Paddling in the right direction

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright meets a young crew of waka ama paddlers on the Whau River.

Waka ama paddlers can be aged from 7 to 70-plus. Photo / APN
Waka ama paddlers can be aged from 7 to 70-plus. Photo / APN

A mix of about 30 children and adults stand in a circle at the Te Atatu Boating Club for a karakia before their waka ama training for the Waitakere Outrigger Canoe Club. Hats are swiftly removed and all eyes are on the gravel ground as the prayer is spoken.

"Waka ama is not just about paddling. There are a lot of cultural aspects around it," says coach of the midget girls' team, Tahuri Tumoana, as the kids head off. "Being Maori, we have a connection with waka from our ancestors who sailed here, it's a natural fit."

Waka ama (a canoe with an outrigger) was revived as a sport in New Zealand just over 30 years ago when a Kiwi visitor to French Polynesia was asked: "You Maori people have no canoe, yet you are known here as a once-great canoe people."

There are now clubs in most regions of New Zealand and the first world sprint championships were held in 1984 in California.

"Families paddle together, we have quite a few sisters or cousins in our team," says Tumoana, whose daughter is in his midgets crew.

"Anyone can do it. We have ages from 7 to 70-plus."

He says every paddler has a support team of about 20 - including grandmothers and aunties who help with everything from providing morning tea to babysitting younger siblings on the shore.

Julia Pua-Tipokoroa, club secretary, used to play a lot of netball, which involved strapping up. She started doing waka ama three years ago and says: "Now I just put on a pair of Jandals and I'm off.

"There's always something different to learn and it's nice and peaceful on the water."

She tells me that the wind is the enemy of waka ama and summer training is more about sprints, with winter being a time for long distance events and perfecting technique.

I notice two sisters wearing bright pink life jackets and lilac rashvests, with matching board shorts.

They're practising the first rule of waka ama, which for this club is: safety first. I would bet that these girls' parents don't have a problem getting their matching pink life jackets on them.

Another midget, Ocean Gatoloai, 9, tells me she has been doing waka ama for four years and likes it best on hot days when the coach lets the team jump into the water after training.

Sometimes, the paddlers spot a seal and change their route to say a quick hello.

I'm told seals are a symbol for the club and represent their ancestors, so it's always an important sighting for the girls.

"One of the great things about the sport is that it gives kids confidence on the water," says Tumoana.

"It's surprising to watch the transformation of the children who start out with no knowledge and then develop an appreciation to be able to manage themselves on the water."

There are role models to aspire to - in the brothers and sisters in the older aged leagues, as well as the aspect of learning to work in a team.

"If one person is doing something wrong, let's all be wrong," says Tumoana.

"I want everyone doing the same thing at the same time. Spiritually, it takes the younger kids some time to learn to be focused but we get there in the end: it takes time, effort and energy."

- NZ Herald

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