Waka ama: Keeping it in the family

By Robyn Yousef

Originally a male-dominated sport, waka ama now attracts a lot of women and junior participants. Photo / Alan Gibson
Originally a male-dominated sport, waka ama now attracts a lot of women and junior participants. Photo / Alan Gibson

Waka ama is more than just the fun sport of outrigger canoeing, which fits in ideally with our Kiwi lifestyle and attracts paddlers of both sexes from age 7 to 70.

Tikanga Maori is a major component of waka ama and the whanau - or family spirit - connects all those involved.

A line-up of about 20 waka ama canoes will paddle from Westhaven Tower at midday during the Auckland Anniversary Regatta. The canoes will set off on a course around the harbour rounding Orakei and North Head buoys before heading west under the bridge and back to their start line. The race is predicted to take about 1hours.

The revival in waka ama - now the fastest growing sport in secondary schools - dates back to the 1980s. Racing in Tahiti and Hawaii was the inspiration that led to the launching of the two founding clubs, Nga Hoe Horo in the North and Mareikura on the East Coast.

The national body, Nga Kaihoe o Aotearoa, has blossomed into an organisation with six regions and 70 clubs spread from Kaitaia to Dunedin.

The week-long national championships (held recently at Lake Karapiro) now regularly attracts about 2,000 competitors.

Sugar Te Paa, who is the secretary of the Auckland Regional Outrigger Canoe Association, has been involved with the sport for a decade.

"It was a voyaging waka that brought our ancestors to this country and the cultural significance is very important," she explains.

"Karakia is said to start every race to ensure our Tupuna give protection, wisdom and strength to all those involved. Respect also underpins everything we do in our sport - respect for our waka, respect for each other and for the surroundings we are blessed to train and compete in.

"Waka ama offers an outdoor activity, which develops strong bodies and minds resulting from a sport which is both physically and mentally demanding," says Te Paa.

She stresses that waka ama is a whanau-oriented sport.

"The race divisions allow a paddling lineage to evolve by where at least three generations of family members can compete at any event. At the recent Sprint national championships, children as young as 7 were competing, while we had senior paddlers in their 70s."

While paddlers are mainly Maori and Pacific Islanders, it attracts participants from all ethnic groups and various lifestyles. It was a male-dominated sport in the early years, but now one of the most interesting aspects of waka ama is the major participation of women as well as junior paddlers.

With six paddlers in a waka, teams usually train two to three times a week throughout the year. Competition in the summer includes sprint distances between 500m to 1500m, while in the winter season racing includes marathon distances from 10km up to 42kms.

Competitions with dragon boats pitted against waka ama crews are seen both here and overseas.

Te Paa said there were many variables to consider when deciding which was the fastest - a dragon boat or waka ama.

She believes the waka ama canoes are faster because they are lighter than a dragon boat and so quicker off the mark.

"The waka ama can reach speeds of 18km/h."

One of the main reasons there has been such a tremendous growth of interest in the sport since it was introduced about 30 years ago, is the success of New Zealand paddlers on the international competitive scene. This country is one of the world leaders in the sport and Kiwi competitors have competed strongly in many international events.

At last year's Va'a World Sprints Championship in New Caledonia, the New Zealand team (with a total of 42 medals) was placed second behind Tahiti.

This year, between April 22 and 24, an international festival of paddling will be held for the eighth time on the beaches of Namaka Bay, Nadi, Fiji.

In 2012 the Canadian Outrigger Racing Association will host the next Va'a World Sprints Championship in Calgary in August.

- NZ Herald

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