Traveler contributing editor Andrew Evans is just back from a jaunt to Tahiti, where he followed the longest outrigger race in the world.
Tahiti’s Hawaiki Nui Va’a is the largest and longest outrigger canoe race in the world. This year, I was lucky enough to watch it in person.
Celebrating the Polynesian tradition of canoe travel, the three-day canoe race connects four islands of French Polynesia–Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, and Bora Bora–for a total distance of 125 km (78 miles). Some 86 teams competed this year, each boat powered by six men who push through the waves using the same triangle-shaped paddles their Polynesian ancestors used thousands of years ago.
Some teams come from small, remote islands. Others benefit from big corporate sponsorship, like Team Shell, who not only are the favorite in Tahiti, but also took first in this year’s Molokai Hoe race in Hawaii.
The real test of Hawaiki Nui Va’a is one of stamina, endurance, and know-how. Over three days, paddlers must deal with total exhaustion, constant sun, dangerous reefs, and the gigantic swells of the open ocean. Just watching these guys paddle for hours across the open water made me exhausted. It was all very exciting, too, given the neck-and-neck race and final upset by Team OPT (sponsored by the French Polynesia Postal Service) who took first place with an all-time record third leg finish time of 4 hours, 7 minutes and one second.
I was rooting for Team Hawaii–because I’m patriotic and because they were really fast. Win or lose, the great traverse from island to island ended with an all-day party on a white sand beach in Bora Bora and that wasn’t so bad either. Hawaiki Nui Va’a takes place in Tahiti every year during the first week of November.
Video: Andrew Evans
- Nat Geo Expeditions