Fitness: Outrigger paddler Jill Komoto knows the joy of teamwork on the water


It was only her third race leading a canoe, and Jill Komoto thought she had ruined her team's chances of winning.

Digging their paddles deep into the Columbia River east of Portland, Komoto's team shot ahead early in the race, but now they had a problem. They were lost.

A buoy marked the 1997 Gorge Outrigger Race to keep paddlers on course, but Komoto passed the wrong one.

"We were smoking in front until I realized we passed it up," she says.

Komoto thought her team would lose their lead, but as she turned the canoe around she heard her teammates shout.

"They yelled, 'Don't worry, we'll get it turned back. Just keep going,'" Komoto says.

They paddled even harder, and won the race.

"It was a Zen moment where I had people who cared backing me up fully," Komoto says. "I'll remember that bond forever."

Today, Komoto is the women's coach for Bellingham Bay Outrigger Paddlers. The club teaches the basics of handling a canoe, and puts together mixed teams of experienced paddlers and newbies to race.

As a program manager for Lummi Nation's Natural Resources Department, Komoto says protecting Bellingham's waters is important.

"The bay is the center of Bellingham," she says. "It's one of the biggest reasons people live and move here."

She first picked up a paddle in 1996, when her boyfriend at the time introduced her to the sport. Within a few weeks she was in the leader's seat on outrigger canoes. The seats are numbered one to six, and each seat has a role. Lead paddlers sit in the back to keep the canoe straight and to control the speed.

Komoto, 50, grew up in Kent. She later lived in California and in Hawaii, where she swam and snorkeled.

Paddlers in Bellingham don't have to worry about big waves, but choppy water and chilly temperatures are a constant challenge, Komoto says.

The most difficult techniques for paddlers to learn are how to keep the canoe from flipping over and how to twist their bodies to build up enough power to dig through the water, she says. Powering an outrigger requires well-timed, coordinated movements. Rather than sitting upright and using their arm strength to paddle, outrigger paddlers mostly use their leg muscles and a low twist in their torsos to propel themselves.

Paddlers switch the side they are paddling on after every few strokes. With six people on a team, paddlers must know when to switch, to keep the canoe from veering.

Before paddlers step into the canoe, Komoto drills them with strength exercises on land. That teaches them proper paddling form and keeps them from becoming tired mid-race.

"Paddling is great when you're stressed, because it takes a ton of energy and wipes the slate clean," she says. "You can take it out on the water."

Weather conditions on the water can be unpredictable, but Komoto says one thing never changes.

"When I cross that finish line with these people who feel like family, I get the biggest smile on my face," she says. "Nothing in the world compares to it."


To learn more about Bellingham Bay Outrigger Paddlers, see or email Mark Lazich at

Marissa Abruzzini is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

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