Hawaiki Nui Va’a

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Saturday, October, 30th

I flew into Papeete, Tahiti on Hawaiian Airlines arriving late on Saturday night. Disembarking down the ramp onto the tarmac, I felt the warm tropical air and smelled the sweet scent of plumerias — it felt like I could still be in Hawaii. At baggage claim I recognized members of Hawaii’s Team Red Bull including Thibert Lussiaa, one of the coaches and long time supporter of Pacific Paddler. As I headed into the airport lobby I really didn’t have a clue what lay ahead of me, all I knew was the Tahitian Federation had invited me to cover their race, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a. I quickly recognized Bud Hohl whom I recently met at the Catalina Channel Crossing. Bud was one of the first people I reached out to when the magazine was starting up in 1996. Bud is the historian for SCORA and also a friend of ‘Eddie’ Edouard Maamaatuaiahutapu, a Tahitian paddler who helped introduce outriggers to California. Bud was there to honor ‘Eddie’ who was the honoree of the 25th anniversary of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a. “Eddie was ‘The Godfather’, getting the impossible done for the entire paddling community,” Bud said, adding that Eddie was instrumental in helping to start outrigger paddling in California.

I also quickly recognized Monsieur Rodolphe Apuarii, the president of the Tahitian Va’a Federation whom I also met at the Catalina race. In Catalina, he was watching the race onboard Billy Whitford’s official safety boat. Rodolphe, aka ‘Dito’ invited me to cover the Hawaiki Nui Va’a race. He introduced me to Madame Elise Maamaatuaiahutupu, also known as ‘Tutu’. She is president of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a and the granddaughter of ‘Eddie’. Also at the airport was Tihare Viriamu, also known as ‘Charlie’. He was the IVF president until 2004 and is president of the Tahitian Kayak Federation. He was instrumental in gathering the Pacific nations together to take part in the South Pacific Games.

We left the airport around 10pm and drove to the harbor where we boarded the ferry, Tahiti Nui 1, for the first leg of our adventure. Charlie was a retired Harbor Master and got us onto the bridge so we could watch the captain and his crew take the ferry out of the Harbor. Onboard the Tahiti Nui 1 were the race officials, paddlers and some locals. Stowed on the front deck of the ferry were a bunch of escort boats. As we made our way under a starry night, Dito, Charlie and Bud recalled Edouard’s many accomplishments, the importance of training the next generation of paddlers, why Tahiti rules in the Va’a, and the history of the race.

Sunday, October 30th

 We arrived in Fare, Huahine, one of the leeward Islands of Tahiti, around 6am. Our luggage was placed on a flatbed truck and we were taken by vans to a church about a block from the race site — our accommodations for the next three nights. The church hall was divided in two with sliding partitions, each room slept about 60. The church provided breakfast, lunch and dinner. Race officials set up their office of computers, printers, GPS changing stations and most appreciated by all the guests, a WiFi network.

First thing after arriving and being shown our mattress was breakfast. Since it was a Sunday, the church staff had prepared a large spread of local delicacies. Sundays are a day of feasting in Tahiti. The variety of seafood was stunning from raw fish, fried fish, Paua (clams), breadfruit, taro, arrowroot, coffee, baguettes, and donuts with pineapples and watermelons for dessert. There were about 72 of us in the dining hall, but by Wednesday that number would double.

After lunch, Charlie escorted us (the teams from Japan & South America, Bud and myself) on a round-the-island tour. He gave us some history and pointed out the types of crops grown there. We visited Marae Manunu (a marae is a sacred place used for both religious and social purposes) and got some pre-European history on the culture and the Va’a, the Tahitian name for a canoe.

The first impression of Huahine is the laid back casual attitude of the locals. No buildings rose higher than a coconut tree, except for the church steeples. The waters of the lagoon were clear and inviting and the green mountains lush with tropical vegetation — similar to the windward side of Oahu where I live, but push back the clock some 50 years. It was as if I had stepped back in time.

For those in our group not racing or preparing their Va’a for the first race, we headed to the ‘Office’ as Charlie called it, the only bar in town, to get better acquainted. Bud brought me up to speed on the part ‘Eddie’ played in establishing the sport in California and his other accomplishments as a coach, canoe builder and ambassador for the sport internationally.

October 31st

Fare, usually a quiet town, starts to come to life with the blast of the Tahiti Nui 2 horn. It’s a transport ferry that brought the Va’a, the vans the officials use to store their equipment, their merchandise and unloaded a bunch of escort boats from Papeete and other leeward islands of Tahiti. Crews unloaded their canoes and took them to be weighed by race officials. Sponsor decals were handed out to crews registering for the race and the Va’a were taken out for a test drive before ending up in a field set aside for them. The main street was packed with Va’a, paddlers and vendors selling produce from their farms. Beef, pork and chicken sizzled on grills. Flat bread was cooked on hot plates and made into burritos. Island sweets and ice cream for the kids, tee shirts, pareaus, pearls, sodas and drinking coconuts cooled in coolers and the island’s favorite bagels were offered to hungry passersby. Paddlers streamed into the one grocery store to stock up on water and provisions. Excitement and the sounds of ukulele and guitars filled the air. The locals wait all year for this massive influx of visitors and the francs (money) they bring to their economy. Churches and schools were full of guests who rented out space on the floor. Trolly buses were busy ferrying paddlers here and there, and the locals came down to take it all in.

By the end of the day most of the Va’a had been weighed and placed on a vacant property overlooking the lagoon.

From the other side of town came the sounds of To’ere , the Tahitian drum that is constructed from a hollowed-out log, accompanied by ukuleles. It drew us in like flying fish to a torch illuminating a fishing canoe’s sail. A fishing tournament was weighing in the day’s catch. The Fare Nui Fishing Club added to the carnival atmosphere. They awarded cash to the heaviest swordfish, mahimahi and tuna. An impressive 3 x 3 x 5 foot cooler ‘chock-full’ of Hinano Beer was the popular gathering spot, Miss Tahiti was there to take photos with the biggest fishes, winners and dignitaries in town, and a dance troupe performed to the delight of onlookers.

By the time all of the money was awarded, party-goers were reaching deep into the cooler, and fish were taken to buyers. The stage was taken down and the crowed dispersed. We made our way back to the church through a throng of excited kids. To cap off the day’s fun, it was Halloween night. Children dressed up as witches and other scary monsters crowded the street clutching their bags, looking for candy. A large mob formed outside the grocery store where employees handed out the sugary treats. The night was filled with hoots and howls, laughter, and the happy chatter of kids on sugar.

Tuesday, November 1st

The balance of the canoes were weighed and readied for tomorrow’s race from Huahine to Raiatea. At 4pm, local elders opened the welcoming ceremony with chants and prayers. Dancers performed. Race officials were honored with medals presented by the president of Tahiti, Monsieur Edouard Fritch. The mayors of the Leeward islands greeted the crowd, representatives of the Navy, and the ministers of Education and Tourism welcomed everyone to the 25th running of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a. Bud Hohl presented a paddle to Tutu, and Miss Tahiti made the rounds taking photos with paddlers and dignitary alike. When the official business was over, a spectacular feast was provided and everyone was invited to eat.

In the background, the island of Raiatea waited for it’s turn. The sun dropped behind it’s mountains shooting out golden rays into a darkening sky where a crescent moon hovered in front of the Milky Way. Tomorrow was race day and most returned for an early night and to prep physically and mentally for the 45.5 Kilometer (27.5 mile) race. We went for our last unofficial meeting at ‘the office’.

Wednesday, November 2nd

Around 7am a blessing was held, escort boats loaded up with support crew, officials and the media. The Va’a poured into the lagoon, each equipped with a GPS, so officials could keep track of their locations. They paddled down to the starting line about a mile up the lagoon. It was an impressive line up. One hundred and one Va’a waiting for Race Director, Alfred Mata to signal the start of the race. It was a frenzied scene. The lagoon was whipped up by paddles and Va’a. Crews shifted into overdrive vying to be the first to the turn in front of Fare, where hundreds of spectator had gathered to watch. The top crews of EDT, OPT and Shell took the lead and were first out of the channel and to leave the island of Huahine behind them.

We followed the last Va’a into open ocean then made our way up through the pack. The seas were roiled with the wake from hundreds of boats. A few crews flipped in the melee, and a couple were reattaching their loose amas. When we made it to the front, we found two EDT crews, OPT and Shell Va’a blazing towards Raiatea. The scene was hectic with boats all over the place. Boats decked out with multiple banners looked like Lion Fish darting about frantically. Each crew had an escort boat that would provide water and each escort boat had a ‘Commissioner’, a paddler from another club that kept an eye out for cheaters. At the end of the race, the Commissioners would report to the officials, and if warranted, a penalty in time would be added.

The race ended up at Uturoa, the capital of Raiatea. EDT was first to finish in 3:23:38 followed by OPT (B) 3:24:59 and OPT (A) 3:25:21. Team Red Bull from Hawaii finished 8th in 3:34:59, and the team from Japan, Ocean Outrigger Canoe placed 81st in 4:24:07.

The overall winner of the 3-day Hawaiki Nui Va’a is the crew with the least points. The first place finisher gets 0, second place receives 2 points, and 3rd three points, and so on.

The first Hawaii Nui Va’a was held in 1992. The first three teams overall were from Tahiti, Tamarii Faaa first, Te Ui Va’a second, and Rautere third. Notably a crew from Hawaii, Outrigger Canoe Club, placed 3rd in the first leg of that first race.

The winners of the first leg all received trophies, there was more Tahitian entertainment and a Va’a was given away to the crew whose name was pulled out of bowl. The only rule to this was that the whole crew had to be present to win. After many names were drawn and rejected, a crew of women from a neighboring island won a brand new V6 canoe.

That night the officials set up their HQ at the Tumara’a school, which would be the start for the next race for the junior and women’s crews. Once again, the sun sank behind one of Tahiti’s Leeward Islands, this time it was Bora Bora’s turn to bathe in golden hues.

Thursday, November 3rd

Two races were scheduled on the day’s calendar. The first race was for the women and juniors. Their course was 24 km (15 miles) within the lagoon. The most exciting stretch was the turn on the harbor entrance buoy. Here the ocean swell rolled in over the reef. After the turn was negotiated, there was a thrill-filled section where steersmen were able to ride those swells back into the lagoon. The last stretch headed back to Uturoa with the aid of the wind on their backs, and the cheers from spectators who had come out on their boats to watch the race unfold.

 Amongst the women, it was Mataiea Va’a in 2:01:31, second was Team Bora Bora, 2:08:59, and third Tiare Moorea Hoe, 2:11:37. The crew from South America, Team Hano Hano, finished in 2:36:14.

Amongst the Juniors, it was Mou’a Tamaiti No Papara, 1:30:13, who finished just seconds ahead of Tamatii Faanui Piroguiers, 1:30:27, and third EDT Va’a, 1:32:34. Also entered were Team Handi Va’a, a handicapped crew who paddled a slightly shorter course of 10 km.

The second race of the day was the men’s 26 km (16+miles) from Raiatea to Taha’a. Not quite a distance race this was more as a sprint within the lagoon that encircled Raeatea and Taha’a. A large flotilla of ships waited for the Va’a at the other end of a narrow passage between the reef. As the crews made their way down the course, escort boats followed at a safe distance, kept in check by officials on ‘Mosquito Boats’, buzzing up and down the race course. Normally the mosquito boats are used to fish for Mahimahi. They chase the fish down until it tires, giving the fishermen a chance to spear them.

A wind swell from the rear helped propel the Va’a down Taha’a’s South Shore. Spectators lined the shore cheering on the crews who flew by just meters from their front doors. A convoy of trucks and cars followed the race along the coastal road. At the finish in Patio, a jumble of boats gathered. Some spectators were already starting to party. It was a festive atmosphere as the canoes arrived. There was another feast, more music and entertainment as the day’s top three crews stood on the podium for all to recognize. Taking the day’s race was Team OPT (A), 1:55:57, EDT Va’a was second, 1:57:48, and Team OPT (B) third, 1:57:06. Team Red Bull finished 10th, 2:00:33, and the team from Japan was 94th in 2:26:58.

That night we stayed at another school and enjoyed another feast of local favorites: banana poke, fried fish, marinated raw fish, taro leaf and chicken, poisson cru, taro, arrow root, breadfruit, pineapple, watermelon, baguette and coffee. The only grocery store in town was inundated with paddlers stocking up on food and water for the last race of the series. Locals also set up fruit and ice cream stalls.

Friday, November 4th

The last race of the iron series was from Taha’a to Bora Bora, 58km (35 miles). There was an amazing switch in wind direction overnight. The southerly wind of yesterday had turned northerly, so with wind once again on their backs, the canoes quickly made their way back down the lagoon and then out through Papai Pass into the deep blue sea. The finish at Bora Bora was now 25-miles away. Out at sea, the swells were rolling in from the south which gave the steersman a bit of a bump to angle onto and a push towards Bora Bora. There was little wind, there was little cloud cover, and the third day of racing was taking it’s toll on a few crews. Some teams were reduced to five-paddlers, and since these were iron races, there were no relief paddlers allowed. Arriving with a good lead, EDT was the first to enter the lagoon. Quickly catching up to them was Paddling Connection and Shell Va’a. At the end of the race, the top three would all arrive within seconds of each other making this an exciting finish for the spectators in boats, the spectators in the water lining the last 300 meters, and the viewers watching it live on TV and following it on the internet. The first place honors belonged to EDT Va’a in 4:16:52 followed by Paddling Connection, 4:17:34, and Shell Va’a, 4:17:52. Team Red Bull placed 12th in this race, 4:26:33, and the paddlers from Japan were 90th in 5:25:47. As the teams crossed the finish line they were swamped with well wishers. The turquoise lagoon was awash in colors from canoes, paddlers, spectators, officials in blue (commissioners), purple (boat drivers), yellow (medical) and salmon (race officials) colored tees, plus the main sponsor banners, Vini, Powerade and Air Tahiti’s were everywhere.

Another awards ceremony on the beach was held for the top three crews of the day, and then later that evening everyone gathered for the awards and grand party for the top three overall winners of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a. For the third year in a row EDT Va’a took the title with their total of 2 points. They also got to keep the Hawaiki Nui Va’a Trophy for winning the Hawaii Nui Va’a for three consecutive years. Second overall for the 2016 series went to Team OPT (A) with a total of 7 points and third, Team OPT (B) 11 points. Red Bull placed 10th overall and won the international division. Team Japan placed 90th overall out of the 97 crews who managed to complet all three races. Other international crews came from France, 47th overall, New Caledonia, 83rd overall and French Guiana, 95th overall.

After witnessing this race first hand, I came to the conclusion that this is the ‘Super Bowl’ of Va’a — outrigger iron racing. The hospitality of the Va’a Federation, the officials and everyone involved in putting this race together is second to none. For crews looking for the ultimate challenge and test of endurance and mental conditioning, this series is something to contemplate. So start training now and put this event on your bucket list. If you need help arranging your participation in the Hawaiki Nui Va’a 2017, contact the race organizers, or drop me a line and I’ll fill you in on what you can expect. Race organizers can help you to find accommodation, escort boats and show you the way to be a part of this challenging race between four of the most beautiful islands in French Polynesia.

Ropati Hebenstreit

 

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