Color & Control:

Water Works


Wayne MacDonald (left) and Rich Carson on Sixteen Mile Creek, Oakville, Ontario

Outrigger paddling began in the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands) in the late 1800s, and was popularized by Hawaiian sports legend Duke Kahanamoku.

I have always been drawn to the water. Growing up, my second home was our family cottage on Ontario’s Georgian Bay. I would spend summer after summer swimming, snorkelling, waterskiing and kneeboarding there.

Then, on February 8, 1999, at the age of 34, my life changed in an instant. I was working as a refrigeration journeyman at the time. During a job, I fell off a roof to connect with the asphalt 14 feet below. I became a T-12 paraplegic, and I started using a wheelchair.

As I adapted to the “new normal” of living with a disability, I never lost the taste for sports and the outdoors. The elements of my universe that made me buzz the most were water, boats and exercise, my three soul catchers. That is why I had recently obtained my class A scuba licence. It would fill my soul along with the magic of exploring the undersea world. I have dived in parts of the St. Lawrence and the Sea of Cortez, along with the warm waters around Curacao. I have yet to be disappointed.

I speak to students as part of a team called CHAT (Community and Hospitals Against Trauma). It is at one of these sessions that I met Larry Cain. He was the teacher supervising the group, and also the gold-medal winner at the 1984 Olympics for outrigger paddling. After I’d told the students about my story and adventures, Larry approached me. He suggested that I contact Wendy Perkins, commodore of the Wai Nui O Kanaka Outrigger Canoe Club, which is located on Sixteen Mile Creek in Oakville, Ont. I was rowing at the time with the Argonaut Rowing Club, but found the program to be too short, and didn’t feel satisfied with the experience. I decided to give outrigger paddling a try.

I arrived at the compound and was introduced to Wendy Perkins and Rich Carson. In 2007, they began the PaddleALL program to help people with disabilities experience the freedom that this sport offers. (Their slogan is “Any boat. Any body.”) I was the first paddler with a disability to come to the club.

The six-man boats are long, narrow and deep. The boat is stabilized with an outrigger on one side. Since the program was in its infancy, I made do with a flexible nylon seat/back combination.

Since I was in good shape, I could transfer to the dock, move my legs into the boat and swing into the seat. Once I was strapped in (with straps that would release if we capsized), I was ready.

My fellow paddlers and I pushed off to make our way to the mouth of Lake Ontario. The stroke pattern is a twelve count on each side. The change is made with a “HUT, HO” command. I accustomed myself to the rhythm and worked on keeping pace with my fellow crew as we left the mouth of Sixteen Mile Creek.

Being a T-12 paraplegic allows me to contract a small amount of stomach muscle. This was an asset as we navigated the swells of Lake Ontario. I was instantly hooked as I zoned all of my senses into the magic of the stroke. As the boat picked up speed and we glided across the water, I watched the sun slowly sink into the lake in front of us.

When we returned to the dock, Wendy could not wait to hear my response. I told her it was fantastic! And I decided that I would keep coming back. I participated in many paddles over the course of late 2007 into 2008. I have had some very memorable moments with still waters and choppy swells.

I was tossed into Lake Ontario on one occasion. The swells were too large to bail the boat. They were also too large for me to be lifted into another boat. I then had to float on my back, hanging onto a two-man outrigger, and was pulled back into the safety of the harbour. My water skills and strong upper body were great assets that day! (Also, lifejackets are mandatory with every paddle.)

I have ridden the crests of waves like a surfboard. Each paddle brings new experiences. As I mentioned before, when the lake is too rough, we paddle the creek.


Outrigger paddling began in the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands) in the late 1800s, and was popularized by Hawaiian sports legend Duke Kahanamoku. It is the state team sport of Hawaii, and boasts some 60 clubs with over 4,000 members. Its popularity grew across the Pacific Rim, and today, there are clubs all over North America. In outrigger paddling, each person paddles on both sides of the boat, facing forward. Outrigger boats are deep and stabilized by a pontoon on one side, so they can handle rougher waters. A single man outrigger is about 20 feet long, while a six-man is about 45 feet long.

There are early evenings when the beavers slap the waters ahead of us while deer drink at the shoreline. On long paddles, it’s like we become one with each other and the boat. It’s the same feeling long distance runners get. You become one boat, one mind and one spirit.

The Wai Nui club has a seating system that allows people with various levels of disability to participate. This seat is secured to an outrigger seat. It has adjustable wings for torso control, and you can adjust the dump angle (the tilt of the part of the seat your bottom is sitting on, from the leading edge to the back of the seat). This wedges you into the boat, and it works well for paddlers who have weak trunk muscles.

The club also has an accessible dock system and washrooms. The club is also planning to install a Hoyer lift, which transfers paddlers in and out of the canoes, in 2009.

The best part of my experience is the people. They are a group who will always go way beyond the call of duty. Wendy and Rich will always err on the side of caution to make everyone’s experience memorable, and I’ve made many new friends.

The sport’s next level, of course, is competition. I have fond memories of paddling in races, such as the one in Rochester, N.Y., in 2007. I also participated in the Toronto Island race in the summer of 2008. Our boat placed dead last, but our crew was pumped by the narrow margin between the teams at the finish line.

Next, I participated in the largest long-distance paddling race in the world in – get ready for it – Kona, Hawaii! It was the 37th annual running of the 18-mile Queen Lili, a race that’s so rich in history and folklore, it’s a story in itself. The field contained 168 boats from around the world. We had a much more respectable finish this time, placing eighth out of 15 in our class.

There is every reason to come out and try this wonderful sport. Who knows? You could get hooked! Many years ago, I heard a piece of wisdom from another person with a disability, and I have taken it to heart: “Plan your life, then plan it with the wheelchair.” I hope you will too.

Wayne MacDonald lives in Georgetown, Ont. He is a self-proclaimed “rock turner” who pushes the boundaries with life and sports, and by living each day to the fullest. He can be reached by email at warrior To read more articles about active living, visit

wayne macdonald prepares in a two person outrigger canoe
macdonald's teammates give him a lift

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