The Maraamu Surf Ski Race, part of the World Championship in the discipline, is more than the greatest downwind race of them all. With a favourable swell, these canoes, weighing slightly over 9 kilograms for around 6 meters in length yet only slightly wider than your hips see adrenalin levels rush as the speeds they reach are literally thrilling.
As tradition would have it a select group of the world’s best gathered in Bora Bora, a generous Mother Nature’s paradise on earth blessed with the world’s most beautiful lagoon, boarding a catamaran that would take them to neighbouring Tahaa, an island renowned for producing the world’s most sought after vanilla.
As we headed out through Passe Teavanui, Bora Bora’s only pass, Tahitians dived to reach & swim on the backs of the massive lemon sharks below as they have so done for centuries; the sharks a reincarnation of their ancestors & there to protect them. Further to sea whales & their calves rose from the depths to greet a flotilla filled with enraptured spectators. As paddlers discussed likely tactics for tomorrow’s race their eyes were drawn across waters of blue to cyan, from azure to turquoise – there’s no place like this on earth!
Ta’aroa was good to us for the trip to Tahaa with smooth seas & little headwind & we would reach Tahaa, some 35klms away, in just over an hour. But what is one man’s meat is another man’s poison & as the paddlers discussed tactics for the race ahead all knew that the same conditions for the race tomorrow would wreak havoc on the field. Lance Armstrong’s: “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever”, may come to cross the minds of many.
We disembarked at Poutoru, too small to even figure in any official population count but with locals who are warm & generous, proud to offer these paddlers from far away lands an insight into a rich & deep culture, a people who, some 2000 years before the first recordings of European sailors, had already mastered the seas & could navigate by the stars.
We would claim a bed in the enclosed multi sport centre before enjoying a hearty Tahitian lunch where the legendary Tahitian poisson cru & poe mautini, a sweet condiment made from pumpkin, were amongst the favourites, washed down with coconut water from coconuts taken straight from the neighboring trees & quickly fashioned into drinking vessels.
South Africa’s Mark Duncan & Italian paddler Maurizio Tognacci check their options:
As we settled in, the Tahitian paddling contingent would arrive, most having flown to Raiatea before boating across to Tahaa &, as twilight fell, a traditional Tahitian otea, performed to welcome all present, including the now legendary “invitation to dance” where many a paddler has shown skills to match their paddling prowess.
It would be an early night with all rising to the crowing of cocks around 5.30am ready for a 6am breakfast as dawn broke.
These are a kind & religious people & the race-day would start with prayers in the form of a powerful Tahitian orero – Polynesians is an oral culture & to witness such an eloquent discourse is invigorating.
An easy going, but visually rewarding, warm-up, 4km paddle to the starting line at Passe Paipai. Competitors, both men & women from across French Polynesia, in mostly single surf-skis but including 3 doubles, would be joined by those from South Africa, New Zealand, Italy, Australia &…. don’t you love it – Tasmania! Amongst those competing – Australian Cory Hill, the reigning World Champion & winner of the 2016 Molokai; South African, Sean Rice, former World Champion & winner of this year’s Molokai as well as the 2015 Maraamu; Tahitian Hiromana Flores, a multiple World Championships gold winning outrigger canoe paddler who won last year’s Maraamu, as well as the Molokai Hoe – to mention but 3 of the champions in attendance.
The start was signaled in Passe Paipai by the sounding of the ‘pu’ (conch shell), a ceremony which itself marks the undertaking of an event of the upmost importance. I was particularly pleased to see Tahiti’s leading lawyer Gilles Guidikian paddling a double with Julien Torregrossa lead the field past the first marker signifying the leaving of the pass into open seas:
From there the race for line honours would settle into a tremendous battle between Cory Hill, Sean Rice & Hiromana Flores with the lead constantly changing. Hiromana & Sean taking the direct line to Te Turi Roa Point whilst Cory was further east towards Mt Otemanu. 30 kilometers into the race as Cory turned to start his run for Te Turi Roa & with Sean powering directly towards the point, Hiromana would be first to ‘feel the pace’ seeing him drop slightly back.
Cory & Sean would converge as one on Te Turi Roa. To watch the sheer power & determination of these 2 great paddlers was something to behold. The conditions were truly punishing with only a light tail wind, an inconsistent & at times choppy swell & temperatures in the low 30’s seeing 10 of those who started abandon the race, a record for the Maraamu. Those that endured may well recall the words of Muhammad Ali who said: “Don’t quit. Suffer now & live the rest of your life as a champion”.
Sean straight after turning from Te Turi Roa:
Cory went on to win comfortably – in just under 3 hours which shows the strength of the man given the conditions. I was interested in talking with him straight after he finished to find he ‘doubted himself if only for a moment’ in the face of a challenge from a competitor as accomplished as Sean. At this level the ‘mental’ plays a major role & I see Cory going from strength to strength from this victory:
Sean, 2nd overall, was the first to congratulate Cory. What a true Champion he is – not once did he mention to the press, complain or use as excuse that his surf-ski had a leak & had been taking water throughout the race. What a powerhouse of a man is he to have paddled in such a manner in such conditions.
Cory & Sean at the finish … now we can understand Cory’s speeding home:
Hiromana was as impressive as ever in finishing 3rd – for a man who virtually lives in an outrigger canoe to perform at this level in surf-skis on the one occasion each year that he paddles such a craft bears witness to his enormous talent.
Moehau Paie’s 5th was another solid performance showing his 3rd last year was no fluke.
Moehau with Cory straight after finishing:
Tegan Fraser, clearly wearied by the challenging conditions would take out the women’s event from Tahitian Nicole Clarke, & in so doing giving Australia a clean sweep in this year’s event.
In reality congratulations is due to all 58 of those who participated in this 2017 edition as the conditions this year made it a gruelling event. People talk of ‘acclimatising’ – spare a thought for Tasmanian paddler Andrew Fuglsang who in the week before this event was training around Hobart in temperatures of only 2 degrees surrounded by snow to 100 meters. Congratulations also to Mark Duncan who would marry, Tina, the love of his life, the very next day!
It is rare for fathers to find themselves performing at the top level in any sport whilst being watched by their children who are already in the 20’s & elite athletes in their own right, but this is exactly what Grant Hiem did – with his 2 sons (& his wife) cheering him on….lucky man!
I should mention for future reference having noticed that some paddlers had requested accommodation options via their travel agent – sorry but there’s no way a travel agent would know their way around Poutoru. Well there’s comfortable accommodation – Pension Titaina – less than 100m down the road from ‘race headquarters’ & run by english speaking Sophie if anyone is looking for something appropriate in future years.
Another sensational Maraamu – thanks Sebastien, the race mastermind, organiser & greatest supporter …….. a guy so generous that he always makes all those who are photographed with him look so good!