aspel will declare July 22 Al Ching Day in Redondo Beach. B