Fare, French Polynesia – The sleepy fishing village of Fare on the leeward island of Huahine in French Polynesia wakes up once a year before the start of the greatest outrigger canoe race on earth, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a.

Ninety-two teams and over 2,000 paddlers from Polynesia, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and other sea faring countries descend upon this tiny port town for the start of the grueling 129 kilometer paddling marathon that visits three islands in three days, through reef laced channels and deep ocean passages.

Starting at Huahine on day one, the racers must paddle 44.5 kilometers to Raiatea where they will spend the night, and then sprint 24 kilometers the next day to the Taha’a, the “Vanilla Island, just to the north of Raiatea.

“Teri Tico 1 Centered”

On the third and most difficult day of competition the racers will paddle 58 kilometers to the famous South Pacific island of Bora Bora finishing at Matira Point to complete the race.

Hawaiki Nui Va’a is the Super Bowl of French Polynesia, and the Iron Man of outrigger canoe racing. Only the fittest, strongest and most determined of canoe racers can compete in this event.

The seas between Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora play mind games on the paddlers, with changing swells, dangerous reefs, and fickle winds that test not only the physical abilities of the paddlers, but their mental fortitude as well.

Today is the day before The Great Race and there is unspoken apprehension among the paddlers.

Yesterday the surf rose to 15 feet in the channels outside of Fare, and the normal trade winds turned westerly, the equivalent of a Kona wind in Hawaii.

The combination of large surf and the unusual head wind cannot be more challenging conditions for the competitors. While the Tahitians paddlers excel in surfing conditions, a “face wind” as they call it works against them.

Instead of a down wind sled ride to Raiatea, they will be facing an uphill battle against the wind.

“Teri Tico 2 Centered”

Maitai Danielson, one of the greatest paddlers in French Polynesia and captain of the team from Huahine, tells us, “It is not enough to be physically strong. You have to be connected as a team, mentally and spiritually.”

The Tahitians teams bless their canoes before each race, and form prayer circles to ask for safe passage. They have deep respect for their ancestral connections to the “va’a,” or canoe.

In ancient times, “Hawaiki” was connected by ocean highways traversed by voyaging canoes, similar to our modern interstate highways and automobiles.

Hawaiki is the Tahitian name for ancient Polynesia, and Nui is big, as in great. Va’a is the Tahitian word for the venerated canoe.

Hawaiki Nui Va’a is the great canoe race of Polynesia. There will be little sleep tonight as everyone in this little fishing village anticipates the start of the greatest canoe race in the world.

‘Part one of a series from French Polynesia’

‘Teresa Tico is a Kauai photo journalist and attorney. Reach her at mailto:tico@aloha.net’

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