Aaaand they’re off!  With nearly a hundred teams, the start of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a is a bit chaotic.  But the pack doesn’t stay tight for very long. Soon, the stronger teams begin to pull away, and the canoes spread out.
The opening ceremony on the island of Huahine included team sign ups, weighing of the canoes, speeches from race and government officials (including the president of French Polynesia), traditional songs, local crafts vendors, and a feast seemingly big enough for the entire island nation.
Spectator and support boats of all types follow the paddle teams out to sea and toward the next island stop.  Boats outnumbered outriggers by what appeared to be a 3:1 ratio.
Anywhere the race would enter the inner lagoons and skirt the land, the locals would gather.  It would appear that everyone had taken the day (or week) off of work to cheer on their favorite team--or really any team within earshot.  This lady was a riot.  She would bang her spatula and yell, exposing a mouth only half full of teeth. The old folks lined up against the building behind her would follow her lead, shouting and clapping as teams paddled past.
As soon as they round the buoy that marks the reef pass, the conditions change dramatically.  Ocean swells and wind chop are major factors that come into play.  On this last and longest leg of the race, local knowledge of the wind and currents can give the home teams an advantage.
Cloudy weather for much of the race provided welcome relief from the intense tropical sun.  Competitors were thankful for this fact, as the race has enough challenges without the heat.
As teams head out into open ocean, they gradually get further apart, and, in many cases, lose sight of each other entirely.  With limited visibility, and no way to know exactly where the fastest route to the finish line is, they navigate based on instinct, a rough game plan, and a general sense of direction.  This is where local knowledge of the islands, winds, and currents becomes race-changing.
With so many boats following the race, it can feel like quite the circus on the water. It’s up to each individual to block out all the peripheral noise and stay focused:  One paddle stroke after the next, in rhythm, until the end.
Getting as close as possible without being run over, I was able to get a close-up view of this Va’a team, as they neared the finish on day one of the three-day race.
Locals of Taha’a look on, as teams make their way toward the finish line on day two, while the faint but distinct silhouette of Bora Bora can be seen in the distance.
Their faces say it all: physical and mental exhaustion after a grueling day on the water. This is the day two finish line, meaning the longest leg of the race is still ahead of them.  But the teams will be able to get a restful night’s sleep before the final day.
On the final day of the Hawaiki Nui Va'a, competitors race through the lagoon toward the reef pass.  When they get to the pass, they'll head out to sea, and set Bora Bora in their sights.
The home stretch.  After a long and intense day on the water, this Va’a team has made it into the calm and clear lagoon of Bora Bora, and the finish line is nearly in sight.
At the finish line of each leg of the race, many of the teams will splash water on each other as a celebration of a complete race day and then hold hands as a sign of team solidarity.
This is a slice of the scene at the finish of the 2014 Hawaiki Nui Va’a.  Locals and visitors alike gather in droves to cheer the teams across the finish from the water and land.  There were hundreds of boats and thousands of people. One rep from Tahiti Tourism called this “the Superbowl of Tahiti”, and without a doubt, it is the biggest sports event they have.  It is certainly the largest gathering of water craft and a great time for all.

‘The Super Bowl of Tahiti’: Hawaiki Nui Va’a Race 2014

Photos of the annual three-day outrigger canoe race from Raiatea to Bora Bora

Photos and words by Shawn Parkin

The small and normally quiet village of Fare on the island of Huahine in French Polynesia is abuzz with activity. Children play in the ocean, climbing the mooring line of a research ship, and jump into the water below. Local vendors of island crafts and food sell their wares along the main road, which has been closed to vehicles to accommodate the influx of people. Large and muscular men carry their paddles through town while Va'a (outrigger canoe) teams take turns carrying their canoes to the water. This is the opening ceremony of the Hawaiki Nui Va'a, the largest annual sporting event in French Polynesia. In this race nearly a hundred, six-man paddle teams from island nations and beyond gather to put their experience, determination and strength to the test.

The Hawaiki Nui Va'a begins on Huahine, and the three-day, 80-mile race takes the teams to Raiatea and Taha'a before finally finishing in Bora Bora. The event is deeply rooted in Polynesian culture and is very prestigious. Competitors train rigorously all year, and this is the culmination of their efforts. It's also very much a spectator sport with what can seem like the entire nation coming to watch. All the schools are out for the whole week, and many businesses are closed as well. This is, as the Communications Manager for Tahiti Tourisme puts it, “the Super Bowl of Tahiti.”

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