TARPON SPRINGS — Anyone strolling the shores of Craig Park over the last 15 years has likely noticed a colorful collection of outrigger canoes, also known as dragon boats, spread out along the grass near the boat ramp.
Karl Vogel of the Tarpon Springs Canoe Club said he’s been leaving the boats there, day and night, for the past decade and a half, and he’s only had one unfortunate incident during that time.
"That’s the beauty of the Tarpon Springs community," Vogel said recently. "Where else can you leave 50 or 60 boats out in the open and have no trouble, except one incident of vandalism, in 15 years?
According to Vogel, a former national champion who stages a free camp at the club three times a week, that sense of security, combined with favorable weather and plenty of water, has led to an influx of Canadian outrigger clubs making Tarpon Springs their spring training site.
"For about 15 years now, I’ve been doing a camp for Canadian canoers in Tarpon, and it worked out so well there are now several groups that bring about 350 people here over a two-month period," he explained. "They absolutely love it here — the weather and the water and the community. The way they describe Tarpon Springs in Canada is it’s a ‘quaint little village,’ and I think that describes Tarpon Springs perfectly."
On a sunny afternoon recently, several members of the Outrigger Performance Advantage club based in Toronto were practicing in the protected waters of Spring and Whitcomb bayous.
According to club founder Peter Buday, Tarpon Springs provides several advantages for the clubs that train here.
"This all started when Karl Vogel invited us here in 2003. We ran a dragon boat club at the time and I was the coach and we came down here and I loved it," Buday said as he helped launch and dock his boats at the ramp. "It was a great venue and such a welcoming town, with great people and a wonderful Greek tradition. It’s a little hidden gem here in Florida."
Buday said the relationship between the Canadians and the Tarpon Springs community has evolved over the years, with deep ties forming between the locals and their neighbors to the (far) north.
"We know the locals now," he said. "They give up their houses for us. We leave some our boats here for the club after the season and they let us use some of theirs. There’s a real generosity in this city. This year we have 130 members coming here over five weeks, and they really enjoy it."
Buday, a former sprint kayaking national champion whose father and two brothers competed in multiple Olympics, said it’s not just the hospitality that keeps them coming back to Tarpon Springs every year.
"This area is great. You have the calm waters of the bayou where we can work on our skills, but we also have access to the (Anclote) river and the Gulf," he said. "It gives us flexibility with what we can work on, from basic skills to racing. So, we can do anything we want. There’s a ton of options here."
While the weather and the waters may have been the initial reasons behind the Canadian clubs’ southern migration, Buday said there’s no question why they’ve kept coming back for the past decade and a half.
"It’s a great community and a great group of people," he said. "They’re always very welcoming, and that’s why we’re still here after all these years."
Vogel, who also trains a University of South Florida canoe club, noted the various clubs’ impact on the Tarpon Springs community has been huge.
"Think about the economic impact — the food they buy, the cars they rent, they’re even buying houses here now," he said. "It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful program for the past 15 years."