Making waves in paradise - paddling Rarotonga

By Kristin Edge

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Avarua Wharf is a hive of activity during Vaka Eiva in Rarotonga.
Avarua Wharf is a hive of activity during Vaka Eiva in Rarotonga.

THE sapphire-blue water slaps against the hull of our waka as our Miti Masters team paddle to the start line of what will be more than three and a half hours' physical grunt to circumnavigate Rarotonga.

The mountains are covered in dense tropical forests shrouded in mist, thanks to overnight rain.

It comes as a welcome relief that the temperature has dropped slightly and paddlers won't be subjected to paddling the 40km race in blazing sun.

A couple of flying fish skim across the water and flash past our waka as we prepare to race.

It is not uncommon for competitors to see whales or marlin during a race.

The red flag to warn paddlers the race is about to begin is raised and we lift our blades, poised for action.

The green flag appears and we are off, blades powering through the warm water.

The six of us in the waka will paddle for at least 25 minutes before we utilise our other three team members who are waiting aboard our safety boat.

During the first stage of the race teams jostle for position.

The safety boat comes alongside just before our first change and our boatman yells, "Two, three, five changing".

The boat takes off and 100m ahead our paddlers leap from it into the water.

Our steerer masterfully directs the waka towards the paddlers splashing in the water. As we pass over them and their hands grab at the waka hull on the portside, the three swapping out leap off the starboard side.

Our mates haul themselves into their vacated seats in the canoe and start paddling so we don't lose ground against our competitors.

Our safety boat comes to collect those of us who have left the waka, although its nice just floating in the water.

The changes are repeated often as we race round the island. The sea picks up at one point and we plough through waves that break over our bow.

It's exciting, challenging and totally rewarding. We keep away from the reef where the waves rear up and crash dangerously down.

Nearing the end of the race the sound of traditional drums being played onshore floats across the water and gives every paddler a boost to get to the finish line.

It's always nice to collect a medal but even if you don't, making the turn around the final marker and crossing the finish line outside Trader Jacks at Avarua wharf, everyone feels like a champion.

Once the last stroke is taken we jump waka and plunge into the water.

It's been a great team effort and even though we finish fourth it was a race all the way to the finish against an Aussie crew. We stop the clock at at 3 hours 42 minutes and 46 seconds, only four minutes behind the winners.

Never mind, there is always next year.

This year a record 101 crews started in the round relay races and, like any sporting event, there were the hard-luck stories.

Some teams found the sea conditions rough, some ended up flipping and then there were those that experienced gear failure, such as split ama (outrigger). They were towed to safety.

The race has become the biggest sporting event on the island's calender.

In 2004 there was just an open division for men and women, but now the event caters for juniors, mixed crews and for the first time officially this year Golden Masters for the iron and sprints. It has become a real family event.

The 10th celebration attracted 1200 paddlers and some of the best in the sport. A Northland contingent of about 70 paddlers and supporters made the trip.

Rarotongan resident Victoria Dearlove and her tight-knit committee, plus a band of hard working volunteers, make every Vaka Eiva a success. They put their heart and souls into organising the event and it shows.

Being part of Vaka Eiva is a real experience. Not only are there the great paddling races but there is the culture and the friendly locals who are the best hosts ever.

The only thing that needs improving is reducing the number of roosters on the island. Or at least educating them to all crow at dawn so there is not a continuous chorus throughout the night.

Other than that, it is most certainly paddling in paradise.

- Northern Advocate

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