Emotions were running high for Freddie Tauotaha as he helped launch four newly completed waka at Russell yesterday.

The Tahitian carver's father, Puaniho Tauotaha, had started one of the four canoes — a 14-metre kauri waka ama — decades earlier with the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby, a master navigator and waka builder from Doubtless Bay.

But after Puaniho's untimely death the unfinished project languished in a barn on Sir Hek's Aurere property.

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Sir Hek visited Freddie a number of times urging him to come to New Zealand and finish his father's waka, an invitation he finally took up 27 years later.

Photos of the late Puaniho Tauotaha and Sir Hekenukumai Busby look out over the proceedings. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Photos of the late Puaniho Tauotaha and Sir Hekenukumai Busby look out over the proceedings. Photo / Peter de Graaf

At 62, Freddie is now the same age as his father when he passed away. Sir Hek died earlier this year aged 86.

''I'm so happy to put that boat in the water after such a long time, and to see it glide through the water,'' Freddie Tauotaha said.

His father had become firm friends with Sir Hek after they sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in a waka hourua (double-hulled canoe), he said.

A waka kopapa/waka tete named Kuaka is carried to the sea for the first time. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A waka kopapa/waka tete named Kuaka is carried to the sea for the first time. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The four waka launched at Russell beach were completed by a team of Tahitian, Hawaiian and Māori carvers at last month's Rātā Waka Symposium in Whangārei.

The Hawaiians, led by Alika Bumatay, made a traditional Hawaiian fishing canoe from totara.

''To come here and carve alongside our brothers and sisters from the Pacific, and share knowledge with them, is a once in a lifetime opportunity,'' he said.

The launch didn't go entirely to plan when Tahiti's Freddie Tauotaha and Rima Eruera, 11, of Kaitaia, capsized an outrigger canoe called Tamaiti. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The launch didn't go entirely to plan when Tahiti's Freddie Tauotaha and Rima Eruera, 11, of Kaitaia, capsized an outrigger canoe called Tamaiti. Photo / Peter de Graaf

During the launch ceremony the new waka were blessed and named before a flax rope tethering them to the beach was symbolically cut, and Whangārei carver Te Warahi Hetaraka conferred the status of tohunga (expert practitioner) on Kaitaia waka builder Hemi Eruera.

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The launch was part of Tuia 250 which marks the first significant contact between Māori and Europeans 250 years ago. The commemorations continue today when a flotilla of tall ships and waka hourua is due in the Bay.

The flotilla will be welcomed with a powhiri at Rawhiti Marae, east of Russell, from 9am. At 1pm, a carved pou will be unveiled at Mangahawea Bay on nearby Moturua Island.

Freddie Tauotaha of Tahiti and Rima Eruera, 11, of Kaitaia, exchange a high five after launching an outrigger canoe named Tamaiti. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Freddie Tauotaha of Tahiti and Rima Eruera, 11, of Kaitaia, exchange a high five after launching an outrigger canoe named Tamaiti. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Mangahawea Bay has been the site of a series of archaeological excavations and is one of the earliest known sites of human settlement in New Zealand, as evidenced by possible taro gardens, artifacts made to east Polynesian designs but in New Zealand materials, and place names which hark back to islands in what is now French Polynesia.

The key public events for Tuia 250 in the Bay of Islands will take place at Waitangi and Opua on Friday and Saturday.

Tahitian carver Freddie Tauotaha finished a waka started by his father almost 30 years ago. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Tahitian carver Freddie Tauotaha finished a waka started by his father almost 30 years ago. Photo / Peter de Graaf