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The Ocean Circle: Paddle-Out Ceremonies

The Ocean Circle: Paddle-Out Ceremonies
Lorenzo Basillo | The Bottom Line File Photo

This story is part of a commemorative issue on the third anniversary of the 2014 Isla Vista killings, where a resident killed six UCSB students and injured 14 others.

Quincy Lee
Science & Tech Editor

To commemorate the lives lost in the 2014 Isla Vista tragedy, thousands of students banded together in the ocean off of Campus Point. They formed a circle of solidarity, joining hands in a sacred memorial ceremony commonly known as a “paddle out.”

A paddle-out is a time-honored tradition by those with an ocean-centered lifestyle, dating back to Hawaiian burial rituals. Participants enter the water together and float on the surface, hands linked one by one to form a circle.

This circle represents the way in which the ocean brings people together. Going into the water is a coping mechanism for religious and secular people alike, and a ceremony that brings people into this water is helpful for each in a different way.

“The paddle out symbolizes for me that, although I internalized and coped with the tragedy in my own way, I knew I was never alone in the process,” said Nolan Stephens, a fourth year environmental studies major.

Hundreds of students can be seen surfing, searching for seashells, or lounging in the sand on any given day in Isla Vista. Whether it’s for keeping their mind off stressful lab assignments, essays, and examinations, or for creating a way to blow off some steam, interacting with the ocean is important for these beachgoers.

In addition, these students coming together in one paddle-out ceremony show the compassion that this community contains and the camaraderie that is based around having the sea at our doorstep.

Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian and five-time Olympic medalist in swimming, spread the sport of surfing around the world, and with it came this culture of appreciation for the ocean. Veteran watermen and lifeguards will help the less-experienced swimmers make their way into the paddle-out circle, so that each has a chance to participate in the mourning.

Once together in this circle, the gathered community will speak about those that have passed and share how their legacy still remains within the lives of those that are able to continue back onshore. Each speech given in a paddle-out ceremony is followed by cheers from the accompanying circle to celebrate the memory and lasting impact the deceased left on the community.

And to further honor this legacy, some paddle-outs are held annually in memorial. The life of Eddie Aikau, a talented waterman and pioneer of lifeguarding who saved the lives of thousands of endangered swimmers on Oahu’s north shore, is celebrated by a paddle-out ceremony every spring.

Aikau lost his life while rescuing a sailboat stuck in 20-foot seas, and his ceremony represents all those who have lost their lives while in the water.

“God gave them to us as a gift from the sea, and now we give them back from whence they came,” said Reverend Akaka about honoring their legacy.

This annual memory honors all those who are no longer with us, and how the sea contains them all. It is a traditional Hawaiian thought that, just as every raindrop that falls on land eventually makes it back to the ocean, every person that walks on land eventually goes back into the sea.

To commence a paddle-out circle, participants splash water high into the air and disperse flowers. They continue back to shore, catching a wave or two together for all the souls that are no longer a part of the community.

The community of the University of California, Santa Barbara, united by the ocean at our fingertips, came together in 2014 to pay respects to lost loved ones. On all kinds of water crafts — surfboards, kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, pool noodles, and boogie boards —students affected by the tragedy mourned as one.  

“This ceremony was a beautiful example of how a community can come together in a dark time, healing as one,” said Stephanie Schechter, a fourth year communication student on the UCSB Surf Team.

In a similar fashion to Eddie Aikau’s community, Schechter and the UCSB Surf Team have organized annual paddle-out ceremonies to continue to honor the students no longer with us. The fourth annual Isla Vista memorial paddle-out ceremony will be held this evening at 6 p.m., May 24, just off of Campus Point.

This year marks the last year that students attending UCSB were present for the tragedy. But through this ceremony, they hope that the tradition of the paddle-out will continue to be a part of the UCSB legacy every year.

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