Over 2000 years ago the coconut was an essential component of the great oceanic migrations of the Polynesians, indeed a major source of life. The coconut was easy to transport, did not rot over a long period of time whilst remaining a good food source throughout & took root easily once on land. The coconut was used for everything from a nutritional source of food & drink, through containers, roofing materials, fuel, fertilisers, oils……pieces of the shell even used in operations for skull fractures!
For centuries Tahitians have climbed the trees to secure coconuts something that today remains very much part of their everyday life.
It was perhaps inevitable that locals would engage in friendly competition to see who could race fastest to the top of the tree – ta’uma haari as it is known – & the seeds for what today is an important sport for all Polynesians were sown.
Here’s a photo taken 48 years ago of my brother-in-law, Joseph Prokop, participating in coconut tree climbing discipline as part of his winning the 1968 Tane Tahiti (Mr Tahiti):
Noting the strong interest of locals, tourists & athletes alike for such competitions, Enoch Laughlin, the dynamic president of the federation of Traditional Sports in Tahiti, has moved to take the sport to new levels with the running of the first ever Coconut Tree Climbing World Championships in Tahiti next year during the Heiva I Tahiti (July, 2017).
The rules for the running of a World Championship event require that there be at least 5 separate countries competing, a requirement already met as in addition to Tahiti, already Hawaii, the Cook islands, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu & probably Kiribati & the Marshall islands will be competing with competition promising to be fierce.
The rules & regulations of the sport require that competitors climb bare-footed 8m up the tree to where a red cloth is attached (interestingly competitors in days gone by scaled trees to a height far greater & were often required to descend with a coconut – insurance company premiums nowadays will see competition limited to around a maximum of 8-10m). The competitor must reach the cloth, indeed clear it with both feet in the shortest possible time. To give you an idea – proven climbers can complete this task in around 5 seconds!
A report in the British Medical Journal in 1985 talked of people climbing coconut trees to a height of 90 feet (over 80m) whilst stating that a climber’s fall from a mature coconut palm would be the equivalent of a fall from a 10-story building, and that falling coconuts could strike a person on the ground with a force of almost 2,000 pounds (over 900kg).
Currently 2 techniques to climb coconut trees are used by those who perform this task daily – one is to climb totally barefooted, propelling oneself upwards with feet to each side of the trunk & hands hooked in support around the trunk. The other permits climbers to use a small lead fashioned from local plant fibres (taken from the bark of the purau – a member of the hibiscus family – in Tahiti) which adds a level of security in assisting a climber from slipping back down the tree. The later technique is likely to be adopted for the competition.
A major opportunity to promote the World Championships is presented by the upcoming Heiva I Waikiki which will be conducted in Honolulu on 3rd & 4th September & during which coconut tree climbing will be a demonstration sport amongst a number of other traditional sports. Already the interest being shown in such competition augurs well for the initial World Championships.
Training in Hawaii:
The World Championships will be open to both men & women & it will be interesting to see any differences between those who climb regularly as part of their countries tourist activities (Hawaii) & others where it is moreso a way of life (Vanuatu).