It would border on the impossible for a surf-ski paddler to imagine anything better than the Maraamu Surf Ski Race. This international championship is conducted annually between Tahaa & Bora Bora in some of the world’s most beautiful ocean waters during the period of the maraamu (the predominant southerly wind at the time) ensuring exceptional conditions – a following southerly wind & swell to surf competitors all the way to Bora Bora, simply to paradise on earth. It’s an intoxicating mix.
‘Surf Ski Ocean Racing’ finds its roots in Surf Lifesaving & a band of people looking for adventure, looking to take the sport to another level, to appeal to the widest possible majority. It clearly worked appealing immediately to a broad range of people from thrill seekers to casual sports people, through all echelons of society to elite Olympic Kayak Champions, including Olympic Gold medalist & Maraamu Surf Ski Race winner Clint Robinson as well as legendary paddler Dean Gardiner amongst others, who all wanted to see the sport broadened from an essentially life-saving based beach sport to include ocean racing.
The modern day surf ski finds its origins in 1912 in a craft first used by oyster farmers near Port Macquarie on Australia’s eastern coat. The usefulness of the craft for surf rescue work was readily apparent & the craft’s entry into surf lifesaving competition soon followed. It was from this competitive base that the narrower, faster surf ski – the world’s fastest paddled craft in ocean swell conditions – that we know today developed. At typically 5-6m in length & yet only 40-50cm wide they are extremely unstable & require a skilled & experienced paddler.
Exceptionally & so as to coincide with the World Ocean Racing Surf Ski Championships which have just been conducted in Tahiti the Maraamu Surf Ski Race was conducted in October this year. This the 7th running of this prestigious event assembled an elite fleet with 96 paddlers including 43 international competitors from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Spain, Canada, USA, France, Sweden, the Philippines, Portugal & Brazil. The balance of the field was made up of a strong French Polynesian contingent.
Amongst those paddling, the reigning men’s & women’s number 1 & 2 World Surf Ski Champions – South African Sean Rice, New Zealander Teneale Hatton & American Michele Eray. Eray a former Olympian & World Champion made history last year when with Tahitian Hivalani Tetuamanuhiri they became the first women to ever compete in the Maraamu Surf Ski Race with Eray now immortalized as the event’s first female winner.
The men’s field includes a sprinkling of World, Olympic, European & national champions as well as Spain’s Esteban Medina who many are tipping to become the sport’s next super-star. They will be strongly challenged by leading local paddlers who have the advantage of knowing these waters like the back of their hand.
It is both pleasing & exciting to see 9 women compete in this year’s event. In addition to Olympian Teneale Hatton currently ranked number 1 in the world who won last week’s World Ocean Racing Surf Ski Championship & also former Olympian Michele Eray who was second to Hatton. They are joined by an elite field including 14 time USA National Champion Margaret Hogan & current top 6 in the world ranked paddler Amaia Osaba.
The finishing line was modified this year so as to see competitors finish & land at Vaitape (rather than on Motu Tapu) – a good move in terms of bringing the event closer to the public but it slightly lengthened an already sometimes ‘punishing even brutal’ course to 39.5km.
Many of those competing headed to Tahaa from Bora Bora on Friday morning. Shortly after clearing Teavanui Pass they were greeted by whales & it made one reflect on the danger should a surf ski be hurtling down the face of a wave in a strong swell & meet with a breaching whale.
The challenge commenced at 8.30am with Sean Rice leading the charge out of Tahaa’s Paipai Pass whilst Margaret Hogan headed the women’s division. Paddlers were greeted with a consistent following wind & the swell running around ¾ to square. It would see paddlers gambling on the 3 potential course choices – straight ahead towards Point Te Turi Roa then along the reefline, towards Point Tupititi on Bora Bora’s south-eastern coastline before heading upwards to Te Turi Roa or towards Maupiti before heading down towards the reefline closer to Teavanui Pass.
The range of choices would split the field across a width approaching 4 kilometres – it was difficult for competitiors & spectators alike to see let alone determine the relative placing of rivals. Sean Rice would tell me after the race that: « the most difficult part of the race was ‘concentrating’- facing the challenge of not knowing the waters, not knowing where the other competitors were placed, remaining positive in the face of not knowing if the choice of course was correct . What a great event – everyone was looked after, not just the elite paddlers but everyone. I’ll definitely be back next year».
Here’s Rice powering to the finishing line:
Rice would follow the direct line & lead from start to finish but not without a strong challenge from legendary local paddler Lewis Laughlin, 24 years his senior, who took the course towards Maupiti. Australian Mackenzie Hynart took 3rd placing, exhausted by what he described to me as: « both the best experience of his life in taking some sensational shooting swells alongside the (Fanfan) catamaran, & some of the hardest paddling of his life in reaching the finishing line in strong head-on winds ».
Lewis Laughlin being honoured with a lei to signify the importance of the event & of those wearing it. As tradition dictates all who so finished had their triumph witnessed accordingly:
First & second celebrate the course & their respective victories together:
The face of 3rd placed Mackenzie Hynart shows the effort endured…..no pain no gain!
In the woman’s division Eray would win her 2nd consecutive Maraamu. She told me: « knowing what a great paddler Teneale (Hatton) is in the flat I gave it everything in the swell to ensure I had hopefully a large enough lead at the pass to ensure victory. It was a very difficult final 12 kilometres but I am extremely happy with the victory & hope to be back next year ».
A nice sequence of shots of Michele Eray the only woman to have ever won the Maraamu Surf Ski Race:
New Zealander Teneale Hatton was a gracious 2nd offering a memorable smile when I mentioned to her the Wallabies had beaten Wales in the Rugby World Cup!
Local fruits at the finish of the race are always well received before competitors headed to a magical corner of paradise for Maa Tahiti – a traditional Tahitian feast which was followed by dinner & prize giving at legendary Bloody Mary’s:
It was a huge day for paddlers indeed for paddling in Bora Bora as competitors arrived under the omnipresent watch of the mythical Mt Otemanu to discover the warmth, charm & inherent nature to party of the islands with local percussion instruments including toeres welcoming each competitor……. It is enough to convince any of those participating that this is an annual event not to be missed !