Dip your toe in the waters of the Whanganui waka ama scene and you find a large and lively pool of activity.

The wide river is almost 300 kilometres long and the coastal waters provide ideal conditions for a sport that has been growing rapidly in New Zealand since the early 1980s.

To the uninitiated, waka ama conjures images of fit, young paddlers heading upriver in their outrigger canoes.

Whanganui High School waka ama team the River Queens paddled 100km from Pipiriki to Pakaitore in seven hours on the instruction of their coach Howard Highland last year.


The girls, aged 13 to 17, will be competing at the World Va'a World Championships in Tahiti next month.

The River Queens may not be your typical waka ama paddlers but youth and peak fitness would seem to be requirements for the sport.

Not so, says one 72-year-old Whanganui enthusiast who is living proof that waka ama is a great sport for seniors.

To be fair, Rod Trott has been paddling about in boats for most of his life and is also a renowned cyclist so he probably has a head start on most people his age.

"I took up waka ama in 2010 and I love it," he says.

As a member of Castlecliff club, Te Kaihau O Kupe Waka Ama (TKAK), Rod says he loves paddling on the awa and the open sea.

"I recommend a book called Blue Mind – it is an exploration of how being in or on the water as often as we can makes us happier and healthier," says Trott.

Talking to TKAK chairman Tahi Nepia, I discover that Rod is actually a spring chicken in the club context and there are members in their 80s.


Ed Horton is 82 and has been assistant coach on a few occasions and Rod Winchcomb will celebrate his 89th birthday next month.

"I'm not going out at the moment though," says Winchcomb, who was keeping warm in his Durie Hill home last Wednesday.

"I went out a lot over the summer and I enjoy getting out on the water but I don't like it when it's cold."

He has no trouble getting in and out of the waka, he says, but when winter comes he prefers his other favourite sport – a few rounds of golf at the Tawhero Club where he has been a member for around 13 years.

Some Te Kaihau O Kupe members don't mind the cold and Tahi was expecting a group of paddlers to join him on the water by the North Mole on Wednesday afternoon.

"We have young members aged from 16 but it is the older members who are keen to go out when it is cold."


Tahi is 58 and has been a serious competitor bringing home medals from the World Waka Ama championships in Rio de Janeiro in 2014.

As a member of the six-man Auckland-based team Korowai, he helped win silver in Senior Men's Masters W6 1000m and bronze in the 500m sprint in Rio.

TKAK, established in 2015, has more of a social than a competitive focus, says Tahi.

"We like to be inclusive and we run a water safety programme in schools.

"It's good to introduce kids to waka ama when they are younger and teach them the water safety practices that go with it."

The club recently received a $5000 grant from the New Zealand Community Trust to buy paddles.


"Because we cater for a wide range of people, we need a selection of paddles to suit the different needs," says Tahi.

Most of the club's oars are made by Tai Paddles in Raglan and Tahi says they make an adjustable model which he is keen to purchase.

With a home base next to the Wanganui-Manawatu Sea Fishing Club in Wharf St, the club keeps things simple with a container for storing paddles and life jackets and cleverly-crafted racks made of scrap timber and old tyres for the waka to rest on.

Tahi and Anna Te Rei established TKAK in 2015 with a focus on paddling in and around the sea and Whanganui River mouth.

Te Rei is club secretary and says the club has received great support during the past three years.

"Whanganui District Council are our landlord and we have received funding from Infinity Trust, Power Co and more recently New Zealand Community Trust and through them we've been able to purchase our club storage space, lifejackets, paddles and waka."


Te Rei says the club owns two W3 waka which they sometimes lash together to create a double-hull.

"The double hull is great for the less experienced, cautious, elderly and very young."

The club also has the long-term loan of Te Rakaihautu W6 waka which they maintain for the owner.

Te Rei says the W6 waka allows paddlers to venture out over the bar during calm periods.

"We have had Coastguard support us to travel over the bar towards Kai Iwi although we cut our voyage short that day due to the swells."

Other main players in the Whanganui scene are Putiki-based Te Ringa Miti Tai Heke Whanganui Waka Ama Club Inc led by Hone Tamehana and city-based Whanganui River Outrigger Canoe Club Inc led by former New Zealand Waka Ama coach Howard Hyland.


The rapid growth of the sport has inspired Waka Ama New Zealand to create their very own Census in 2018.

They have worked with Statistics New Zealand to create an online survey that can best capture information waka ama membership.

The purpose, they say, is to gather important demographic data about membership and have a clearer picture to ensure that the membership is well-served and enable effective communication.

The online census opened on June 11 and will close on July 6.

Incentives of spot prizes donated by waka ama equipment suppliers are on offer and everyone who completes the census will be in with a chance.

Waka Ama New Zealand is also putting together their very own encyclopedia for all things waka ama, "Wakapedia".


Anyone with tips and tricks they would like to share or has a question they would like to ask can contact a "Wakapedia Guru" by emailing wakapedia@wakaama.co.nz.

Having dipped my toe in the water, I've learned that this popular sport is very accessible and I'm not too old to try it.

Tahi Nepia has invited me to climb aboard a waka and give it a try one day so watch this space for a future progress report.