Coach Rene Aveapii’s OPT crew peaked at the right time, and their “B” crew also turned in a solid performance finishing sixth in the final standings. Team Hawaii’s trip to Tahiti resulted in a big victory for the women’s crew plus a strong showing by the men especially on day one with a sixth place finish out of 86 crews and thirteenth overall.
For Team Hawaii, an 8-man crew was selected after weeks of training, and hopes were high for a top five finish. Drawing on past experience to be able to better deal with all the logistical challenges, the crew also would be paddling the canoe used by Shell to win in 2008. Coach Walter Guild talked about the team’s outlook and progress of the program:
“ I think the paddlers are very well prepared. They know each other well. We’ve got a core group that paddled together this year, which is a nice thing, and they rose to the top individually…..This is the kind of race; it’s different. You’ve got to live with each other for a period of time; you’re in close quarters. There’s a lot of logistics so the personality make-up and the way people work together has a lot to do with it as well. The other side of if it, which is always huge down here, is the equipment. We have the best equipment we’ve ever had with Shell’s exact boat from last year. That gives everyone a boost of confidence. Little things add up going into it because any doubts you have will be magnified over three days.”
“I’m really proud of everybody and the system we have in place now where I think everybody feels they had a good shot at trying out for the team. We tried to get a look at everybody in the state for the most part. There were some people we probably did overlook who never really got into the system. We’ve got a lot of credibility as to how the crew was chosen. I think it’s something we can also build on from this year. We had over twenty paddlers funneled down to these eight. So if we can make that thirty or forty and get some more young guys who want to come up and have a shot at this in the future, I think it can be really exciting.”
On the women’s side, the crew consisted of a majority of members from the dominant Na Wahine Team Bradley crew, and they were hoping for a breakthrough in their separate 24 Km race for the first victory in nine years by a non-Tahitian team.
For the first time spectator, the Hawaiki Nui is a spectacular feast of paddling at the highest level in an unparalleled setting of some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Three consecutive days of intense, interisland ironman racing represents the ultimate paddling challenge. Although each team can have a roster of up to twelve paddlers, most of the elite crews use almost the same six paddlers for each day, substituting one or two individuals at the most. Throw in the huge following with hundreds of spectator boats and people lining the shores to watch with a festive atmosphere throughout, extensive media attention, and major money awards for each day as well as the final classification, and you have a paddling event that surpasses any other on the international calendar.
With favorable winds and good conditions for the first day’s 45 Km leg from Huahine to Raiatea, the sprint in the lagoon past Fare village to Avamoa Pass saw Shell, EDT, OPT, Paddling Connection (Tahiti) and the other expected leaders leading the charge through the chaos of boat wakes from waiting escort, spectator and official boats to the open ocean. Accompanied by a big flotilla, Shell’s group took off with a somewhat southerly course while Matairea Hoe from Huahine and Team Hawaii veered off toward the north. The gap between the two leading groups seemed to widen with the big question being who would get the best boost from currents and wind when the crews came together before entering Teavapiti Pass and the Raiatea lagoon. There were no real surprises though as the yellow clad defending champion Shell crew led second place EDT to the finish by over three minutes with OPT third and the local favorite Matairea fourth. Team Hawaii was edged out by Paddling Connection for fifth, but compared to 2008 and the unfortunate early race collision, it was a much better day.
The best was yet to come for the day as the Team Hawaii women paddled out to the start using the same boat. On paper, their major competition among eighteen crews appeared to be three-time defending champion Venus Va’a. However, after the start, team Bora-Bora with an amazing five sisters in the crew grabbed the lead and cleared the pass with Team Hawaii in hot pursuit. Once outside with surf and wind conditions helping the crews, the Hawaiians steadily narrowed the gap and finally took the lead after battling together for quite awhile. Pulling away as they neared Toaho Pass to the north, Team Hawaii appeared to have the race under control, but once inside the lagoon, there was the long upwind leg back to Uturoa and the finish. The Tahitians made a run, but couldn’t really get close and the smooth stroking Hawaiian vahine flashed across the finish in a new record time. Mission accomplished! They were the fourth non-Tahitian crew to win. Previous winners include California’s Offshore (1997), Waimanalo (1998) and Team Kai Mahana (2000).
Hawaiki Nui’s second leg is a relatively short 26 Km course inside the great lagoon formed by the reef that encircles both Raiatea and Tahaa. Starting at Uturoa and finishing at the village of Patio on the northern end of Tahaa, the crews paddle close to shore for much of the race cheered on by hundreds of watching spectators. Although taking place in a lagoon, there is usually some wind chop plus wakes from the huge armada of boats of every description and size that follow along on the outside.
As the race got underway, almost immediately the favorites jumped in front, and by the time the leaders reached the south end of Tahaa, Team OPT’s two boats had shot out in front with a lead of several canoe lengths on Shell Va’a. Team Hawaii was in the first group behind the three leaders when suddenly disaster struck and the canoe flipped. In this race, with this caliber of competition, even with a fast recovery, many crews flew past, and it was catch-up time for the Hawaiians. Meanwhile at the front, Shell moved up to second after a classic battle with OPT “B” and tried in vain to run down the leader. However rounding the final buoy, it was OPT “A” out in front with a subsequent winning time that bested the previous record by almost three minutes. Team Hawaii fought its way back passing many crews in the last few miles but still ended up in eighteenth place for the day.
As the sun disappeared behind the clouds hanging over the peaks of Bora Bora off to the west, Shell was still in good position for a fifth straight victory with a slim lead in cumulative time and points. Once again the last and longest leg of 58 Km to Bora Bora would decide the winner. Shell had been in the same position in the past and had been equal to the task. “L’avantage reste a Shell Va’a” was the headline in one of the articles on the race in La Depeche de Tahiti.
Shortly after the race left Patio, while still inside in the lagoon, the two crews were in front battling each other, but by the time the leading group reached Tiva Pass, the midnight blue hulled canoe, Marara of OPT, had edged out in front. The leaders then zeroed in on their goal heading for the deceptively close peaks of Bora Bora. Team Hawaii got off well, dropped back after awhile and then moved up again. “Somehow we had trouble finding our rhythm,” said stroker Thibert Lussiaa later. The leading group consisting of OPT “A”, Shell and OPT “B” gradually moved away in the distance followed by Huahine’s Matairea Hoe, Paddling Connection, and EDT. Hours later, at the finish off Matira Beach, that was the order of finish with OPT the surprising winner by a little less than two minutes over Shell with both crews beating the old record time for the course. Once again reeling in a number of crews down the stretch, Team Hawaii had to settle for seventeenth for the stage.
In a very memorable Hawaiki Nui, the seemingly unbeatable Shell crew had been dethroned; OPT and their supporters had much to celebrate. Was it the end of an era for Shell or just a brief setback with added incentive? For Team Hawaii, considering the women’s triumph, it was a very successful trip. For the men’s crew, more lessons were learned that hopefully will lead to better results in the future. Thibert, again, reminiscing about the one stage victory for Hawaii on the last leg in 2001: “We were paddling an orange canoe belonging to Pirae, and when we made the turn into the pass in the lead at first everyone thought it was them, but they were shocked to realize it was Hawaii!” Can it happen again? “My friends in Tahiti keep telling me that you guys are strong paddlers, you just need to paddle together more.”
From the organizational side, Hawaiki Nui, which began in 1992, far outdistances the Molokai races in terms of sponsorship money, not to mention community support, media attention, and food for the paddlers. The Team Hawaii women won over $7000 while the overall winner for the men had a prize of $15,000 with cash awards down to 30th place as well as daily winning awards of $1400 with money down to tenth place. There are also separate awards for the 40+ “veterans” division plus the 18-and-under race that takes place on the afternoon of the first day along with the women’s race. It will take a major upgrade for Molokai to attain similar status in a state where unfortunately the official state sport receives little attention and support outside the immediate paddling community.
I'll Remember You
Na Wahine O Ke Kai
Piecing history together
Hawaiki Nui Va’a 2009
The Length of the Lake
Tahiti is in it's own league
Ala Wai Challenge
Going 137 miles
Need an edge?