Hawaiki Nui Va’a: Travis Grant And The Unbeatable Outrigger Paddlers Of Tahiti

 
Hawiki Nui Va'a race

The Hawaiki Nui Va’a finish line (photo credit: Makana Denton via Vimeo)

If the Battle of the Paddle is the Super Bowl of SUP, then Tahiti’s Hawaiki Nui Va’a race is the Super Bowl of the outrigger canoe world.

The Hawaiki Nui is a three-day, Tour de France-style challenge that sees the best teams from Tahiti and the surrounding islands battle it out alongside half a dozen international crews.

Pretty much the only place where outrigger canoeing is more popular than in Hawaii is in French Polynesia. Over there, outrigger isn’t just a sport, it’s quite literally a way of life. The top teams are paid to train & compete and no matter what the world throws at them they’re pretty much unbeatable.

Hawaii usually sends a team down to the Hawaiki Nui event each year. It’s a big honour to be selected so I was beyond stoked when I got a call up to join in for this year’s 23rd edition of the annual event. Even though I’m an Aussie, I now live on Oahu and am a U.S. resident (green card baby!) so I guess I qualified. And of course I said yes as soon as I was asked.

Hawaiki Nui outrigger va'a race

Team Hawaii! and the luxury catamaran we stayed on each night! (photo credit: Blair Grant)

This wasn’t an all-star six-man outrigger team, it was more of a collection of a bunch of superstar youngsters from the world of OC-1 (one-man outrigger canoeing), with a bit of older experience thrown in. Some very talented guys in there:

Justin Watts, Kaihe Chong, Kalei Kahookele, Makana Denton, Manny Kulukulualani, Will Reichenstein, Mael Carey, Koa Crammer and myself, along with Luke Evslin as coach.

As soon as we landed in Tahiti, before we’d even left the airport, we were getting the royal treatment. As I said outrigger canoeing is a way of life here and this is their Super Bowl so everyone involved in the event was treated like a rock star. Not to mention the fact you’re in an absolute paradise… It’s really not a bad place to go for a race!

Unfortunately the race itself is no paradise…

 
The Hawaiki Nui is a three-day, 129km torture test. It’s an “Iron Race” as opposed to a relay, so once you start, you don’t swap the crew at all. That basically means you have to paddle all day non-stop. Unlike an outrigger relay where you jump in and out of the canoe mid-race, or a solo SUP or OC-1 race where you can take a breather whenever you like, you literally can’t stop in this one. If you did you’d be letting your team mates down.

So it’s three days between the islands of French Polynesia, with times added up to find out who wins overall. Some teams do it as a pure iron race, meaning they use the same six guys every day for three days. Other teams make a compromise and switch in some fresh guys on the 2nd and 3rd mornings. Our Hawaiian team took nine guys, so that basically meant we each had two days in the saddle.

The cruel thing about the Hawaiki Nui is that despite each day being a marathon, the pace is more or less at sprinting speed. That’s mainly due to the freakish talents of the local crews that can paddle at a super high rate all day without a break. We try our best to keep them in sight, which means we end up sprinting all day as well… It’s kinda crazy actually.

 
In fact the pace the Tahitians are paddling at these days is at an all time high. They’ve taken canoe paddling to a new level, a professional level.

Va’a (as outrigger canoeing is known locally) is actually a career in Tahiti. It’s so popular that kids grow up wanting to be a professional outrigger paddler. Hard to argue why when you look at where they live – who wouldn’t wanna get paid to play in this ocean paradise every day?!

So over time the level of talent, passion, drive, motivation, dedication and team work has risen to ridiculous levels in Tahiti. The competition to get a spot on one of the top crews, as well as beat your inter-island rivals, is so fierce that it leaves virtually no room for the international crews to compete. The Tahitians go at a break neck speed and we can only hope to stay within shouting distance.

 
Seriously, watching a top Tahitian paddle crew is like watching a perfectly choreographed dance. It’s a thing of beauty. They are so elegant yet aggressive, smooth yet powerful, efficient and fluent yet downright fast.

It’s like watching Usain Bolt do a gymnastics routine…

It’s harder than you’d think putting six guys in a canoe and trying to make the boat move fast and efficiently through the water but the Tahitians are the masters of it. They train together so much that they’ve got all the little one percenters down to perfection.

 
So yeah long story short: The teams from Hawaii/California/Australia/etc simply cannot compete with Tahiti at the moment. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever stop trying – I think we work pretty damn hard ourselves – but it’s almost like we’re competing in a different sport sometimes. I’m in total awe of the way the Polynesians can move their canoes.

It wasn’t always this way – Hawaii used to be the dominant force in the world of outrigger canoe – but no more these days. I don’t think Tahiti has lost a major outrigger canoe race (such as the Hawiki Nui or the legendary Molokai Ho in Hawaii) for the past decade. I know they’ve won the Molokai race eight or nine years running and I don’t think they’ve ever been beaten at home.

Here’s a cool clip from this year’s event that sums it all up. Check out the arrival at Bora Bora (around the four and a half minute mark). Can we please get something like that for a SUP race?!

 

But anyway that’s enough about the Tahitians. How did we do?

Team Hawaii had a great time. The locals were super friendly to us even though English isn’t really a common language on the islands. And even though the Tahitians are clearly superior in paddling strength they had a lot of time and respect for the Hawaiians which is great to see.

Oh and the food was all time. They’ve got a very strong French influence but as you can imagine it’s been infused with the island lifestyle. Breads, cheeses and yogurts along with the most amazing raw fish, coconuts galore, limes, papaya and some kind of insanely fresh vanilla they whip up.

 
The best way to see the beauty of Tahiti is by boat. And that’s exactly what we did… Even though we had our heads down paddling like crazy all day, there was still time to look up and admire the world around us. We touched four islands in total and even got to sleep on a luxury catamaran each night.

The whole Hawaiki Nui event is a traveling flotilla. Apart from the hundreds of six-man outrigger canoes making the inter-island crossings each day, there were hundreds of support boats in tow as well. It really was a sight to behold.

Bora Bora outrigger race

This year was the first year it wasn’t hot. It was actually raining for the first two days, which was very welcomed by the paddlers. Normally racing in Tahiti is crazy hot. It’s often the heat – not necessarily the distance – that kills you.

The first day was so overcast and we couldn’t actually see where we’re going. I don’t think any of the boats could. None of the canoes in Tahiti use a GPS – they rely on sight and usually just paddle from one island to another.

On the opening day we had a tough race between the islands of Huahine and Raiatea (Google Maps).

We finished 30th out of close to 100 teams. Our time was 4:16:33 (I’m pretty sure at least 4 hours of that was at sprinting pace…) while the fastest crew did 3:44:09. That gives you an idea of how the Tahitians are on another level. We didn’t have our best ever day but Team Hawaii included some bloody good outrigger paddlers, so to lose by half an hour is kinda humbling.

 
Didn’t really love our canoe. Every canoe in Tahiti is hand made and pretty much every canoe is different. Which is kinda cool in one way as every boat has character, but it’s hard for an international team to get a good canoe. All the good canoes are taken – if it’s good someone will buy it, if it’s average then an international team gets it haha.

But still we gave it everything we had to try and make it work for us.

Like I said there were some super fast paddlers in my boat – guys that would kick just about everyone’s ass at most one-man races in Hawaii – but the locals here in Tahiti are in another league.

 
Day two the boys went better, I think we were 17th overall and made up quite a few spots on the locals. I sat that one out and got a bit of rest ahead of the final day. If day 1 was 90% sprinting, Day 2 was 100%, because it was *only* a two hour crossing (as opposed to the four-hour plus torture chamber of day 1).

Day 2 was also supposed to be a flat paddle through the lagoon, but it’s not so flat when you throw in the wash from 1,000 escort boats…

It was amazing watching all the canoes weave in and out of all the bumps from the escort boats. Apparently this is another skill the Tahitians have down pat.

Hawaiki Nui Va'a race tahiti 2014

photo credit: Makana Denton via Vimeo

Day 3 was the long one. We went from the island of Tahaa to the iconic paradisaical island of Bora Bora. It was 58.2 kilometres with literally no rest.

The wind was almost behind us and the sun was out, which made it both easier and harder. After almost five hours of grueling paddling we crossed the line in 25th, which gave us 23rd overall based on combined times from the three days.

 
Oh and the finish line each day was something else, especially at Bora Bora on the final day. Hundreds of spectators form a line on either side to create this amazing arena over the final few hundred metres.

Like I said above – how good would this be at a SUP race!

Definitely adds another dimension to what is already an amazing event.

Hawaiki Nui outrigger Bora bora

photo credit: Makana Denton via Vimeo

Team Hawaii’s total time over the 129 kilometres was 10:57:13. That was just over an hour behind the winning crew, EDT Va’a, who smashed it home in 9:54:58 (the only team to break ten hours).

In fact EDT Va’a are so good that even their “B team” came home fourth overall. Shell Va’a, the crew that wins the Molokai Ho pretty much every year, came home in sixth place, which highlights just how ridiculously deep the talent pool goes in Tahiti.

You can see the full results here if you’re keen.

So yeah the surfing (bump riding) wasn’t epic in this race, it was pretty tough actually. They used to say (many years ago) that Tahitians were very fast flat water paddlers but not as good surfers as the Hawaiians. That may have been true back in the day, but these days the Tahitians are the best canoe surfers.

So now they’re not only out-sprinting everyone else, they’re also out-surfing us. Let’s just say they’re out-paddling us…

 

 
I had the time of my life on this trip and also learned a lot. Even though Team Hawaii finished way down the list we all got something out of it and still somewhat satisfied with our result.

Personally I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement and also have renewed motivation to better myself as a paddler in both outrigger and stand up.

Oh and watch out SUP world…

I have been saying this for a while now but whenever Tahiti decides to seriously get into stand up paddling, watch out. Georges Cronsteadt is leading the way for the Tahitians at the moment and is also one of the most respected paddlers in Tahiti from his outrigging days (he’s a bit of a legend over here), however there are hundreds more that could follow in Georges’ footsteps in the future.

Speaking of Georges, it was also great to catch up with him and his Mataiea Lifestyle crew (check out some of their photos on Facebook they’re incredible) after the event. These guys live in what is probably the best playground on earth… Was great to catch up with an old mate again and have a couple of Hinanos in paradise!

In Tahiti canoe is first and SUP is second, but if a few more talented paddlers decide to focus on SUP in the same way they focus on outrigger, just like Georges did, then it’ll be entertaining to watch. Tahiti has already pushed the level of outrigger canoe racing to new levels and they could easily do the same with SUP.

I don’t know when that day will come but when it does, remember you were warned haha.

 
I think the best way to learn is by watching the best. Well I have certainly been inspired by watching the Tahitians dance across the water in their canoes. I have witnessed their passion for the sport – they live with it, breathe it, smell it, taste it, want it. If you want to be the best you have to do and want to do all that and more.

The passion, the love, the commitment, the skill level, the canoes, the thousands of spectators loaded on escort boats, the colours, the scenery. Put it all together and you have what looks like the Tour de France on water.

But really, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a is too amazing for words… I don’t know how to properly describe it. It’s something you can only experience. Words just don’t do it justice.

Thanks to the organisers for inviting us, thanks to the locals for welcoming us and thanks to all my Hawaii team mates for making it a fun trip. We paddled hard and even though we couldn’t match the top Tahitian crews, I was proud of the boys.

It was also a treat to have my beautiful wife Blair along for the whole event!

Travis Grant with his wife Blair

 


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