Hawaiki Nui Va’a 2015

The greatest ocean paddling race of them all was conducted for the 24th consecutive year this week, the first week in November. Almost 100 outrigger canoes – 6 man va’a – left Huahine on the first leg of a 3 day competition which would take them 44.5km to Raiatea, then 26km to Tahaa the following day & finishing a further 58.2km on the final day arriving at one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts – the sensational Matira Beach in Bora Bora.

A race such as this compels one to reflect on the staggering fact that the Polynesians came to these islands in such craft, safely & with surety, navigating these waters by the stars, the wind, the flight pattern of birds & other aids more than 1,000 years before the first Europeans were known to have mastered sailing in their own waters.

My report on the 2013 Hawaiki Nui Va’a backgrounds the history of this event, details the actual course & covers certain key statistics. Coverage of the 2014 Hawaiki Nui Va’a delves deeply into the cultural & historical significance of the va’a & indeed of the race itself as well as covering the performance of foreign teams since the race’s inception. This report at hand will cover moves afoot for this the world championship of 6 man/no changes outrigger canoe ocean racing.

Q & A

A total of 109 teams – men, women & juniors – will compete in this year’s event. Of these there are 3 foreign teams – 2 from France & a team from the USA – in the men’s division & 2 further foreign teams in the women’s division – a team from Hawaii & one from Australia. This raises the question: “Where are the foreign teams”?

This year’s Na Wahine O Ke Kai and Molokai Hoe events saw a reduction in the number of foreign competitors – an argument was advanced that it may be due to the domination of the Tahitian teams. The Hawaiki Nui Va’a is an event not just about winning but about participating, about pitting oneself against the elements to test if you have the strength & character to endure, to persist. Outrigger canoe racing is a growing sport practiced internationally yet the number of foreign teams travelling to participate in top level events is diminishing…….. Why?

It is pleasing to note the steps taken by the authorities here to encourage the sport locally outside of Tahiti & Moorea through greater access to key local paddlers. This year no less than 28 teams will be competing from French Polynesia’s Leeward Islands.

Another introduction this year is the allowance of gravity controlled water extraction systems in the va’a. Almost 75% of those competing today have the system installed & in years to come it may well have a significant impact on race records.

There is discussion surrounding the possibility of the Women & Juniors competition forming part of the final leg – Tahaa to Bora Bora – from next year, but with, unlike the men, the opportunity to make paddler changes during the race. This is an EXCELLENT proposal. Women paddlers in Hawaii fought long & hard for the right to paddle the Molokai Hoe course & they have now more than proved their ability to do so in total safety & security.

EDT are the favourites this year on the basis of recent strong performances – the team has clearly recovered from injuries that precluded their defending their title at this year’s Molokai Hoe. Shell, rejuvenated from their victory in this year’s Molokai Hoe, is the logical challenger. These teams have the advantage of having all crew members employed by the sponsoring company making training schedules amongst other things more flexible.

DAY 1 – HUAHINE TO RAIATEA

tahaa-toahotu

The magic of lingering cloud enveloping the mountain scenery greeted the morning paddlers. The race, underway  at 7.30am, was a visual feast of power & grace, of movement & of colour; you could sense the comaraderie, feel the determination. Most would paddle a “Matahina” va’a, a muti-purpose outrigger ideal for ocean crossings. The first 2km are a dash to the pass. It is important to reach the pass with the leaders so as to avoid the boat wash that flows from the 400 plus spectator craft accompanying the paddlers. Paddling Connection would head EDT out through the pass with Shell in the pack that followed.

The critical decision now, one faced by all paddlers in every such race, is to determine which direction to take. Paddling Connection decided on the most direct route, the one heading straight to Te Ava Iti Pass on Raiatea’s east coast. EDT followed as did most others. It’s difficult to catch the leaders if you simply follow them & there is wisdom in seeking a swell on which to surf potentially found to the north in today’s conditions or a following current which may perhaps be found to the south. EDT (B) headed north, Shell & Opt headed southwards.

Most crews were paddling at around 60 strokes per minute in the relatively calm conditions. After 1 hour, however, EDT using their new ‘huti’ (long, powerful) stroke rating around 55 strokes per minute powered seemingly effortlessly to the lead. EDT & Paddling Connection would change the lead on several occasions with Air Tahiti & Raiatea’s Hinaraurea joining in the battle not far behind whilst those to the north & south looked for any advantage.

Paddlers now faced the added difficulty of headwinds & rain with their direction shrouded in cloud. As the rain & wind eased the swell had risen noticeably & Huahine’s Matairea Hoe was clearly profiting as they moved up amongst the leaders as did EDT (B) in favourable surf to the north.

As the crews converged to make their final run towards Te Ava Piti pass EDT made their move to head a determined Shell by a km with EDT (B) some 40m behind & 150m in front of a pack made up of Air Tahiti, Paddling Connection, Hinaraurea, Tupuai (from Tubuai) & Matarirea Hoe.

EDT would be first to reach Te Ava Piti pass & charge home to win by 3min&57sec from Shell – in what I believe will be a sufficiently large enough margin so as to assure them victory overall. EDT (B), Air Tahiti & Paddling Connection made up the top 5. Tupuai’s performance to finish 7th was exceptional.

The womens & junior men would compete in the afternoon on a course which is now contained within the lagoon. The 24km women’s event was won by Puunavia from OPT & Aranui. It was pleasing to see Lanikai finish 5th & Patterson Lakes from Australia finish 8th just a second behind Team Bora Bora. Papara again dominated the juniors & their paddlers are being courted by Paddling Connection. Shell was 2nd with Bora Bora 3rd.

DAY 2 – RAIATEA TO TAHAA

apoo-puhi

This may well be the shorter leg but it is amongst the most challenging – there is no swell to assist paddlers but experienced sweeps can get a good advantage from the bow waves of spectator craft. In the confined area within the lagoon in which the event is conducted the waters are turned to a massive ‘washing machine’, but there are advantages in knowing how to surf, in knowing when to paddle in shallower waters & where the best advantages are to be found in the prevailing tide……….this is very much ‘a race of sweeps’.

Unlike the other 2 legs no water or food can be taken on board whilst paddling. To cover the increase in weight afforded by having to take additional water & food for the paddlers, EDT brought 2 powerhouse paddlers into the team – it would play an ironic role late in the race. Paddling Connection addressed the same problem differently in adding 2 lighter but powerful paddlers to their va’a.

It was a spectacular start to a spectacular race. Those expected to perform well did so with Shell, Paddling Connection & EDT finishing 1st 2nd & 3rd respectively, but all honours go to the performances of Arue who finished a sensational 4th & Tubuai who were 9th.

I mentioned earlier that EDT replaced 2 paddlers from day 1 with 2 powerhouse paddlers for this race. With the finishing line well insight one of EDT replacement paddlers literally collapsed (he’s recovered) sensationally costing EDT 2nd place only metres from the finishing line.

DAY 3 – TAHAA TO BORA BORA

tahaa-taimahana

Times are of the upmost importance in this race as the winner is determined by one’s aggregate score over the 3 legs of the race. All eyes today are focused on EDT who leads Shell overall by more than 3 minutes & look unbeatable.

It’s a 7km paddle from the start to the pass. Seasoned crews will seek protection from any head wind by sheltering on the island side of the lagoon. The bigger teams are able to change paddlers for the final leg; the smaller clubs see their 6 aitos (champions) paddle the full 129kms!

It’s always a great race to the Paipai Pass as crews seek to avoid the wash from support & spectator vessels. OPT who had stated their aim to win today’s leg were first out into the open water followed by Matarirea Hoe then the other big guns – EDT, Shell, Hinaraurea, Air Tahiti & Paddling Connection. The open sea offered a tail wind of 15-20knots & a following swell of 2-2.5m.

The race record for this leg has stood since 2009 & crews were pumped up for a crack at the record given the good following swell & wind. It is for the coach to determine the best course to take & OPT & Matarirea opted for the direct line towards Te Turi Roa Point, whilst EDT & Shell took a line more towards Maupiti hoping to surf a following swell to victory. Air Tahiti took aim directly at Mt Otemanu.

It’s here where one can see the difference in the skills of various teams. Whereas seasoned sides were reveling in the conditions others were being pushed from side to side in the swell. Te Ui Tini whilst pushing the leaders would ultimately capsize. Despite the disaster they would right their craft, bail out tons of water & ultimately finish an impressive 16th overall!

Here they are at the finish:

capsised-canoe

OPT showed great guts & determination, particularly in the punishing last 8km stretch from the pass to Matira Beach inside the lagoon & facing a strong headwind & a strong challenge from EDT to hang on & win the leg from EDT & SHELL.

2015 would be EDT’s Hawaiki Nui Va’a – they were by far the most superior team in every facet of paddling. Shell are showing their rebuilding is starting to pay dividends. OPT showed anyone can win if they put everything into it! Tubuai were simply unbelievable as were the first 2 legs paddled by Arue.

Here’s EDT storming home on the final leg to take victory overall in a dominant performance:

edt-hawaiki-nui

edt-vaa

Shell, always a threat, finishing 2nd overall this year:

shell-vaa

vaa-shell

The gutsy winners of the final leg, OPT, who finished 3rd overall:

team-opt

The race paddled by Tubuai who finished  7th overall is legendary & they more than merit a photo in any coverage of this mythical event:

tubuai-vaa

This race is very much a celebration, a ‘must’ in the calander of everyone who lives on or is visiting Bora Bora. Here are a few shots to take you there:

Bora Bora’s first crew home; the stroke was certainly taken by the reception:

bora-lei

bora-bora-vaa

The pain in the face of a paddler in Bora Bora’s second team home…..only thing worse could be the removal of a tooth!

dental-vaa

Why cameras were invented:

lei-champions

bora-tatoo

There was one paddler that I had to meet today, a paddler who has competed in all bar 3 Hawaiki Nuis. Tavi Pirifonia is a not so old 72 years of age; one of his grandsons paddles with OPT. His feats took me back to my report on the 2014 Molokai Hoe when I wrote:

Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon paddled in his first Moloka‘i Hoe in 1958 aged 17. He would subsequently complete a staggering 50 consecutive ‘Molokai’s’ up to & including 2007, being part of the winning team on 6 separate occasions (1958, 1961 1966, 1969, !972 & 1973). The crew for his 50th crossing was made up of ‘Nappy’, his 5 sons & 3 grandsons!”

I spoke with Tevi straight after Faa’a Va’a, with whom he paddles, completed the final leg. His happy face & disposition is an inspiration to all. Tevi paddled all 3 legs & I have to say that he has many more Hawaiki Nuis left in him.

tevi-vaa

Tevi is in training & will be competing in his own age category in the World Championships which will be held in Townville, Australia next year. You’ll need to get your bet on early as this guy will be long odds on to bring home the gold!

Returning to this year’s Hawaiki Nui I feel that the level of paddling has again lifted overall. It was pleasing also to see arguably Tahiti’s 3 best teams each win one leg of this year’s Hawaiki Nui. I get the sense that the new generation sees benefit in sharing their knowledge for the advancement of the sport in general & that we will see great competition starting to flow from the Hawaiians in particular & even from those in Brazil with the Olympics approaching, Australia with the upcoming World Championships & so on.

Stand by for next year – my thoughts are that the  Hawaiians will be here in force, more competitive than ever…….. will a foreign team mount the winner’s dais for the first time ever? If the women & juniors join in the last leg, next year’s Hawaiki Nui Va’a will be bigger than Ben Hur!!!

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