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A Paddling Community - the Charleston Paddle Club

Are you looking to enjoy the Lowcountry waterways from a different perspective, get exercise, make new friends, be a part of a team, and give back? Look no further than the Charleston Paddle Club. They are a local non-profit group (501(c)3) located in Charleston, South Carolina. The organization is passionate about paddle sports, physical fitness, fun, and keeping the waterways clean.

Whether you are a paddling beginner or are an experienced paddler, the Charleston Paddle Club (CPC) encourages you to come out. Located at Brittlebank Park along the Ashley River and next to Bristol Marina, the CPC welcomes members of all ages and skill levels, emphasizes fun, and loves introducing people to new paddle sports while enjoying the beautiful Charleston waterways. It is a wonderful way to get in great shape and make new friends.

CPC has regular events that include weekly dragon boat practices, outrigger canoeing, and different social and volunteer events during the year. The dragon boat team, the Charleston Firebreathers, has competed nationally and internationally. Some club members have competed internationally with Team USA. Club members also compete regionally, nationally, and internationally in outrigger canoe events individually, or as part of a crew. This is truly one of the few team sports where a winning team can include people of all genders, ages and sizes.

If you’re a beginner, CPC will teach you basic paddling form, as well as on-water safety and commands. You can join them for up to 3 paddle sessions (and unlimited social events) before you’ll be asked to pay club dues. These dues help towards operating and maintenance costs, equipment purchases, training opportunities and facilities for the members. Once you’re a CPC member, you can sign up for any team paddle or regular club session that matches your skill level. You’ll get access to all dragon boat practices and six-person outrigger canoe (OC6) outings that match your fitness and skills level, opportunities to race competitively, and invitations to all team social events. As a non-profit, they also participate in keeping the waterways clean.

What is dragon boating? Dragon boats are large canoe-like vessels, manned by up to 20 paddlers (in a standard size boat) that sit in pairs and facing the bow along the length of the boat. The paddlers race the boat various distances using single bladed paddles. Dragon boats are typically fitted with ornate wooden carved dragon heads and tails. The sport originated in southern China over 2,000 years ago.

What is outrigger canoeing? Outrigger canoeing is a sport of the canoeing discipline. The boats have a lateral float called outrigger (also called ama) fastened to the hull with two booms (also called iokos) that provide stability for racing in various water conditions and for surfing ocean swell and waves. Single bladed paddles are used. The type of outrigger canoe is dependent on the number of paddlers. There are typically six-person canoes (OC6), two-person canoes (OC2), and one-person canoes (OC1). OC1’s and OC2’s canoes have rudders. The OC6, which has 6 paddlers, has a manual steersman in seat 6. Outrigger canoeing originated with Polynesian and Austronesian explorers thousands of years ago. It was integral to ancient Hawaiian culture and is popular in the Tahitian and Hawaiian islands.

When was the club founded and by whom? I sat down with club president Steve Connor and club vice-president Billy Lempesis to find out.

CPC was founded in 2010 by Steve Connor, Pete Lempesis, Jamie Muehl, William Dionl, Roger Jones, Billy Lempesis, and Tharin Walker. Its roots began a couple of years earlier with Dragon Boat Charleston, a club that already existed. Dragon Boat Charleston was primarily a cancer survivor group. Billy remarked that “my first coach was Dr. Cindy Carter who went to Canada and attended a study about how paddling was beneficial to women breast cancer survivors. She came back, got a grant through MUSC and started Dragon Boat Charleston. Their first festival was huge and my company put together two corporate teams to compete”

Billy continued “I said this is fun. I’m not surfing any longer but with older age, paddling seems to really be good for you. We competed under Dragon Boat Charleston for a couple of years. We won the Nationals and we qualified for the Worlds. My son Pete Lempesis and Jamie Muehl progressed as paddlers and we decided to form a premiere team and in the next year, became very successful. We had a Canadian coach, named Pat Barker, that had been coaching our Dragon Boat Charleston team. She introduced Pete and I to outrigger paddling. I’d never heard of it. We started researching it and Pete got really excited about it. Pete decided, out of nowhere, to go buy an OC6 (six-person outrigger canoe). That was 2010. We didn’t know how to set the thing up. At that point, we decided we wanted to do multiple types of paddling and be competitive. Thus, Charleston Paddle Company was born.”

I pressed both Steve and Billy about sharing some stories from the early history of the club. Billy recalled “our first OC6 outrigger race was at Treasure Island, outside of Tampa, Florida. We only had five OC paddles and had to use a dragon boat paddle to make it six paddles. The back of the boat was facing forward so we set up the ama on the right side instead of the traditional left side. The other canoe crews on the water were yelling at us and said you might want to change around and head the right direction. So we jumped out of the boat and swapped seats. We were ill equipped. Ran our first race there not knowing what the hell we were doing. And by the way, we got third. It was an evolutionary process. We had no coaching. We had to learn by video how to tie the iakos to the ama with the old-fashioned rope.”

Steve Connor recollected a funny story from that time, “this was Billy’s early days of steering (the dragon boat) and he was also coaching us. He had the boat lined up and we’re ready to go. We push off (the dock) a little bit and he says go! We went about three feet and there was a sudden recoil.” Billy chimed in “I forgot to take the stern line off. Next thing I know, my ass was upside down in the air off the back of the boat. All my crew, instead of being concerned, they all laughed their asses off!”, as both Billy and Steve chuckled at that memory.

Billy said “In 2012, we changed our name from Charleston Paddle Company to Charleston Paddle Club. It became clear that ‘Company’ sounded more like a business. Through the guidance of Roger Jones and Steve Connor the club became a non-profit.”

Billy recalled “Mike Owens had the first outrigger canoes in Charleston. He was actually making OC1s on the local Navy base. He was doing the old technique where you did half molds and put the layered fiberglass down and the gelcoat and pressed them together. He constructed an OC6 from two old canoes. It weighed over 600lbs. This was the first OC6 we used. Then Pete bought a Bradley Lightening from a club in Florida that weighed 350 lbs and we used that OC6 for six years. Currently the club has two new Ultralight Puakea’s (OC6) that weigh only 175lbs each.”

Billy continued, “the competitions are amazing. Our Dragon Boat crew, the Firebreathers, was very successful. For three years, the crew medaled in every race we participated in from Virginia to Florida. Two of those years, we won all Gold medals. Pete, Jamie and I made Team USA in 2012, and competed in the World Championships in Milan, Italy. Our crew member Robert Hess made it two years later. Jess Key has made the National Team several times. Club member Andy McMarlen, a local sports medicine physician and non-surgical orthopedic specialist, was an Olympic Rower qualifier for the Atlanta Olympics. Andy is one of the most decorated Dragon Boat paddlers in the United States. He is also an avid Outrigger and Surf Ski paddler. All the while, the Firebreathers crew continued to be successful.”

Steve remarked that the club used to be more “board driven”, but are “working to be more member driven, so if you want to go do a race in Wilmington, we’ll support you.” Billy added “you can take it as far as you want to take it with our club. You want to make the National team? We have the people here who can show you how to do that. You just want to have fun? That’s even better!”

If you’re looking for something new and different in getting outside and getting close to the water, getting exercise, and being part of a community, go check out Charleston Paddle Club at You can also help the Charleston Paddle Club by making them the charity of your choice when making purchases on Amazon. They are now on Amazon Smile. They also accept donations through Venmo, PayPal, cash or check, and can also invoice you to pay through credit/debit card.

written by Mac Barnhardt

photos provided by Billy Lempesis

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