The Maraamu Surf-Ski Race is arguably the world’s greatest downwind race. The course takes paddlers from the island of Tahaa across one of the world’s most scenic ocean crossings to what many regards as paradise on earth — Bora Bora, with its acclaimed lagoon & mythical mountain backdrop.
As surfski great Barry Lewin put it:
“The opportunity to race in French Polynesia is an absolute privilege. I doubt my words will justify the beauty of this place & the soft nature of the people. The people here are just next-level cool. Their soft & giving nature mixed with their passion for the ocean is unreal, not something you find anywhere else in the world.”
The day before the Maraamu Surf-Ski Race competition starts, “Fanfan’s Catamaran” takes competitors staying in Bora Bora to the start in Tahaa. World Champion Sean Rice, who previosuly won the Maraamu, labeled the vessel the Booze Cruise. There is an unfortunately not-too-unusual story surrounding Sean’s not participating after.
Ready and eager to defend his title in Bora Bora, Sean was in Europe en route to the Maraamu. While in Paris, he went to see the authorities to renew his visa for Tahiti. Fairly straight forward, one would think, if you are in France & looking to head to French Polynesia but not so!
Sean was told he’d have to head back home (to South Africa) to renew his visa. Sadly for Sean & French Polynesia, he could not return to defend his title & French Polynesia. Yet again, missed a wonderful opportunity to promote the destination and to encourage tourism, the economic motor of the country. Vive la France & Vive l’administration Francaise!
Competitors this year came from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Italy & Canada to compete with the local Polynesians, the greatest race of ocean paddlers the world has ever known.
Two years ago, as we headed to Tahaa, we were met with a 3m swell & 30 knots of headwind. In a journey taking 4 hours, all we could see for over half the journey was a massive wall of blue as we climbed each wave with the sea threatening to break across the boat.
Today in a 1-2m swell & headwinds approaching 20 knots, we were comfortable across in 2 hours with the paddlers aboard licking their chops. These were tough conditions that would take them on a downwind dash the following day.
In an interesting twist, it was a paddler who would be the only one to experience any sea sickness. Indeed the paddler concerned suffers from acute car and sea sickness, but his love for paddling sees him competing with the best in surfski racing!
We were headed for Poutoru, a district on Tahaa’s southern shores inhabited by warm and generous people enjoying beautiful views of turquoise waters that stretch across to Raiatea.
The village of Niua – with its one shop, one ‘snack’ & 2 churches – awaited us. I have no idea of the village’s current population, but I can tell you that I was there for 4 hours before seeing a single car pass by.
There is only one substantial building in the village, a place of gathering built by the village’s Protestant Church & used from time to time for meetings of the island’s youth. It was here that we would call home.
Firstly though, a generous lunch of local delights with the totally addictive Tahitian poisson cru, magnoc & tarot, poe (sweet Tahitian condiments), grilled reef fish, miti hue (fermented coconut milk). All are served in a snack constructed from dried niau (coconut fronds). As with all meals, we drink from coconuts taken directly from surrounding trees & chilled for our pleasure.
With a clearer understanding now as to why Polynesians are such big people, we readied ourselves for the traditional Tahitian welcome. A Tahitian tamure – which would include, unbeknown to most, an invitation to dance. Certain paddlers are advised not to give up paddling for dancing despite the raucous applause.
If you look closely at the above photo, you will see event organizer Sebastien Mosele happy snapping. Sebastien is the both charismatic & droll force behind the event, a man who loves his paddling & manifests that love through the event & the, at times, his hilarious commentary.
By now, most had settled their affairs into our sleeping quarters. It was a large barn-like structure which saw boats & bodies sleeping together, a massive slumber party of sorts where legend holds the snoring of paddlers can keep the whole village awake at night!
Lights out early & a good night’s rest for all, the first lights of a new day greeted us from behind Huahine as they streamed over the island of Raiatea. The soft, pink cumulus announces a perfect day.
There’s a certain pleasure in waking to the sound of 100 cocks. Like all Tahitians, I knew the morning time thanks to the cocks crowing from atop the surrounding mango trees bulging with fruit alongside generous Pomplamoose, paw-paw & banana trees. As the smartphone alarms started to sound, I couldn’t help but think how grateful I was to be on island time!
A hearty breakfast at dawn before ‘100 cocks’ of another kind made their way to the starting line for what would no doubt be a great Maraamu Surf-Ski Race race. A customary prayer for a safe trip for all & each one of us farewelled with a lei of shells – the traditional parting gift from locals to all those who they have welcomed into their lives.
Here, two paddlers – Lewis Laughlin & Hiromana Flores – who would play major roles in today’s event:
The champions of the sport have enjoyed & dominated this event. Legendary paddler Lewis Laughlin won the first 3 runnings of the event. Dean Gardiner, one of only 3 men – with Lewis Laughlin – to have won both surf-ski & outrigger Molokais, won in 2012. World Champion & Olympic Gold Medalist Clint Robinson won the 2013 Maraamu & followed it up with victory in the 2014 Maraamu. Sean Rice, the reigning World Surf-Ski Campion, won the 2015 Maraama.
One of the joys of paddling sports is that they are relatively low impact sports which means that paddlers can avoid the injuries of higher impact sport & thereby compete for many years. What a pleasure it is each year to see former Tahitian champions & still legends – Francois Tahutini & Marama Hauata – still competing in the Maraamu Surf-Ski Race …..& all the more so when you see the strict dietary regime they follow:
One with a slightly different dietary approach competing today was 60-year-old Italian paddler Maurizio Tognacci, a man in incredible shape given his young years:
Maurizio told me that after a career in kayaks he had moved to surf-skis in 2010: “The joy of surf-ski racing is the ‘lack of interference’ from the governing body. The surf-ski’s background is in Surf Lifesaving where there are no constraints on developments, on improvements – the better the craft performs the better is its ability to assist in critical situations…..no brake is applied here in the development of the sport.“
When talking with Mark Anderson – 2nd here to Clint Robinson in 2014 & currently ranked 3rd in the World Surf-ski Championship Series making him the logical favourite for the race – about Maurizio, Mark told me of a 74 year old paddling legend who, unable due to length restrictions, to load his surf-ski onto a flight heading to the World Championships decided to cut it in half before sticking it back together on arrival & going on to win the World Championship!
Western time suddenly snapped back in – with a start scheduled for 8.30am competitors put to the water at 8am. A quick family shot before the almost 70 competitors hit the water:
Lewis Laughlin, after ‘easing himself’ into the water:
Elite New Zealand Women’s paddler, Rachel Clarke:
Crowd favourite, Francois Tahutini, a one-time great ‘sweep’ in va’a (outriggers):
Those competing would paddle a leisurely 5km to the starting line across a wonderful stretch of lagoon accompanied, as if royalty, by dolphins as they passed the landmark property of 1960’s & 1970’s French rock star Joe Dassin. Upon arrival they would be greeted by outstanding race conditions – 1 to 2 metres of swell with a tailwind.
The race start line-up:
Hiromana Flores would win the jackpot for ‘first through the pass’ but he was closely followed closely by the talented group below which included Mark Anderson in the red cap:
Those most likely to battle it out moved inevitably to the lead. Here Australian paddler Mark Anderson leads New Zealander Simon Longdill with Hiromana Flores close behind. They would take a route heading slightly to the Mt Otemanu side of Point Te Turi Roa, hoping to profit from certain prominent cross-swells, although Simon headed directly towards Mt Otemanu.
A great battle for the lead between Mark & Hiromana would ensue & just as Anderson appeared to be getting the upper hand he suddenly lost all power, all rhythm ….. although Mark with all the markings of a true champion would be the last one to look for excuses the effects of having spent the previous day in bed with an upset stomach & high temperature had clearly taken their toll. Not knowing the meaning of abandon he would continue to finish 29th overall.
Hiromana would seize his chance & power ahead hoping to break those that followed.
A group made up of Lewis Laughlin, Moehau Paie & Gilles Guedikian, a prominent lawyer & equally gifted paddler, powered ahead with several others to the Maupiti side of the point looking to find the southerly swell early in the race.
A thrilling battle would ensue between Lewis & Moehau two local powerhouses of surf-ski paddling. Lewis, a master in big seas despite his tender age; Moehau, a giant of a man at just over 2 metres tall, young & powerful, a gifted performer in calmer waters he was ready to throw down the challenge to Lewis.
Some shots of Lewis conquering the seas:
As the leading paddlers rounded Point Te Turi Roa it was Hiromana leading followed by Lewis & then Moehau. Three further Tahitians then followed before the first of the international paddlers – Simon Longdill. To Hiromana’s credit his time was only fractionally slower than those achieved by the greats who have competed before him, reaching the point in just over 2 hours, not far from last year’s winner & current World Champion, Sean Rice’s time last year of 1 hour 57 minutes.
The final 10kms were a punishing grind against consistent headwinds. Despite the exhaustion it’s amazing how leading can remove the pain as these photos of Hiromana as he charged to victory show:
The very happy winner being interviewed by the press just after finishing the race, followed by Lewis, second again this year in another admirable performance & the ever improving Moehau Paie stoked at being on the podium for the first time, 3rd placed as his happy hand gestures would indicate:
After winning the 30kms Poor Knights Race in New Zealand earlier this month, Simon Longdill would be the first international paddler home finishing in 5th place overall, whilst fellow countrywoman Rachel Clarke, well known to Molokai paddlers, would win the women’s section:
Gilles Guedikian’s 8th overall was another performance worthy of recognition, leaving the paddler slumped on the beach, totally spent for almost an hour.
Despite the enormous aches & pains & the totally elevated levels of fatigue, there is no better place to recuperate than on a truly beautiful corner of paradise known locally as “Motu Fanfan”.
Here’s a knock-out photo taken by drone 2 days ago:
How could one not recover ….. how could anyone not wish to be here for next year’s Maraamu Surf-Ski Race!
A quick change of clothes at the hotel before prizegiving dinner at the famous Bloody Marys. Ah, for the life of elite athletes on the World Surf-Ski Series!