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Outrigger canoe racing a passion for Del Rey's Hunter

FALLBROOK, CA -- Jessica Siemer Hunter, the daughter of Bob Siemer, a partner at Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., here, works with her father in Del Rey's field department.

But when not working with the fruit that is ubiquitous in the area, she pursues her passion of team paddling outrigger canoes competitively.

Ms. Hunter, 26, and her husband, Matthew, got involved in outrigger canoe paddling about four years ago when they were dating. A paddling club in Mission Bay in San Diego was offering introductory paddling classes one day, with instruction followed by a race. "We ended up getting third place in the race," she said.

The couple decided it was something they were "pretty good at," so they stuck with it, joining the Pow Pow paddling club in Oceanside when they later moved to Carlslbad in northern San Diego County. Pow Pow is one of about a dozen outrigger paddling clubs in the Southern California Paddling Association.

"I've been paddling there for three full seasons," she said. The first season, "you are a novice and do four-mile races, paddling with other first-year paddlers. After that, you go into the regular open crew division, and races are 10 to 12 miles long on average."

The six-person outrigger canoes are paddled in competition by all-female or all-male crews, and the season runs from May to September with training beginning in March, she said. In the off-season, she and her husband participate in tandem racing in which they can both be in the same canoe. The team racing season is divided into three parts. It begins with a month-and-a-half of Iron Man races, which are typically 10-12 straight miles, she said. That is followed by a month of sprints, and the final month is nine-person races. The crews have three extra people, and they "are rotating in and out of the boats" over a 15- to 20-mile course.

Then come the state championships, in which the women paddle from Newport Beach to Catalina Island -- about 30 miles -- one day, and the men paddle back the following day.

Outrigger canoe paddling has become a very popular sport throughout the world, Ms. Hunter said. "We get teams from Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand and Hawaii," for example, that come to compete in the Catalina race. Other big competitions are held in various parts of the world, and any team that wishes can enter. There is no qualifying required. There is even a race in New York called the "Liberty Cup," in which racers paddle around the Statue of Liberty, she said.

During the summer of 2004, "I raced in Kona on the Big Island [of Hawaii]." That race is the largest in the world in terms of the number of canoes entering. In 2005, "my husband competed in Molokai" over a 41-mile course from the island of Molokai to Waikiki beach on the island of Oahu, she said.

Ms. Hunter graduated from the University of San Diego in 2002 with a degree in marketing and finance. Since working in a family business is "a rare opportunity," she said, "I decided I better give it a chance at least. That is why I chose to come here."

Having grown up on a 120-acre avocado ranch, she said, "I was familiar with the product" and with the language of the trade.

Her work at Del Rey involves primarily working with small avocado growers. "I take all the new clients on in the south, and I pride myself on having a one-on-one relationship with growers," she said. "The business was expanding, and my dad needed somebody that could communicate more often with the growers" as well as recruit more growers.

Ms. Hunter also helps manage the avocado groves that Del Rey owns. She helps with the planning for fertilization and harvesting, and she monitors the irrigation. She also consults with outside growers on cultural practices. "I use the knowledge I gain from our own groves to go out and share what we have learned on our groves" with the outside growers, "to help them farm better. By being growers ourselves, we are able to offer more expertise" to the growers and help them in ways beyond just telling them when to harvest, she said.