Fare, French Polynesia – The Polynesia gods smiled upon the village of Fare on the French Polynesian Island of Huahine this morning, clearing the skies and calming the wind and seas for the start of the epic Hawaiki Nui Va’a outrigger canoe race.

At the start line inside Fiti pass, hundreds of canoe racers sit in their va’a, or canoes, their hearts pounding and pulse racing as they await the signal to begin the 3 day race that will take them to three leeward Tahitian islands: Huahine to Raiatea on day one; Raiatea to Taha’a on day two; and Taha’a to Bora Bora on the last and most exciting leg of the race.
A false start delays the race by 15 minutes as nearly 100 canoes must return to the start line. Ahead of the racers, thousands of spectators line the sea wall at Fare hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite canoe team.

On Huahine, Matairea Hoe, an unsponsored canoe club with
a borrowed canoe, is the home town favorite. But it is the indominable Shell Va’a team, sponsored by the Shell Petroleum Company and winner of this marathon canoe race for the past 5 years, who is the odds on favorite.

Shell team members are paid to paddle. They have coaches, managers, and dozens of support boats with GPS devices to help them with the crossing to Raiatea. Their canoes are state of the art and designed by the legendary Sonny Bradley from Hawaii. For the past 3 years, they have dominated the Molokai Hoe outrigger canoe race in Hawaii, between the islands of Molokai and Oahu, shattering records and leaving their Hawaiian brothers in their wake.

But this leg of the race can be anyone’s win. The top teams are bunched together after the start, crowding the inside reef. Once they make it through the pass, the canoes begin to separate. Team Hawaii, with an all star cast made up of the best paddlers from their State, pulls ahead of the pack but loses its momentum as the Huahine team, cheered on by hundreds of spectators on escort boats, pulls ahead.

It is Huahine all the way–until the finish. While Huahine takes a direct course to the finish line, Shell Va’a chooses an upwind course and turns downwind to surf the following seas into the lagoon, passing Huahine. EDT and OPT, the electric company and post office teams, follow Shell’s course, and finish second and third. Huahine’s Matairea Hoe, on the heels of OPT, finishes fourth.

When I check into my bungalow at Uturoa later in the day, I introduce myself to two guests at the front desk wearing Shell tee shirts and congratulate them on their win today. They are Sonny Bradley, the legendary canoe designer and Richel Mouz, President of the Shell Va’a team. Mouz tells me he is humbled that his team performed so well, but tomorrow is another day.

Today is only the first day of the great race. Two more legs can make or break a team and this race is still up for grabs. Everyone is hungry to break Shell’s winning streak. Not one of these iron men likes to lose. Will the Polynesian gods bless the second leg to Taha’a with fair weather like today, or churn the seas and toss a Shell victory to the wind? Stay tuned. We’ll keep you posted.

‘Teri Tico is a Kauai-based photo journalist and attorney.’

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