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Hawaiki Nui Va’a Guide

The idea of conducting a prestigious event difficult enough to test both the physical and mental power of paddlers can be traced back to at least 1983. The idea gained momentum in 1984, with several friends pushing the idea to local authorities. It would not be until 1991. However, once many of the logistical issues had been ironed out, that a race from Tahaa to Bora Bora would see the day.

Hawaiki Nui Va'a

The following year, 1992, would see the running of the 1st Hawaiki Nui Va’a, a race conducted in 6-man va’a (outrigger canoes) designed specifically and fine-tuned regularly for off-shore racing. It starts from Huahine – the most feminine of islands, soft & welcoming (hua meaning vulva, hine meaning woman), to Raiatea – the sacred island & center of all Polynesia. Then across to Tahaa – wild & mystical, before ending in Bora Bora – simply the world’s most beautiful island.

The Hawaiki Nui Va’a is conducted over 3 successive days over 3 consecutive courses as follows:

Race Map
  • Day 1 (in green above) – A 45km race across the ocean from Huahine to Raiatea. The leaders will cover the distance in around 3 hours & 15 minutes; the course record. The current course record is 3h 11’ 47”.
  • Day 2 (in yellow above) – A comparative sprint of 26 km within the lagoon from Raiatea & Tahaa. The leaders will complete the course ‘comfortably’ within 2 hours. The current the course record is 1h 52’ 49”.
  • Day 3 (in mauve above) – A grueling 58km race across the ocean that separates Tahaa from Bora Bora. The leaders will complete the leg in just over 4 hours. The current course record is 4h 07’ 01”.

The winner of the event is determined by the overall time taken to complete the 3 legs and the fastest overall time in any one year is 9h 20’ 51” (Shell Va’a 2009).

On the afternoon of Day 1, races are also conducted for women & for junior men in a 24.5km race both inside the lagoon & in the open seas between Raiatea & Tahaa, as outlined in red in the above image.

Race Overview

  • The ultimate test of a paddler’s power, determination & endurance – mental & physical.
  • The world’s leading off-shore outrigger canoe race.
  • Sensational maritime journey through the world’s most stunning waterways.
  • Brilliant opportunities to snorkel, dive or fish the world’s most beautiful passes & lagoons.
  • Chance to participate in a culturally enriching experience.
  • Unforgettably jaw-dropping, gob-smacking finish at Matira Beach in Bora Bora.

Interesting Facts About The Race

  • The largest number of va’a (pirogues or outrigger canoes) to compete in the Hawaiki Nui Va’a was 158 in 2011.
  • Paddles are made mostly from Kevlar & wood to give overall strength & lightness. The angle of entry varies according to purpose, and the length is adjusted to match the paddler. Expensive to break!
  • The va’a are weighed prior to competition & must weigh a minimum of 150kgs.
  • Prizemoney is paid down to the 15th placegetter overall, with the winning crew to receive 1,200,000 Fcfp (2nd – 780,000Fcfp & 3rd – 490,000Fcfp).
  • Va’a is the most popular sport in French Polynesia, with 6,500 licensed competitors in 600 clubs & a further estimated 22,000 who paddle for pleasure.
History in the Making

History, Culture, and Significance Of The Race

The powerfully built Tahitian paddlers take you back to the days when Polynesians were a race of fierce warriors, as these guys are built like Atlas to a man! The Tahitians are world champions in this discipline. It takes a particular mixture of courage & determination, power & endurance, agility and mental aptitude to succeed at this level.

The va’a (outrigger canoe) symbolizes the fundamental link between man & sea. In the case of Polynesians, it represents the essence of their civilization. As the means by which Polynesians came to their lands, the va’a also transported the plants and animals necessary for their survival, thereby providing the structural organization which would have a profound social, political, cultural & religious impact on the Pacific region.

Today the racing of va’a is a national sport for Polynesians & a sport enjoyed internationally. It’s a sport that permitted handicapped people to participate in their Olympic Games in 2012.

The Hawaiki’nui Va’a is the ultimate expression of that sport – a sense of ancestry & tradition combined with progress & development, extreme challenge & great camaraderie, individual best & team synchronization, planning, and much more.

This was my experience observing the magnificent race:

Day 1 – Huahine To Raiatea


The magic of lingering clouds enveloping the mountain scenery greeted the morning paddlers. The race, underway at 7.30am, was a visual feast of power and grace, of movement and of color. You could sense the comaraderie, feel the determination.

Most would paddle a “Matahina” va’a, a multi-purpose outrigger ideal for ocean crossings. The first 2km are a dash to the pass. It is important to reach the pass with the leaders so as to avoid the boat wash that flows from the 400-plus spectator craft accompanying the paddlers. Paddling Connection would head EDT out through the pass with Shell in the pack that followed.

The critical decision now, one faced by all paddlers in every such race, is to determine which direction to take. Paddling Connection decided on the most direct route, the one heading straight to Te Ava Iti Pass on Raiatea’s east coast. EDT followed, as did most others.

It’s difficult to catch the leaders if you simply follow them & there is wisdom in seeking a swell on which to surf, potentially found to the north in today’s conditions, or a following current which may perhaps be found to the south. EDT (B) headed north, and Shell & Opt headed southwards.

Most crews were paddling at around 60 strokes per minute in relatively calm conditions. After 1 hour, however, EDT using their new ‘huti’ (long, powerful) stroke rating of around 55 strokes per minute, powered seemingly effortlessly to the lead. EDT & Paddling Connection would change the lead on several occasions, with Air Tahiti & Raiatea’s Hinaraurea joining in the battle not far behind whilst those to the north & south looked for any advantage.

The great event

Paddlers now faced the added difficulty of headwinds & rain with their direction shrouded in cloud. As the rain & wind eased, the swell had risen noticeably & Huahine’s Matairea Hoe was clearly profiting as they moved up amongst the leaders, as did EDT (B) in favorable surf to the north.

As the crews converged to make, their final run towards Te Ava Piti pass EDT made their move to head a determined Shell by a km with EDT (B) some 40m behind. The 150m in front of a pack is made up of Air Tahiti, Paddling Connection, Hinaraurea, Tupuai (from Tubuai) & Matarirea Hoe.

EDT would be first to reach Te Ava Piti pass & charge home to win by 3min&57sec from Shell — in what I believe will be a sufficiently large enough margin so as to assure them victory overall. EDT (B), Air Tahiti & Paddling Connection made up the top 5. Tupuai’s performance to finish 7th was exceptional.

The women’s & junior men would compete in the afternoon on a course that is now contained within the lagoon. The 24km women’s event was won by Puunavia from OPT & Aranui. It was pleasing to see Lanikai finish 5th & Patterson Lakes from Australia finish 8th, just a second behind Team Bora Bora. Papara again dominated the juniors & their paddlers are being courted by Paddling Connection. Shell was 2nd, with Bora Bora 3rd.

Day 2 – Raiatea To Tahaa

Raiatea To Tahaa

This may well be the shorter leg, but it is amongst the most challenging. There is no swell to assist paddlers, but experienced sweeps can get a good advantage from the bow waves of spectator craft. In the confined area within the lagoon in which the event is conducted, the waters are turned into a massive washing machine, but there are advantages in knowing how to surf, when to paddle in shallower waters. The best advantages are to be found in the prevailing tide as this is very much a race of sweeps.

Unlike the other 2 legs, no water or food can be taken on board whilst paddling. To cover the increase in weight afforded by having to take additional water & food for the paddlers, EDT brought 2 powerhouse paddlers into the team that would play an ironic role late in the race. Paddling Connection addressed the same problem differently by adding 2 lighter but powerful paddlers to their va’a.

It was a spectacular start to a spectacular race. Those expected to perform well did so, with Shell, Paddling Connection & EDT finishing 1st 2nd & 3rd respectively, but all honors go to the performances of Arue, who finished a sensational 4th & Tubuai, who were 9th.

I mentioned earlier that EDT replaced 2 paddlers from day 1 with 2 powerhouse paddlers for this race. With the finishing line well insight, one of EDT replacement paddlers literally collapsed (he’s recovered), sensationally costing EDT 2nd place only meters from the finishing line.

Day 3 – Tahaa To Bora Bora


Times are of the utmost importance in this race as the winner is determined by one’s aggregate score over the 3 legs of the race. All eyes today are focused on EDT, who leads Shell overall by more than 3 minutes & looks unbeatable.

It’s a 7km paddle from the start to the pass. Seasoned crews will seek protection from any headwind by sheltering on the island side of the lagoon. The bigger teams are able to change paddlers for the final leg and the smaller clubs see their 6 aitos (champions) paddle the full 129 km!

It’s always a great race to the Paipai Pass as crews seek to avoid the wash from support & spectator vessels. OPT, who had stated their aim to win today’s leg, were first out into the open water, followed by Matarirea Ho. Then the other big guns – EDT, Shell, Hinaraurea, Air Tahiti & Paddling Connection. The open sea offered a tailwind of 15-20knots & a following swell of 2-2.5m.

The race record for this leg has stood since 2009 & crews were pumped up for a crack at the record given the good following swell & wind. It is for the coach to determine the best course to take & OPT & Matarirea opted for the direct line towards Te Turi Roa Point, whilst EDT & Shell took a line more towards Maupiti, hoping to surf a following swell to victory. Air Tahiti took aim directly at Mt Otemanu.

It’s here where one can see the difference in the skills of various teams. Whereas seasoned sides were reveling in the conditions, others were being pushed from side to side in the swell. Te Ui Tini whilst pushing the leaders, would ultimately capsize. Despite the disaster, they would right their craft, bail out tons of water & ultimately finish an impressive 16th overall!

Here they are at the finish:

Hawaiki Nui  Va'a arrival

OPT showed great guts & determination, particularly in the punishing last 8km stretch from the pass to Matira Beach inside the lagoon & facing a strong headwind & a strong challenge from EDT to hang on & win the leg from EDT & SHELL.

This years would be EDT’s Hawaiki Nui Va’a as they were by far the most superior team in every facet of paddling. Shell is showing their rebuilding is starting to pay dividends. OPT showed anyone can win if they put everything into it! Tubuai was simply unbelievable, as were the first 2 legs paddled by Arue.

Here’s EDT storming home on the final leg to take victory overall in a dominant performance:


Shell, is always a threat, finishing 2nd overall this year:

Shell 2

The gutsy winners of the final leg, OPT, who finished 3rd overall:


The race paddled by Tubuai, who finished  7th overall, is legendary & they more than merit a photo in any coverage of this mythical event:


This race is very much a celebration, a must in the calendar of everyone who lives on or is visiting Bora Bora. Here are a few shots to take you there:

Bora Bora’s first crew home; the stroke was certainly taken by the reception:

bora bora crew

The pain in the face of a paddler in Bora Bora’s second team home. and the only thing worse could be the removal of a tooth!

second team home

There was one paddler that I had to meet today, a paddler who has competed in all bar 3 Hawaiki Nuis. Tavi Pirifonia is not so old 72 years of age and one of his grandsons paddles with OPT. His feats took me back to my report on the 2014 Molokai Hoe when I wrote:

Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon paddled in his first Moloka‘i Hoe in 1958 aged 17. He would subsequently complete a staggering 50 consecutive ‘Molokai’s’ up to & including 2007, being part of the winning team on 6 separate occasions (1958, 1961 1966, 1969, !972 & 1973). The crew for his 50th crossing was made up of ‘Nappy’, his 5 sons & 3 grandsons!”

I spoke with Tevi straight after Faa’a Va’a, with whom he paddles, completed the final leg. His happy face & disposition is an inspiration to all. Tevi paddled all 3 legs & I have to say that he has many more Hawaiki Nuis left in him.

Tevi is in training & will be competing in his own age category in the World Championships, which will be held in Townville, Australia, next year. You’ll need to get your bet on early as this guy will be long odds on to bring home the gold!


Returning to this year’s Hawaiki Nui, I feel that the level of paddling has again lifted overall. It was pleasing also to see arguably Tahiti’s 3 best teams each win one leg of this year’s Hawaiki Nui. I get the sense that the new generation sees the benefit in sharing their knowledge for the advancement of the sport in general.

We will see great competition starting to flow from the Hawaiians in particular & even from those in Brazil with the Olympics approaching Australia with the upcoming World Championships and so on.