Hawaiki Nui Va’a
The fantastic ride of Polynesian oarsmen
In the old days at the center of Polynesian traditional activities, the outrigger canoe, va’a in Reo Tahiti, has today become the king sport in our islands. Extremely demanding, this discipline is, above all, a struggle of the athletes against their own limits and against the Ocean. The biggest sporting event of the year, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a race gathers about a hundred six-man teams in the beginning of November who rally for three days between the islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora-Bora over a 128 km/80 mi course.
Like an army crouching silently on top of a hill and ready to pounce on the enemy, 504 heads emerge a few inches above the water. They are aligned as one under the leaden sky that enhances the intense green of the palm trees of Himo’o Point on the island of Huahine. It is 7:14am, less than a minute before the departure signal for the 23rd annual Hawaiki Nui Va’a. The quay at Fare, the main town of Huahine, is teeming with a crowd holding its breath. Suddenly, the hum of helicopters and powerful accompanying motorboats sound like the mythic attack scene straight out of Apocalypse Now. The starting line clears out like a gunshot with the roar of the crowd as sea foam gushes under the power of the oars.
The 84 V6s (6 man va’a) just threw themselves into the first 44.5 km/27.5 mi leg of the race to the neighboring island of Raiatea. There is no doubt Richard Wagner’s famous piece, “Chevauchée des Walkyries” would work as a great soundtrack for this fascinating spectacle that is reminiscent of the departures of prestigious yacht races, such as la route du Rum or the Vendée Globe Challenge. James, the lead fisherman who took me onto his poti marara (a powerful motorboat typical in Tahiti) to closely follow the race, created a swell when he slammed on the gas and started to slalom between other fishing boats, sail boats, launches and Zodiac rafts.
Already the Shell Va’a canoe belonging to the team with the most impressive wins in local and international races, has passed the first buoy and is racing in the direction of Avamo’a pass. The team’s most formidable rivals were on its tail. Soon, the entire horde of fierce competitors will have left the lagoon for the open sea. During the next four hours, they must maintain an infernal rhythm of about 50, 60 or 80 oar strokes a minute, without giving into fatigue, cramps or dehydration. With metronomic precision and attuned to each other, they must not lose focus for one second, or they will lose their magic harmony; which is the result of an entire year of training that can lead them to victory.
Whether a V6 sports the colors of a small club or one that regularly sweeps the podium, each oarsman gives all he has in a battle that is as mental as it is physical. There are no tourists on the Hawaiki Nui Va’a. This is perhaps why this most difficult pirogue races is also the most colorful. However yesterday, as I meandered around Huahine’s charming port watching children dive into the turquoise water while I waited for the va’a to be weighed (they are ballasted if their weight does not reach 150 kilos/330 lbs), I was far from estimating the heroic character of the oarsmen. Accessible, smiling and happily taking a few minutes to speak with onlookers all while finalizing the last technical and administrative preparations, their faces were serene.
Still, I had no doubt these likeable men were going to change into uncompromising warriors once they hit the water. The authenticity and kindness of the Polynesian welcome was intoxicating in this familial and festive ambience surrounded by food stands with raw tuna in coconut milk and mahi mahi skewers,. The opening ceremony of the competition was fenced in by a gigantic buffet. In the middle, there were parades of flowered vahine moving to the sound of traditional drums, blessings from the ancestors, and speeches by officials in front of the oarsmen solemnly seated on the ground on palm mats. Some of the greatest Tahitian champions had gently explained the abc’s of va’a to me. This is how I learned that outrigger canoes, once made out of wood, now are often made out of polyester or carbon. In addition, the shape of the hulls and oars has considerably evolved in the past few decades due to the constant quest for hydrodynamic performance. I even memorized the terms used to designate the oarsmen’s spots.
The fa’ahoro or #1 sets the rhythm and must have endurance; #2 props himself against #1. Numbers 3 (the tare or team captain) and 4 are the motors. The smallest oarsmen are numbers 5 and 6 (the peperu) who propel the va’a through using theirs oars as a rudder. What impressed me the most was that these athletes were all amateurs who went rowing before high school or work and got back in their pirogue in the evenings before going home. Every weekend, whether they were part of the renowned teams sponsored by big companies such as Shell, OPT (Post Office and Telecommunications), EDT (Électricité de Tahiti), Air Tahiti, or more modest clubs, they relentlessly competed in order to improve. The level of the oarsmen in the Society Islands has gotten to the point that the Hawaiians, New Zealanders, Australians, or Californians can keep up with their pace. “Training is fundamental,” Rete Ebb told me. He is a young va’a phenomenon who has become an icon for his generation. “More importantly,” he added, “is the spirit of the team. In order to win, you must have total confidence and be in complete symbiosis with your other five team members.”
Bubbling excitement and cheers from the crowd
All for one and one for all, that is the secret. You should see these Pacific musketeers fly at 7 knots (almost 14km/h – 9 mph), as they row with regularity and power. They pause for only a moment in sync to surf over a wave before plunging their oars into the opposite side of the canoe. This is a well-oiled machine, coupled with an intuitive reading of the water and a keen sense of tactics; perfect cohesion between bodies, movements, the canoe and the elements. I had never seen such synchronization in a team sport. Bobbing around on my poti marara while flying fish brushed against it, I gave into the excitement of the crowd and started cheering. The rain was falling so heavily that visibility drastically reduced to the point that some of the pirogues lost their direction; but for once, no one was suffering from the heat. The rain will certainly not detract from the delirious reception the teams will receive once they arrive in the vast lagoon of the island of Raiatea, the “fertile and sacred island” of the ancestors, whose Taputapuatea marae is one of the most important ceremonial sites in the South Pacific.
Tomorrow’s stage of the race is critical and takes place in the lagoon that separates Raiatea from her little sister Tahaa, a luxuriant island celebrated for its vanilla reputed to be the best in the world. This 26km/16mi sprint occurs in front of idyllic fine sand motu, yet it is grueling. Competitors surf waves created by hundreds of accompanying boats to gain ground. Just like the day before, team EDT wins ahead of Raiatea’s team, Hinaraurea and the winner of last year’s race, Paddling Connection.
Tenacity and humility
On the last day of the race in the high point of a radiant sun, I finally get to see Bora Bora. This is the toughest course at a distance of 58.2 km/36 mi between the lagoon and the high sea from Raiatea to Bora Bora. Va’a legend Philippe Bernardino, who is now a trainer and va’a builder, told me, “This one is about pure endurance. One must have a will of steel.” The pack’s arrival under the jagged high green mountains of the “pearl of the Pacific” takes on an unforgettable dimension in this setting. While reaching the beautiful Matira beach, I saw the most incredible blues that the sea had ever revealed to me, as well as the contagious joy of thousands of Polynesians crowded at the arrival line. They were either in their boats or up to their waists in the water, impatiently waiting for their 504 heroes (not one crew dropped out of the race). With one last effort, the pirogues burst into view, elbow to elbow. Once the canoes are empty, the warriors can at last catch their breath in the arms of loved ones as microphones are thrust under their noses and the jubilation of the crowd gets louder.
EDT, winner of all three stages of the race, took the 2014 Hawaiki Nui Va’a just ahead of Huahine’s leading team, Matairea Hoe. Then in the names of all teams, an award is presented to the disabled team from Brittany, composed of visually impaired oarsmen, I understood that in the Society Islands, tenacity and humility are what validate a man. Here more than anywhere else, even if victory is beautiful, the important thing is to participate.
Va’a is also about women
During Hawaiki Nui Va’a, women had their own race: the Va’ahine, 24 km/15mi inside the lagoon between Raiatea and Tahaa, then over to the coral reef.
Twenty-seven year old Tahitian Vaimiti Maoni, world va’a champion in Rio in August 2014, participated with her women’s team from the club Ihilani Va’a. She tells us about the vahiné experience:
“I get the taste for competition from my family. My father was a world champion in deep-sea hunting. My uncle was world va’a champion eight times, and my brother was world va’a champion twice. In French Polynesia, girls who attain a high level in va’a competitions usually come from rowing families. To see your close family members training all year round makes you want to do it, too. Once you throw yourself into it, you can rest assured that your family will support you unconditionally. With my job in a bank in Papeete plus ten hours of weekly training, knowing they are by my side changes everything.” As the first female rower in her family, Vaimiti has been racking up medals since she was 14 on all the international circuits in V1 (individual), V6 (6 person) or V12 (12 person). She won the Hawaiki Nui Va’a in 2011. 2014 is her year for recognition, and she systematically finds herself on the top step of the podium in all the championships, most notably with her great win in Brazil. Doris Hart, the first female president of the Tahitian va’a federation, explains, “In comparison to Californians, New Zealanders, and Hawaiians, there are few female French Polynesians who row, but the ones who do are at the highest level. Many of them join clubs when they are adolescents and the extent of their potential is quickly detected. However, once they marry, become mothers and start professional careers, it becomes difficult to find the time to train and compete. I am fighting for this to change.” Hart recalls her grandmother taking her fishing in the va’a with much emotion. She reveals how women have always raced in the huge Polynesian competitions, taken part in the world and French championships, and even competed in the Olympic Games: Tua Mere, Sylvie Auger, Nicole Clark, Marie-Rose Bohl, Évangélique Tehiva, Hinatea Bernardino… Today, about 12 major women’s races take place around the world. One of the most prestigious, the Molokaï, gives 70 women’s teams the chance to test their skills in Hawaiï. No woman from French Polynesian has won the title yet; however, beautiful Vaimiti will give it her all for 2015 to show that the vahinés from the Society Islands are to be as feared as much as their male counterparts.