Canoes made for the mighty Pacific Ocean have come to Grand Traverse Bay thanks to this new Northern Michigan nonprofit. Learn all about Traverse Bay Outrigger Canoe Club + how you can get involved.

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They’re causing a stir in Grand Traverse Bay every Monday night—a pair of “OC6” canoes out cruising the lake with six paddlers on board: Standouts at 42 feet long and only 16 inches wide, they’re behemoths among the kayaks and SUP boards.

These two outrigger canoes are the burgeoning fleet of the new Traverse Bay Outrigger Canoe Club (TBOCC), a non-profit organization in Northern Michigan.

“There’s nothing else like it on the bay,” says Amy Solak, vice president of the TBOCC board. “They are so fun and powerful, and all levels can do this sport because you’ve got a team of six to count on.”

Solak is a part of a small group of local water lovers working to bring the sport to the area. She fell in love with outrigger canoes after competing in races—like Grayling’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon, which she’s completed 15 times. In that event, racers use small, narrow two-person canoes, called C2 boats. After years of C2 racing, she was invited to go to California and Hawaii to compete in an all-women’s outrigger team—racing in the big OC6s. And while she was competing in the Pacific Ocean, she realized that Grand Traverse Bay had the potential for the same sport.

“We have kayaks and SUP rentals taking the city by storm, yet this canoe is actually made for our big water,” she says. “On smaller vessels, you can’t train out in the bay or go to Power Island without ideal conditions. You have to stay on rivers or close to shore to be safe. In these boats, you can get out there and not feel threatened like you are in a kayak. It opens up a whole new way to experience the bay.”

The two OC6s were purchased about five years ago, but with Covid shutdowns and the long process of getting a nonprofit started, Solak says this feels like their first real season, as things are finally in place, including adequate storage for the massive 400-pound boats that take five people to launch.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The group meets on Monday nights at the Senior Center beach in Traverse City (at the end of Barlow Street), weather permitting, May through September. TBOCC is open to the public and provides paddles and life jackets (just bring something to drink). Each boat carries six. If more than 12 people attend, Solak says they rotate and come back to shore to trade out seats.

Speaking of the seats—that’s another intriguing part of the sport. Not just anyone can paddle in any spot. Each position has a certain job. Crew members paddle on opposite sides, every other seat. So they must match each other as a team, as well as the three paddlers on their side of the boat.

The “stroker” is in seat 1—the person setting the pace of each stroke. Seat 2 must match the stroke and set the pace for their side of the boat. Seats 3, 4 and 5 are the “engine” and help produce the power. Seat 3 also calls the “hups”—when paddlers switch sides of the boat to paddle on.

Seat 6 is the captain and steersman. “They hold all the responsibility of the crew on their shoulders, so this is always an experienced paddler and they use different strokes, like throwing a rudder, to steer,” Solak says.

In addition, the boat needs to be balanced overall. Height, weight and experience are all a part of the crew’s success, but Solak says this shouldn’t intimidate newcomers.

“We go over things like this before we start, and everyone seems to do just fine,” she says. “If you miss a stroke, it’s OK. Just start paddling when you get the rhythm again. And you know what, it’s not unheard of for the crew to get the giggles if something goes wrong.”

Photo by Allison Jarrell

In general, the two teams paddle about an hour or so each Monday night, often going straight out into the big water of Grand Traverse Bay. These rigs are built for waves and wind, and OC6 boats can strike out in rougher weather without any problems.

“The outrigger makes it extremely stable,” Solak says. “Once they get in the boat, most people say, ‘I can’t believe how this thing just cuts through the water!’ We can hit 2- to 3-foot swells and it rides through the water easily. These are Hawaiian boats made to withstand travel across the Pacific Ocean. Our little bay is nothing compared to what they were built for.”

Solak also enjoys sharing the history of these special boats with newcomers. The outrigger canoe was key to the success and development of Hawaiian culture. They were built to traverse the ocean to neighboring islands and crafted with ritual and respect, to honor the life of the trees that were used.

TBOCC uses the traditional names for each boat part: the “ama” is the “floaty thing,” Solak says with a laugh, otherwise known as the outrigger. An “iako” is the arm holding the outrigger. And she says they do everything to avoid a “huli”—a tip over.

“We make sure to honor the boats’ heritage and teach a little history,” Solak says. “For example, it’s considered disrespectful to step over the canoes. There is so much rich history and so many stories that come with these.”

Photo by Allison Jarrell

And, of course, at the end of the day, it’s about the serenity of being on the water.

“A lot of people have been on power boats out in the middle of the bay, but there’s something about being out there, the water right down below you, without an engine, and no noise,” she says. “You look and can’t believe how deep and clear the water is, and you’re moving this big canoe through the water— with your own power. I can’t even explain it. It’s like medicine for your soul—calming and soothing.”

John Robert Williams, a regular paddler with the club, provides storage for the vessels on his property. “It’s a whole different view out there,” he says, “and you really appreciate the water and our town from that point of view.”

And while Williams has always been into water sports, he says there’s something different about the OC6s: “The synchronization of the six paddlers is like dancing—all sets of feet moving together so you don’t kick each other.”

Mary Schlimmer-Willoughby from Traverse City often joins the club with her husband Weston. They’re also experienced
competitors of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.

“My husband and I sometimes struggle to get along in our two-person marathon canoe because we both want to be the boss,” Willoughby says with a laugh. “With the club’s six-person canoes, you can get in with a group of other people of all different skill levels and personalities and work as a team. Plus, you can stick a few people in between you and your husband if you need to!”

In all seriousness, Willoughby says she loves the chance to do something that isn’t about training and competition.

“What I love about the club is how genuinely patient and caring everyone is, from the experienced paddlers who show up every week to the newcomers who’ve never held a paddle before. When someone is struggling, no one hesitates to take a pause and help,” she says. “Everyone’s always in a good mood, has a smile on their face and good-natured laughs are plentiful.”

To get involved, visit, and watch their Facebook page for upcoming events.

Kandace Chapple is a freelance writer and runs Michigan Girl, a group for women’s adventures. Visit

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell