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Va'a, a Polynesian outrigger canoe

The ancestors of the Polynesians left the remarkable legacy of Va'a to French Polynesia.

“It is our duty to preserve our culture and to pass it on to our children, who are expected to do the same. We are always mindful that we are the guardians of its survival.” Edouard Maamaatuaiahutapu, the creator of Hawaiki Nui Va’a (an international outrigger canoe race)


What is a va'a?

Te va’a means canoe. The va'a is a Polynesian outrigger canoe with a slender hull (the width of a paddler) connected to an ama, which provides ballast and lift, by two wooden spars (ʻiato). They are lashed together with rubber cord (uaua), which is flexible and sturdy. The paddler has a simple canoe paddle typical of any canoe. The single outrigger float that provides the va'a with stability is emblematic of the islands of the Pacific. Originally, outrigger canoes were made of a hollowed tree trunk, which made it a symbol of belonging to the local island. Later the use of modern composite materials was adopted.

There are several different types of va'a:

- The V1 (va’a hoe) is a single-paddler canoe and is about 7 metres long;

- The V3 (va’a toru) is a three-paddler canoe and is about 11 metres long;

- The V6 (va’a ono) is a six-paddler canoe and measures approximately 13 metres long;

- The V12 (va'a tauati or double outrigger canoe) is made of two V6 canoes joined together.

All these va'a have either a “lagoon” hull shape or a “high seas” hull shape.


From the conquest of the Pacific to a cultural symbol

The first outrigger canoes were designed for exploring new horizons and travelling to neighbouring islands. With the arrival of the Europeans in the 19th century, big outriggers all but disappeared. These days the Polynesians use only small va'a for fishing. On Bastille Day in Tahiti, you’ll see va'a in boat parades and in official races organised by the French government. It was not until the 1950s that other outrigger canoe races were started. Around 1976, outrigger racing recovered its former popularity thanks to an Hawaiian experiment to recreate the population migrations of Pacific using a double outrigger, the Hokule'a. The outcome was a success: the canoe sailed 5,370 km in 32 days with no navigational instruments. The readoption of the va'a by the Polynesians can be seen as a tribute to the sea quests of their ancestors and their determination to reclaim their identity. The big Hawaiki Nui (great land of our ancestors) outrigger race was started in 1992 and harks directly back to old roots. It comes as no surprise that the outrigger canoe has been adopted as the symbol of French Polynesia and is depicted on its flag.


A team sport

In a V6 outrigger, the seat positions are numbered 1 to 6, starting from the front of the boat. The paddlers sit in a quincunx pattern with the stroker (fa'ahoro), in seat no. 1, the “engine room” in seat no. 3 and the steersman (pēperu) in seat no. 6. Seat numbers 2, 4 and 5 are backup and perform when called upon: seat no. 2 very carefully keeps pace with the stroker, seat no. 4 provides more power to the engine room and seat no. 5 may be called upon to help the steersman in rough water. Seat no. 3 calls the change (tare), when all the paddlers must switch the side they’re paddling on. The call is crucial to winning a race and the order indicates whether the stroker should increase or decrease the stroke rate, whether it's necessary to stroke deeper, etc.

Each team has its own codes and special attention is paid to the physical well-being and morale of the rest of the crew. Combined men/women teams or even senior /junior teams are certainly in this sport's future.


Va'a practice and competition

Va'a is the national sport of Polynesia. Many practice va'a as a leisure activity early in the morning or after work. Others train every day for competitions.

There are two types of va'a trials:

- 500m, 1,000m and 1,500m speed trials on a lagoon.

- High seas marathons covering distances of between 30km and 150km, with and without team substitutions.

Apart from official races, freestyle downwind races, drawing inspiration from surfing, are gaining popularity.

Polynesia hosts two major international outrigger races:

- The Hawaiki nui va'a, with a course that includes Hūāhine, Rai'atea, Taha'ā and Bora-Bora.

- The 3-day Tahiti Nui Va'a race around Tahiti (held every 2 years).