White caps are known as petits moutons in The Islands of Tahiti – little sheep – and there’s an entire herd of them jostling the poti marara fishing boat in which I steady myself this morning. Moody blue water breaks against the ivory rim of reef before brightening into blue curaçao-coloured shallows in the Tahateo bay of Huahine, in the Leeward Islands. The backdrop to the beginning of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a canoe race is nothing if not dramatic, made more so by surprisingly formidable South Pacific weather. Black basalt promontories are draped with coconut palms and acacia that fan out along the ridges and sway like Polynesian dancers in the breeze. The reef crumbles inland into a bay strung with spectator-laden sailboats, catamarans, and hundreds of racing canoes.
Canoeing is… different here. Va’a is arguably the country's most popular sport and the Hawaiki Nui Va’a is the equivalent of its Champions League final, an 80-mile multi-stage open-water endurance race comprising three legs over three days across four separate islands. It attracts international sponsorship and teams from Tahiti, Hawaii, Japan and further afield. And yes, if you’re wondering, it is the type of canoe that features prominently in the first season of White Lotus.
Va’a outrigger canoes were historically indispensable for transport, trade and communication in The Islands of Tahiti, but were largely left behind after the advent of the internal combustion engine. The race serves as a potent cultural cornerstone for the Polynesian people, who settled on these islands in the 11th century, both as a reminder of their long history of ocean navigation and a celebration of unparalleled strength and confidence on the water. Hundreds of outrigger canoes waft about in the choppy sea, each manned by five racers and a helmsman, or navigator, in the back. Historically, navigators could find their way through the Pacific reading stars, wind and waves. The third racer in the canoe is the team captain, who inevitably skews enormous.
Captain James Tapeta, the Polynesian man piloting our fishing boat, turns around and opens his mouth wide in what I assume is a smile. He has the salty stature and solidity of someone who has spent a lifetime on the ocean. Ovals around his eyes have been etiolated white from his sunglasses, giving him the appearance of a raccoon. His hair stands upright like porcupine quills, refusing to bend to even the strongest squall. He exudes competence. This is a person, I get the sense, who doesn’t fuck around.
The energy in the boats paddling into position, the buzz of engines and the throb of French dancehall blasting out of on-boat subwoofers plays foil to the wind and waves pealing over the lagoon. Captain James whisks us along at a white-knuckle pace of 35-40 knots to Fare, where local spectators throng the beaches and jetties. The boats close together in frenetic proximity as the paddlers round the buoy. By the time all of the canoes have passed through, the water is turbulent as a jacuzzi from the criss-cross of wakes.
By the time all of the canoes have passed through, the water is turbulent as a jacuzzi from the criss-cross of wakes.
The racers take off around the point through the pass out of the lagoon through coral reef, straight-lining it into deep water and the open ocean on the first 27.5-mile stage from Huahine to the island of Raiatea. The boats tilt and pitch among tall swells, punching through rolling spumes of big water. There’s something almost foreboding about the ferocity of motors and paddles churning the water.
We follow the race towards Raiatea, invisible in the ocean spray. Shoals of flying fish launch from the Pacific and skirt enormous waves in impressive displays of aerobatics. Raiatea is considered to be a holy island in Polynesia and the spiritual home of navigation. I am astonished that the helmsmen are able to navigate from the stern of the canoes in these waters, as I can barely stay upright. They must have inbuilt global positioning systems.
Things begin to get gnarly and survival mode kicks in. One of the passengers on the fishing boat goes pallid and plonks down on the deck, thousand-yard staring. Another leans over the water. I wonder if she’s spotted a rare fish before clocking the vomit swiftly dispersing in the swells. For a moment I consider following suit. At some point Islands In The Stream by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers comes on, and the juxtaposition with the rugged waters, the irony of it, makes me laugh out loud.
Shoals of flying fish launch from the Pacific and skirt enormous waves in impressive displays of aerobatics.
By the time we reach the finish line I’m shivering uncontrollably and regretting lending my waterproof jacket to a fellow writer. But, what a day – a dose of adversity, the energy of the ocean, a core workout that makes burpees look like child’s play – this is Type 2 fun at its apogee, I’m thirsty for more, and I’ve only been a spectator. I can only imagine what the paddlers are feeling.
Terra firma can take a back seat. I count my blessings to be staying on Feria V – a Lagoon 42 catamaran chartered from Tahiti Yacht Charter, captained by a New Caledonian named Adriene and anchored in the sheltered waters between Vahine and Taha’a islands. I drink local Hinano Lager with Steve Dickinson, a Kiwi adventure journalist and legendary surf photographer who has covered the race ten times, before settling in for a dinner of fresh-caught tuna with long beans and local vanilla prepared by onboard chef Tamata. I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep seated upright against the wall of the catamaran’s cabin.
At dawn, the sun emerges from behind a motu – one of the islands that rim the outer edge of the atolls – to paint the ocean gold. The weather is more in line with the scenes of Tahiti you’d recognise from a postcard. By 9am, when the 16-mile sprinting stage kicks off from Toa Huri Nihi beach on the island of Raiatea, there’s not a cloud in the sky, the sun is blazing, and the water is electric blue. The canoes skirt the lagoon at breakneck pace, eating up spans of water as fast as an outboard.
As we cruise the channel between the islands, we finally spot the snaggy 2,625-foot collapsed caldera of Mount Otemanu on Bora Bora. The island has one of those names that stick in one’s mind from childhood as being particularly romantic, like Timbuktu or Honolulu, and seeing it appear through the sea mist as combers hit the reef does everything to validate this impression. We idle the boat in front of a balustraded, whitewashed Protestant Temple near Tiva on Taha’a’s western shores. Cheers of Allez! resound from all corners of the regatta as the Shell Pacific Energy team holds on to a commanding lead.
The frontrunners make quick work of the day’s distance, gliding towards Patio Beach and the second stage’s finish line before noon. There’s a special vigour coming from the percussive handiwork of a pahu group. The drums are known in Polynesian culture to act as a mouthpiece to their ancestors. There is an abundance of traditional tattoos, which would traditionally relate one’s life story and indicate social status, as well as gardenia flowers, worn behind the ear to demonstrate whether that person is romantically available. As the paddlers cross the finish they splash celebratory water into their faces and link brawny arms as a team. Men and women holler, scream and dance, draped in leis of frangipani, heliconia and hibiscus. It’s a vibe.
I feel the prickle of goosebumps through tropical heat.
Back at the catamaran, after a beer with Steve, I take Feria V’s kayak out for a paddle in waters so flat that they appear gelatinous. As the sun begins to bend toward the horizon, the hull of the boat glides over gardens of coral reef. Suddenly, I feel the fibreglass judder as the small craft echoes and resonates, struck multiple times from underneath. Waves fan out to either side. I wonder what the hell is going on, before seeing the white-spotted dark-blue wing of an angel ray appear to the right. It emerges from underneath the kayak and undulates for a moment before skating away out of eyeshot. Just moments later, a pair of dorsal fins zip by. I feel the prickle of goosebumps through tropical heat.
On the final day we return to Patio Beach for the longest leg so far, just over 36 miles to Bora Bora. White breakers swell and curl at the pass between lagoon and open ocean. The racers cut over the shallows unphased before hanging a right towards Mount Otemanu’s imposing profile. From here on out, it’s open water. There’s only one entrance to get through the reef into Bora Bora, and it’s on the opposite side of the island. We stop at the edge of the atoll and swim with shoals of blacktip reef sharks, trading goggles with each other to stare at the relatively docile yet unnervingly large fish. It’s an otherworldly interlude before the final push. The finish line for the third and last stage of the race is at Matira Beach. Limpid listerine-coloured waters are kettled with small day boats and revellers up to their waists in the ocean.
A crowd of thousands gathers under a thatched pavilion, cheering the racers on by banging pots and pans together and brandishing auti plants, or palm lilies, which traditionally bestow good luck in French Polynesia. Children splash past. Teenagers, draped in blossoms, gather together to whisper excitedly. A few onlookers dance in the drink. At the finish line, spectators are kept at bay by nylon ropes that run parallel to the beach, pressing against them nonetheless. The Air Tahiti team glides in for the win, paddlers reddened by the sun and thoroughly exhausted. They pour water over their heads as family members rush into the ocean to hug them.
Even as a spectator, one feels the embrace of this archipelago. Whether it’s leis, tattoos or va’a canoeing, heritage is fiercely clung to on The Islands of Tahiti. These traditions are time-honoured and authentic, performed out of a sense of community pride and a passion for nature, but also shared generously with anyone interested enough to investigate. My conception of the islands of French Polynesia has been dramatically altered by the reality of it. It’s not just an island idyll, it’s also a land of grit and muscle. Like the paddle of a canoe, it will draw you back again and again to comb its waters.