The most respected sport in all of French Polynesia . . . ? The answer is va’a, Tahitian for outrigger canoeing. This is a sport for real athletes. Va’a involves endurance, strength, killer technique, innate talent, and most importantly, teamwork. It is also one of the few ways to earn Marquesan respect. Other ways include becoming a prolific fisherman, enrolling in their local school, or having your body tattooed from head to toe. My name is BRYCE RIGNEY and I can check two of these off my list. I have been attending a public Marquesan secondary school and I’m a part of the school’s paddling team, seated as my team’s faharo. In two months Marquesas will send 14 of their best college (secondary school) students to represent them in Moorea in the prestigious Eimeo Race where we’ll battle it out against 42 other French Polynesian schools and one team from Hawaii.
In the beginning . . .
It all started in mid-October 2015 with the beginning of the school’s new paddling program for kids 14 and older. The first after-school paddling sessions were difficult and crazy. Forty kids showed up on the first day, each wanting to learn how to paddle. But there were only 15 paddles. Fortunately, the instructors brought their own paddles to share. For boats, we paddled double-hulled outrigger canoes, one V-12 and a V-6. The word “V-12” is short for “va’a 12,” which is a pirogue (French for outrigger canoe) built for 12 paddlers. FYI – A mix of French, Tahitian, and Marquesan are spoken in the Marquesas. Anyway, so instead of one long canoe for 12 people, with two long wooden arms called aito, they attach two V-6’s together to make one double-hulled canoe. A double-hulled canoe is much more stable than a single-hulled canoe with a small outrigger, an important feature when just starting to learn how to paddle an outrigger canoe. So, a V-3 holds three people, and a V-1 is for a single paddler. To create a double-hulled V6, they tied two V-3’s together. Together, the two double-hulled canoes carried 18 students at a time. It was obvious to the instructors that none of us were in shape for paddling and that va’a was a new sport for all of us. Being it was the first time for most, including me; we tired easily those first weeks.
After 3 weeks, the number of kids showing up for practice dwindled to 20. That’s when the real training began. We started with 3km tours without rest, which progressed to 4km tours, then doubled to two 4km tours with a stop between tours, and then a 6km tour without a break. After two months of paddling, 18 kids remained. That’s when the college sports instructor, Cathy, informed all paddlers that there would be a 42km, 9-stage race around the island of Moorea, to be held in two months, and that from the 18 remaining kids, only 14 would be chosen to represent the entire Marquesas archipelago. All the kids were shocked when she told us. Training stepped up yet again. No longer just Mondays and Wednesdays, we were told to come on Tuesdays and Saturdays as well. At that time, I started to doubt whether I liked the sport enough to endure the training. Each day was 4km tour day (YAY!! . . . NOT!!) with a 1km “cherry” sprint on top. At the end of each practice we were exhausted, having worked practically every muscle in our bodies. Another month passed and the 4km tours were getting easier. That was when coach Cathy and the trainers said that in a week they would decide who would represent the Marquesas in this year’s Eimeo race.
Being that we were getting close to the day of the race, I decided to buy myself a custom wooden outrigger canoe paddle, made by hand by of one of the other paddler’s dad. There were many reasons why I wanted my own paddle. Everyday at paddle practice, we would get whatever paddle the trainers handed us. I had to get acquainted with each paddle, adapting to a different weight, texture, and length. Second, when my mom wasn’t using her custom paddle, I’d try to borrow it. But sometimes she’d be paddling at the same time, so I couldn’t use it. I no longer wanted the stress of wondering if I could or couldn’t use her paddle. I just wanted my own. Thirdly I thought it would be a great souvenir to take with me from our around the world sailing trip. For just $80 US, I could have my own handmade paddle. After just one week of waiting, the masterpiece was in my hands. I was excited to test it out and show it off. Being a non-practice day, the day I took possession of it, I took out a friend’s V-1 and tested the new instrument. It was incredibly light and the length was perfect. At the end of the 4km paddle test-drive, I was satisfied with my investment: those 80 dollars were definitely worth it. To really make it mine, I decided to add a little something special to set it apart from other paddles; I carefully placed a Hinanao vahine beer sticker on the blade. The first time my teammates saw my new paddle, they admired it.Team selection . . .
Monday, three weeks before the Eimeo Race, training was intense. There were three teams. I was part of team 1 and sat in the first seat (Fahoro). Seated behind me were the two best girl paddlers. In seat four was the paddle shaper’s son, Jordi. Then sat the biggest paddler in our paddle group, Keoni, followed by the school’s best helmsman, Raphael, a French kid. Our pirogue was to verse two other canoes in a 4km practice race around Taiohae Bay. One of the opposing canoes consisted of four of the counselors and two strong teen boys. They would be our greatest threat. Frankly the third boat isn’t worth mentioning. Vanena hoe!!! And with that Tahitian shout, the teams were off and paddling. Each member of the three pirogues were paddling at once, trying with each stroke of their paddles to lift their pirogues out of the water, working ferociously to get their boat to plane or glide in order to take the lead. The counselors’ boat quickly took the lead with us right behind. One and half kilometers into the race, little had changed. When the counselors’ pirogue made the first turn around the anchored sailboats and toward the big wharf/fuel dock, our boat gunned it: everyone pushing, rowing, and breathing in perfect unison. Soon we were side by side, us versus them. After five minutes of intense paddling our pirogue took the lead. Once we were one V6 length ahead, I slowed the pace down, maintaining our glide without tiring us out before the finish line. Over the next 2 km, we maintained our boat-length lead. With only a half kilometer to go, our pirogue decided to step it up and finish hard. The captain ordered a three “hip” tempo. By the end of the 4km race, our boat finished first with the distance of two V6’s between us. I don’t even remember what happened to the third boat.
That finish signaled the end of that day’s practice too. After carrying the pirogues out of the surf and onto the turf for overnight storage, the professor called everyone over. She announced, “These are the students who will race in Moorea. Pirogue team set A – Bryce, Keoni (the girl), Jordi, Keoni (the guy), Esperance, and Raphael.” I was super excited. We would remain the same group as we had just raced. She then announced the members for Pirogue team set B. She explained that these were the two teams that would switch off paddling the one canoe around Moorea over the 9 stages. The only bad thing was that with only three weeks left before the big race, rowing practice would only get harder, and it did.
The next week, practice started as normal, with two 4 km tour, but with an added capsize drill at the end of the second tour. The following week, training ramped up more. It transformed into a single 8 km non-stop tour. At the end of training, we were all beat. I questioned whether I would have the stamina for the Moorea race. On the final week before we were to be air-bound, Cathy told us that in addition to racing around Moorea, the guys had to practice the traditional Marquesan warrior dance called haka putu, to be performed in front of all the other Eimeo racers. The other guys and I took each opportunity that week to practice our dance: before paddling, after paddling, and in-between lunches at school. For all the other male teammates, it was easy to dance and chant since they grew up with the dance and spoke Marquesian. But for me, it was a challenge. Memorizing the chant was the hardest, but I knew I could do it. On Wednesday, Cathy huddled all the kids over to remind us of what to bring for the trip: limited to two bags, lots of protein bars for the intervals between stages when we’d be on the team’s support motorboat, and money for the things we would surely want to buy in Tahiti. Everyone prepared for Tuesday’s departure, the start of our small adventure to Tahiti and Moorea.
For Monday’s practice, the day before we were to fly out, only a handful of the kids came to paddle. The two V6 pirogues were required to paddle 8 km. The first half we paddled at a moderate pace; the second, at a faster pace. Even though it was 8km our teams were ready for more, well worked but not exhausted.
That night I packed six t-shirts, six shorts, seven pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, sandals, pillow, blanket, rain jacket, sun glasses, hat, iPod (for music), and toiletries. I was so excited to travel by airplane and to explore a completely different island from the one I was use to. In the morning I packed a few more things for the race: my life jacket and my good-luck paddle.