The va’a (outrigger canoe) symbolizes the fundamental link between man & sea; in the case of Polynesians it represents the essence of their civilization. As the means by which Polynesians came to their lands the va’a also transported the plants & animals necessary for their survival thereby providing the structural organization which would have profound social, political, cultural & religious impact on the Pacific region.
Today the racing of va’a is a national sport for Polynesians & a sport enjoyed internationally. It’s a sport which permitted handicapped people to participate in their Olympic Games in 2012.
The Hawaiki’nui Va’a is the ultimate expression of that sport – a sense of ancestry & tradition combined with progress & development, extreme challenge & great comraderie, individual best & team synchronisation, planning & strategy combined with effort, determination & courage. Va’a is a sport of many facets, a great sport:
The history of the event, the course & race records are extensively covered in last year’s report on the Hawaiki Nui Va’a 2013. The event was first conducted in 1992 when 34 va’a competed. In 1994 the first foreign teams arrived to compete – 2 teams from Germany. The Hawaiians first came in 1995 & have participated regularly since, their best results being 4th in 2001, 5th in 2007, 6th in 2010 & 8th in 2006. New Caledonia started competing in1996 & has competed in 9 separate Hawaiki Nui Va’a Races. The USA first tried their luck in 1997 & again in 1999. New Zealand has been a regular participant since 1998 as has France who first participated in 1999 & have since regularly sent multiple teams. Teams from Yugoslavia, Brazil, Australia & Italy have also come to battle the elements & test their powers of physical & mental endurance in this the greatest event of them all. It’s a bit like the America’s Cup – no-one has ever been able to beat the Tahitians; indeed, no foreign team has ever made the first 3 places. An amusing anecdote from those years is that of the German crew who competed in 2012 – named the “Unbeatables” they would finish the race in 72nd position.
It can be a tough assignment covering the course – one needs to persevere to get to ‘the bottom’ of the story (photo at Matira Beach on Bora Bora taken just before the finish of the 2014 Hawaiki Nui):
DAY 1 – Huahine to Raiatea, 45kms
The 2014 Hawaiki Nui Va’a started under cloud filled skies & heavy rain – more favourable to paddlers, though, than scorching sunshine. It was, as ever, a spectacular start – there’s something special in witnessing craft invented by Polynesians many thousands of years ago power off against the backdrop of the spiritual centre of all Polynesians.
The spectacular lagoon-side sprint that marks the start of the race from Huahine included a number of foreign teams including those from Hawaii, France & the USA & it augured well that Hawaii’s “Mellow Johnny’s” should feature in the group headed by “Shell Va’a” that led the fleet out of the pass at Fare.
As with all ocean paddling races the choice of course, taking into consideration the variables of wind swell & current, would be critical. Most would take the line direct to Raiatea’s Teavarua Pass, the line taken with such success in previous years. Half way into the race it seemed the right tactic as “Paddling Connection” headed the race in a group of proven performers – “OPT”, “Air Tahiti”, “Banque de Polynesie”, “EDT (B)” & “Shell”. “Shell” at 6th appeared to be ‘struggling’ or at least ‘uncomfortable’.
“EDT Va’a”, another race favourite, had decided on the basis of the latest weather forecast to take a course well to the south of that listed above. They would be followed by “Mellow Johnny’s” a team swept (steering helmsman) by an experienced, former EDT paddler now living in Hawaii. “Matairea Hoe”, swept by legendary paddler Manutea Owen, would take a course mid-way between them both. All 3 were looking to find an advantageous swell & current that they could surf back up to Teavarua Pass.
In my report covering the 2014 Molokai Hoe I made reference to the different paddling techniques employed by the Tahitians when compared to the Hawaiians & the impact it has on race outcomes. It was interesting to see “Paddling Connection” using a longer stroke which is more akin to the Hawaiian style, a stroke often used by Tahitians in open water but not as long or deep as the Hawaiian traditional stroke. The intrigue deepened on seeing a similar stroke being employed by Raiatea’s “Hinaraurea” & Huahine’s “Matairea Hoe” both performing way in advance of (outsider) expectations. The plot thickened as “Mellow Johnny’s” appeared to be using the shorter stroke of the Tahitians.
The stage was set for a mighty battle with GPS positioning showing “Paddling Connection” ahead with “EDT” & “Matairea Hoe” literally inches behind. Five other crews were bunched right behind “Paddling Connection” whilst “Mellow Johnny’s” were positioned just behind EDT.
“EDT”, “Matairea Hoe” & “Mellow Johnny’s” would turn looking for the swell & current from the south that would allow them to ‘steal’ the race. It now remained to be seen who’s reading of the conditions would prove right; who would be first to arrive at Raiatea’s Teavarua Pass.
“Paddling Connection” had had their nose (well canvass) in front for most of the around 40kms of the 45kms course. As the pass loomed & the paths of the competing va’a merged it became clear that “EDT” had swept to a lead of around 100m. Third into the pass would be “Matairea Hoe” so things were looking good for “Mellow Johnny’s” the remaining crew who had punted on a strong southerly swell to improve their chances of winning.
Leading into the pass, only 3 kms from the end of the course, offers the leader a great advantage as they avoid the wash of the flotilla of boats following the paddlers.” EDT” had now shortened their stroke & were surfing to victory. A big & noisy crowd was on hand to welcome the paddlers despite the incessant rain. Here’s a list of the top 10 finishers in the first leg from which the first 3 placegetters overall would surely come:
- EDT Va’a in 3:44:09 (course record 3:11:47 (Shell) safe probably due to headwinds early in the race)
- Paddling Connection – 3:45:23
- Matairea Hoe – 3:49:11
- EDT (B) – 3:49:28;
- Hinaraurea – 3:50:26
- Shell Va’a – 3:50:53
- Air Tahiti Va’a – 3:53:44
- Hinaraurea (B) – 3:55:38
- Team OPT – 3:56:39
- Mellow Johnny’s -3:58:08
One has to applaud the outstanding performance of craft from Huahine & Raiatea (particularly the performance of the young team “Hinaraurea”) whilst noting that Bora Bora finished 13th & 18th.
PREDICTION: Writing this as the va’a continue to arrive from Huahine I will record my prediction here & post it unammended – “EDT” look strong, with a clear determination to win. With an average paddler age of only 23 years EDT will recover more quickly than others & I predict they will win all 3 legs of this year’s Hawaiki Nui Va’a. “Paddling Connection” look ‘tired’ having clearly given everything today. They still look determined enough to figure on the dais. “Shell” look ‘flat’. Given the physical prowess of this team one wonders if a change in coaches since Molokai has had an adverse effect on crew morale?
As the men’s teams steamed into Raiatea the Junior Men & the Women’s teams prepared for combat that afternoon over the traditional course between Raiatea & Tahaa. Congratulations to “Mou’A Tamaiti No Papara” who won the Junior Mens event & “Team Bora Bora” who won the Women’s Va’a for the 3rd consecutive year. Great to see a spread of islands involved in the medal ceremonies. One can’t help but give an added word of praise to the islands outside of Tahiti who see their better paddlers enticed away by offers from the major clubs in Tahiti. It’s good for the sport but means constant rebuilding for the islands. Finally hats off to “Po Pora Te Hoe Mamu” from Bora Bora who are leading the Veteran Mens section by a whopping 7:27!
Here’s the winners of the women’s event Team Bora Bora in training ‘tied to a coconut tree’:
DAY 2 – Raiatea to Tahaa, 26 kms
A rainy, cloud filled day dawned & the paddlers faced the elements once more on day 2 in a paddle of some 26km from Raiatea to Tahaa. Despite the comparatively shorter distance of the leg it represents for many the hardest section of the race as teams paddle without the assistance of wind, swell or current.
It was a breathtaking start with the lead constantly changing over the first hour for a group including “Maitairea Hoe”, “Team OPT”, “EDT” (A&B), “Shell” & “Paddling Connection”. “Mellow Johnny’s” was right there showing they’d mastered the shorter, quicker Tahitian paddling stroke so effective in closed waters!
With the finish closing in, “EDT” made their move & pulled away to win in 1:53:36 (they set the record for the leg last year in 1:50:26). A powerful win for “EDT” ahead of “Hinaraurea” (1:54:29), “Paddling Connection” (1:54:33) – only 4 seconds between 2nd & 3rd in a tussle to top all tussles! “Team OPT” (1:54:55) followed then “Matairea Hoe” (1:55:28).
Heading into the last day on the overall placements were “EDT” leading “Paddling Connection” by 2:11, with “Matairea Hoe” almost a further 5 minutes back but only 16 seconds clear of “Hinaraurea”. “Mellow Johnny’s” were 8th today (& lie 9th overall) just ahead of a great paddle from Bora Bora’s “Fare Rua Va’a” who finished 9th today. The stage was set for a great battle in the final leg!
It is interesting to reflect on what is required to perform at this level. For the top paddlers training is undertaken regularly 3 times a day – every day. Paddlers nowadays use the whole body not just the arms with leg & abdominal muscle strength also being crucial elements of the complete paddler. The overriding factor of importance when paddling in a team is the technique of paddling together which takes years of training for long passages; the support vessel with its ability to give the crew detailed technical information during the race is also critical. Finally the va’a itself is important – I mentioned the use of Bradley canoes in my Molokai Hoe report; it was interesting to see in the Hawaiki Nui that all the leading boats were paddling a locally made Matahina, an excellent va’a when paddlers are faced with ALL possible water conditions.
DAY 3 – Tahaa to Bora Bora, 58kms
Day 3 dawned as the 2 days had before – the cleansing & cooling effect of rain & the mysterious beauty of cloud formations over the peaks. For this, the final leg, however, such conditions left both Bora Bora & Maupiti totally hidden in cloud making the selection of the appropriate course impossible to the naked eye of the va’a paddler (hence the value of one’s support vessel permitted to be equipped with GPS). An early start to the combat with the prospect of a wonderful, all-be-it hard, 58km surf over to Bora Bora in this a season of almost constant maraamu (southerly wind). These are conditions known well to Maraamu Surf-Ski Paddlers.
With a 58km haul ahead the race started at a reduced stroke rate but it wasn’t long before crews started to look for the advantage that falls to those reaching the pass first. The race took paddlers & spectators alike past some sensational scenery in the form of Tahaa’s stunning motus (atolls) along the northern tip of the island’s lagoon, past intriguing fish parks (very effective man-made structures to capture fish using the tides), down past the beautiful church of Tiva, constructed from blocks of coral & sparkling at water’s edge & out through an often dolphin packed Paipai Pass with the mystical & magical mountains of Hurepiti Bay as the back-drop….. this has to be the world’s best cruising for those nautical.
The church on the waters at Tiva:
The exceptional view back over Tiva & on to Bora Bora – today’s final destination:
Hurepiti Bay – truly beautiful to witness these clouds sweeping across the skyline:
The leading contenders for this year’s title seemingly ‘taking turns at the lead until “Shell” put the power on to lead the fleet out through Paipai Pass – photographed above – with “Hinaraurea”, “EDT”, “Air Tahiti”, “Fare Rua”, “OPT”, “Matairaea Hoe”, “Paddling Connection” & “EDT (B)” in hot pursuit.
The pass cleared, there are essentially 3 course options open to paddlers – Maupiti, Te Turi Roa Point, or Otemanu/Anau. “Shell”, “Hinaraurea”, & “EDT” would head towards Maupiti, whilst the other leaders opted for the most direct route via Te Turi Roa Point. “EDT (B)” on the other hand & Raiatea’s unheralded “Te Ui Tini No Viper Va’a” headed towards Mt Otemanu/Anau – they must have read my report on Marathon Swimmer Ismael Huukena from a day before the Hawaiki Nui Va’a started in which Ismael remarked on the very strong current pulling him along quickly in that very direction! It worked as when the va’a started to converge around Te Turi Roa Point, “EDT (B)” had a sufficient lead over the field as to be able to technically grab victory! “Te Ui Tini No Viper” would ultimately finish this the final leg in 9th position, an outstanding paddle.
“Matairea Hoe” who had paddled north of “EDT” saw their chance & moved to the lead to take what looked like a winning position. It should be noted that at this stage “Paddling Connection” had lost all chance of victory when one of their crew was forced to retire through a severe back injury. Their gutsy effort not only to continue the race but to rest in the top 10 shows both the courage of this team & the fact that they could well have been a real threat to “EDT” to win.
“EDT” decided to up the tempo feeling the prize was theirs for the taking. They lifted their rating & began to reach speeds approaching 15-17 knots (over 20km/hr). A sustained powerful surge saw them reach “Matairea Hoe” & the battle for line honours was on! A tremendous duel ensued with “EDT” just leading “Matairea Hoe” through the pass.
A massive crowd awaited their arrival on Matira Beach – here shots of the beach bar, ‘the run to the finish’ (how good is Bora Bora!), the official area & Miss Bora Bora waiting to place leis upon the winners:
A couple more shots to give you a sense of the ambience showing the throng of spectators surrounding the course, the traditional orchestra which welcomes each & every va’a, & 2 teams still fighting tooth & nail to the finish despite being towards the tail of the field:
To the winners – “EDT” would charge home across the turquoise waters of the world’s most beautiful lagoon, the sun now out as if to recognise the efforts of all those who participated, to a well deserved win just 22 seconds ahead of “Matairea Hoe” with “EDT (B)” 3rd in this the final leg. “Hinaraurea” & “Shell” were 4th & 5th respectively whilst “Paddling Connection”, with only 5 men, finished the race in 8th place – hats off!
Here are photos at the finish of the first 3 placegetters overall – the triumphant “EDT Va’a” from “Matairea Hoe” & “Hinaraurea” – representing respectively Tahiti, Huahine & Raiatea – what a great result! “Paddling Connections” fabulous five finishing rounds up the images:
This is a great race not just for the champions but for all those that compete this gruelling yet tremendously satisfying event; an event which gives all those who participate a true sense of achievement. Va’a came to compete from places as remote as Rimatara in the Australs & against all the odds they finished an astonishingly reputable 17th overall & have improved their overall placing every year since starting 4 years ago. Toa Enana from Ua-Po in the Marquisas islands was another who competed. I cant begin to tell you the cost of mounting such an effort!
Bora Bora’s Fare Rua, 11th on the final leg 12th all over & Bora Bora’s best performer followed by images of the teams from Rimatara & Ua-Po:
The first foreign boat home was Hawaii’s “Mellow Johnny” – their captain would tell me it was the hardest race ever & that he could not believe the power of the Tahitians. Those in Tahiti shouldn’t rest there – a well known local radio commentator who covered the race in full over a period of 5 days tells me he has “no doubt – given the determination of the Hawaiians to win this race & the efforts they are putting in, they will win the Hawaiki Nui within 3 maximum 4 years”! Images of “Mellow Johnny’s” arrival at the finish plus the captain & other team members getting ‘leid”:
A final photo which requires no explanation!
In wining the 2014 Hawaiki Nui Va’a “EDT” made history – in the past only “Shell Va’a” has won all 3 legs of the Hawaiki Nui & they did so twice. In winning the 2014 Hawaiki Nui Va’a Race today, “EDT Va’a” joined that most elite echelon of winners – those who have won all 3 legs in the one race, in this the greatest outrigger canoe race of them all.