The Tahiti Traveler

The Va’a

Introduction to the Polynesian outrigger canoe

Today, I have decided to try the Polynesian va’a or Outrigger canoeing. As the national sport, it is practiced in French Polynesia and around the world. One has the possibility of paddling alone aboard a “va’a hoe” or on multiple person canoe.  It is a grueling sport that requires strength, endurance and technique.

Arriving at the beach at 08:00am, I feel set for the adventure.

I sit in the canoe on a small wooden board padded with foam is used as a seat. On the left side, the outrigger also called “Ama” in maori language gives the balance to the craft.  This is the outrigger. I start paddling for the first time to the left side. The basic gesture is quite easy : Introduce the oar upright in the water and pull it back. Practice makes perfect! The Va’a solicits mainly your arms and your back.

The canoe -which is very light– begins to move. I already have a pleasant gliding feeling. In the excitement, I accelerate. I paddle on the other side to correct my course. I suddenly feel the outrigger rising into the air and my body swinging gradually. Overtaken by the momentum, I realize that the canoe has just turned over. A good dunking for me…I am drenched from head to toe.  But I think my pride has taken a worse beating compared to the dunking. Fortunately, I’m still by the beach and I can easily empty the water from the boat. First lesson to remember: the outrigger canoe has a delicate balance !

I have a go again.  On the lagoon, I choose my own trajectory going along the coral reef. Thanks to the translucent water I can observe the corals rolling under my canoe. I stay focused on my gesture, at the same time enjoying the colorful exhibition beneath me.

We can feel a real freedom on the canoe. The lagoon is calm and quiet. I can hear my paddle touching the water. It is a special soothing moment. Suddenly, I saw a shadow moving under the boat. It is a small black tip shark came to support my advancement.

After one hour of paddling I begin to struggle: It’s time to go back. On the way back I think “How can the champions paddle for hours during competitions like the Hawaiki Nui Va’a ?” Once you think about it, the sheer courage and stamina is really quite impressive!

This refreshing and rewarding experience comes to an end as I head back to land.   I feel exhausted but calm. I now understand why this sport is so popular: it offers a commune with the sea and a brief reprieve from the mundane routine of everyday life.