The Va’a Motu Association intends to not only bring back traditional outrigger sailing canoes that disappeared from French Polynesian lagoons about 50 years ago, but to make them functional. This project conducted solely on Fakarava atoll aims to perpetuate cultural legacy, transmit knowledge, create a sustainable economic development and manage the environment in an ecological way.
Materials delivered by sailing pirogue…
Before the work began, materials had to be brought in from Tahiti. What better way to do this than with a sailing pirogue! By the end of March 2015, the high-sea pirogue Te Rangi, led by Captain Titaua Teipoarii, arrived in Fakarava with precious cargo. For over a year, the Va’a Motu Association forged ties with the sailing pirogue Te Rangi that sails between Tahiti, the Tuamotus and Makatea as part of a sailing pirogue freight transport project made possible due to the Pacific Voyagers foundation.
The transportation of materials on a high sea sailing pirogue that will be used to build a lagoon sailing pirogue carries a beautiful message. Tamatoa Moeroa and Matani Tamaititahio, two sailors from Fakarava and Raivavae, accompanied the captain. Since 2011, they have been sailing pirogues, such as Faafaite, for the Pacific Voyagers Foundation. They have scoured the entire Pacific Ocean to retrace the Polynesian triangle in the footsteps of their ancestors. The loading of the materials took place in Papeete, then Te Rangi set sail for the Tuamotus!
After five days at sea, the fringed reef of Toau atoll, a neighboring island to Fakarava, appeared on the horizon. After a final pull between the two atolls, the pirogue arrived in Garuae’s northern pass. The incoming current was powerful, but Titaua held onto its course during this last test before giving it slack. Ato Lissant was waiting on the quay with a traditional welcome. At last, Te Rangi docked to the rhythms of the toere and pahu drums, ukulele and guitars. The sailors received flower necklaces and fresh coconut water. For three years the project initiator had been waiting for this moment that marked the beginning of this big adventure!
Lissant introduced the area selected to build the pirogue that was about 200 meters from the quay. It entailed a cement slab in the shade of coconut trees surrounded by lush vegetation. Armed with a chainsaw, Lissant cut down a few coconut tree trunks that would serve as support beams for the wooden framework of the boat-building site, which took two days to finish. “We’re going to be able to start construction!” Lissant joyfully exclaimed.
As construction evolved nicely and once the pirogue started to take shape, school children from Rotoava initiated the project’s teaching curriculum. Questions gushed out, “How do you propel it? How do you use the wind? Why did the pirogues disappear? Can we go fishing in it?” Exchanges with Alexandre, Toko and James were very enriching for the students, and some of them started dropping by in the evenings after school. With each visit, the children’s eyes sparkled when they dreamed of sailing all four corners of the lagoon. It was such a pleasure to witness their joy! The students regularly dropped off lovely drawings at the building site to inspire the workers.
Countless passionate meetings have taken place over the past two years to engage in constructive exchanges about communications outreach and financing. Ato lissant and Julien Girardot, two principal players in this adventure, gradually recruited businesses and sponsors for the Va’a Motu project. By the end of 2014, the association was able to initiate the construction of the pirogue. The funding goals needed to start this phase were met thanks to the OPT (Post Office and Telecommunications of French Polynesia), Department of Culture of French Polynesia and the French Agency for Protected Marine Areas. This last partnership was made possible thanks to the famous navigator, Roland Jourdain. With his Explore endowment fund, he supports the social, cultural and environmental exploration of projects around the world. This partnership with the Agency for Protected Marine Areas gives full meaning to the Va’a Motu project: sailing without use of carbon emissions, which is in complete harmony with the ethics of the Biosphere Reserve in Fakarava, recognized by UNESCO.
More than 20 other sponsors, including Air Tahiti Nui, have rallied for the cause. Ever since, the dream has turned into reality. In April 2015, a boat construction site led by renowned boat-builder Alexandre Genton sprouted up in the heart of Rotoava village on Fakarava atoll. Two young residents of the island, Toko and James, learned construction techniques. A teaching program at Fakarava’s school allows students to take full advantage of this true return to one’s roots. In August 2015, two scientists led a preliminary mission on the pirogue to test its equipment with the goal of creating a three-dimensional cartography of the reef as well as a catalogue of the microorganisms. This is the first time in the world that a traditional French Polynesian sailing vessel was transformed into a scientific tool!
An adventure that started in the 1960s
The building of the pirogue draws many curious onlookers to Fakarava, yet it also stirs up many memories. If anyone asks who can tell us about the time of the sailing pirogues, the answer is unanimous: “You must go see Daniel Snow!” Snow is an interesting individual. In 1963 when he was only 24 years old, he was elected president of the district council. He remained tavana (mayor) for ten years. At the time, each family had its own sailing pirogue and sometimes even cutters to transport merchandise, people and copra. It was the main vehicle of the times. In 1965, nuclear money arrived with the installation of the CEP (Center for Testing in the Pacific). Then everything changed. Motors appeared. Residents wanted to live differently. “Before then, everything pertained to sailing,” Snow said, nostalgic. The population scrupulously observed the Rahui system (fallow land), and every three months, the people of Fakarava changed sectors. There were three sectors. One was on Toau, the neighboring atoll. The inhabitants transported everything in their sailing pirogues, even pigs and chickens. They moved there to farm the entire sector on land and in the lagoon. During this time, the two other sectors had time to replenish and it is the tavana who selected a date to change sectors once he decided it was time to look for more abundant resources. “When the tavana spoke, everyone listened,” Snow smiled. The pirogues were 7.3 meters long (24 ft). The ancestors were incredibly strong and they sailed at night under the stars, yet also followed scents. They recognized the smells of each island. Snow still remembers the last working sailing pirogue in Fakarava. It was a large monohulled cutter that could carry several tons of merchandise and dozens of passengers. Its name was Te Maru O Havaiki, which is the same name as the pirogue on the Va’a Motu building site. Two years ago, Lissant asked his grandfather Manuel Varas, the oldest person on the atoll, to come up with a name for the project’s first pirogue. Just before he passed away, he suggested the name Te Maru O Havaiki, which means, “Havaiki’s shadow” or “Havaiki’s hidden beauty.” Havaiki was once the name of Fakarava.
Building with fervor
Every day, sanders chanted along the area surrounding the village. Friends of the project came to render assistance, such as Alexandre’s sister Charlotte Genton and navigator Benoît Parnaudeau.
They formed small teams and the mast, the ama (Tahitian for outrigger) and the iato (outrigger arm linking the pirogue to the outrigger) quickly took shape through following the plans of Nicolas Gruet, the boat’s architect. For two weeks, a dozen people sanded and stratified in a fantastic ambience. It was a happy construction site. There was also rope work with Vincent Le Roux, a specialist in rigging and cordage, who came especially from Brittany. He is a sponsor of the project with his business Blew Stoub. There was splicing, whipping, textile padeye, mast framework and knots of all kinds. Le Roux brought even more knowledge to the young students and prepared riggings to tie to the mast, nets and other elements.
A major goal is to allow scientists to transform Te Maru O Havaiki into a true hands-on citizen science project. This would permit the population to have a deeper connection with the environment in order to better understand it. When finishing touches were taking place on the building site and putting the pirogue into the sea was a matter of weeks away, two scientists arrived in Fakarava on August 11, 2015 for ten days. The leader of the mission was Emmanuel Reynaud, a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Dublin, Ireland. Noan Le Bescot studies plancton in the Roscoff Marine Station in Brittany. Their goal was to test equipment and perform a field study of the main cartographic mission that will take place later in the year with a larger team. Equipped with a multitude of cameras, kites and UV lamps, the scientists combed the lagoon accompanied by Lissant and Girardot. They also exchanged ideas with Alexandre Genton in regards to adapting the pirogue’s platform to fly kites equipped with cameras that will create an aerial map of certain areas of the lagoon. Their message is simple and pragmatic: “Biodiversity is the essence of the world we live in, and we just make up a tiny part. This biodiversity belongs to all of us. It cannot be patented, nor can it be a museum piece or named inventory. It is a treasure to understand and preserve. The goal of the expedition is to at once serve the local community, the regional community and European protagonists. It is about sharing, not pillaging.”
Readers—by the time you read this, Te Maru O Havaiki will be sailing the waves of Fakarava lagoon transporting scientists, inhabitants of Fakarava, local young students and tourists who wish to authentically explore the lagoon in harmony with its natural elements. In a few years, Va’a Motu will have “borne” other progeny so that sailing pirogues will once again become part of the incredible scenery of the Tuamotu Archipelago. These pirogues will meet the needs of the population in a sustainable way that will instill pride in its maritime culture.
The Va’a Motu revival association in the Tuamotus was started in 2011 upon the initiative of two friends, Ato Lissant (owner of the family guest inn on Fakarava along with his wife Corina) and Julien Girardot (professional photographer originally from Saint Malo, Brittany).
To contact the Va’a Motu Association:
Phone : 00 689 87 744 003
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook : Association Va’a Motu / Projet Va’a Motu