Teaming in an Outrigger Canoe

Teaming in an Outrigger Canoe

“Get your mind back in the boat” our steersman shouted as we pulled together out into the open ocean, and I refocus as she has requested but not for long. I can’t help it. There are so many teaming and leadership lessons to be drawn from my 2 hour practice every Sunday and Wednesday with the Hanohano women’s outrigger canoe team that I always end up connecting the physical work we are doing with stories of business success and failure.
Team sizes for outrigger canoe racing can vary, but the boats for the team I am on seat six people. The person in each of those six seats has a job to do. The first person sets the pace of the paddle and counts, 15 strokes on one side, then 15 on the other. It might be a little more or less sometimes if you are new to the sport and lose count or get distracted, as I seem to do on occasion. On count 13, seat one yells “Hi” on the exact beat of the paddle entering the water. Even if seat one loses track and the paddling extends beyond 13, we stay with her. No one else counts. We always follow seat 1. We change when she changes. We trust her and in the end it doesn’t matter if she goes long or short as long as we stay together. Seat one sets a steady rhythm and we all follow.
Seat two has several jobs. Most important, they need to match the stroke of the person on the front exactly. Seat two is paddling on the opposite side of seat one and every person behind the two of them get their cadence from their strokes. If they are together, we are together. The goal of the stroke is not just to move the boat forward but to actually lift it out of the water so that it glides across the top with less friction. With that intention, it is critical that every paddle hits the water at the same time and the maximum pull, both down and back, happens simultaneously in order to get that lift. Seats one and two working together, create the pulse that all the other paddlers watch.
Seat two has another job which is to help communicate when it is time to switch sides. Seat one yells a sharp “Hi” on the beat of stroke number 13. Seat two yells “Hut” on the beat of the next stroke number 14, so that everyone all the way back in the boat is prepared. Then the entire boat yells “Pull” or “Ho” on the next stroke. “Hi – Hut – Ho” sets the cadence and the stroke after that is back in the water on the opposite side, ideally exactly in sync again. For us newbies, getting your hands switched, moving opposite leg forward, twisting torso all within a single beat has us sometimes missing that first entry on the opposite side. I’ve been doing this for a month now and I can get the paddle in the water when I switch to the right side but on the left it is about 50/50…but I digress….
Seats 3, 4, and 5, are muscle and rhythm. These positions are focused on technique. Can you get the paddle a little deeper, can you get a little more pull at the front of the stroke, can you use your legs and midsection to get more power, can you align your stroke and movement exactly with seat one and two. Seat three has the additional responsibility of listening for the “Hi” and chiming in with two on the “Hut” so that the people in the back of the boat have more warning on the paddle side change. Surprisingly, it can be hard to hear the call from the back of the boat, especially when you are racing and other boats near you have their own rhythm and call. A couple of weeks ago I was in seat five and the woman in three was not participating in the call. The back half of the boat kept being surprised by the change and our strokes after each change were less effective because of the lack of communication down the boat. One and two were doing their jobs but three wasn’t participating in or repeating the call. I think it was that practice that I started thinking about how much this was like business.
Many leaders and managers, get concerned about confidentiality or appropriate sharing, or packaging the message, all valid, but over and over again we are seeing that more successful companies have found ways to be more transparent. Founders tend to be passionate about their purpose and often see communication as the pain in the neck thing they have to do in order to stop the team from complaining. They would do well to learn from the outrigger canoe team, you cannot communicate too much and everyone has to do it. “Hi-Hut-Ho” prepares people for change so they do it well and together. It is more complicated in a business setting but ends up with the same result, more power to the stroke and the opportunity to win the race.
That leaves us to seat 6, the steersman and leader of the boat. This is the person who sets the course and uses their steering paddle as a rudder to turn the boat and take the crew to the destination. The team provides forward motion. The steersman decides where that will motion will take us. The crew has to trust the steersman completely. We sometimes paddle with an inexperienced steersman who is being trained for that role. On those occasions, the feeling is literally like working for a company without trusting leadership. If you don’t trust the direction they are taking, you hesitate when it is time for action, there are side conversations and eyerolls, and second guessing over beer afterwards. If a business does not have a good leader, it might manage some level of success through sheer willpower but if the team is not fully with you, the result will never be what it could be and eventually, the best and brightest will find another boat to paddle with.
The steersman is also is in a position to see the entire crew and assess the competition. The best steersmen I have paddled with are constantly voicing encouragement or helping us paddle better. They will call out “Shoulder back two” or “Reach everyone” or “Good job three”, the effect of which is to get just a little more out of each of us. When we have been working in a race at 100% effort for a period of time and are starting to lag, they might say “let’s just move up against them one seat” getting us to focus on gaining inch by inch so that in the end we can win the race (or at least come in strong second as we did that day). The steersman’s job in this context is to take their knowledge of strategy and technique, of the way a boat moves, the forces of water and current, then use whatever powers of observation, persuasion, and communication to get a better output from the rest of us as individuals and together. To me, that is exactly what good leaders do.
The other interesting thing about the technique of the steersman is that each time they put their paddle in the water to steer the boat, it also slows it down. So in a race, the steersman wants to put the paddle in for only seconds, anticipating any course corrections in advance so that with minimal intervention the boat is back on course. The best leaders do the same. They trust seats one and two to set the cadence and communicate. They choose good people at three, four, and five to provide the muscle and rhythm, and once they have that team in place, they give them the resources and information they need to keep the boat moving. Finally, with minimal interference, they set the course and win the race.
And although there are many other lessons to be drawn and analogies to be made, now it really is time to get my mind back in the boat.