Over a thousand and a half years ago, in a series of navigational feats so daring they bordered on the insane, the Ma'ohi people conquered the Pacific ocean and populated its islands, travelling in outrigger canoes called Va'a.
In 1769, Captain James Cook could probably see some of these fine craft as he was setting up his astronomical observatory on Tahiti's Pointe Vénus, now a fashionable sun-bathing and surfing spot. Today is day one of the Tahiti Nui Va'a race. Over a hundred six-men outrigger canoes are preparing to do battle in a high-sea rowing race around Tahiti, in three days and as many stages. In Polynesia, Va'a racing was once the sport of warriors and kings. Today, it's definitely the king of sports and this is its main event.
Shell Va'a, an outfit whose oarsmen all officially work for the oil company but in fact spend their working hours training, are the clear favourites. They will be kept on their toes by Pirae Va'a Mobil (oil again!), and a handful of heavily sponsored teams. The rest, all complete amateurs, will battle it out for honour, knowing that the podium is but a distant dream. They come from all over the Pacific: the "nearby" Marquesas, Tuamotu, Gambier, Australes and Leeward Islands of French Polynesia, but also from as far as New Zealand and Hawaii. They have one thing in common, they are incredible athletes with muscles of bronze and outlandish tattoos, descended from a long and dignified line of seafaring peoples. They are Sun Gods in the prime of youth.
At 7 am, as the craft jostle for position on the starting line in a feast of bright colours, the sun is already murderously high. The beach at Pointe Vénus is thronged with tourists and locals. The huge fleet of back-up boats has moved out to the open sea to clear the way. When the starter raises the red flag, silence descends. Hands tighten on paddles, concentration is intense, everyone is ready - including us.
Us? Canoe no. 36, the blue one with the yellow strip, Team Arevareva. A motley crew of white guys with sporting backgrounds as varied as windsurfing, long distance running, triathlon, football, scuba diving, and recreational drugs. Two teachers, a chef, a physio, a pedal-boat rental clerk, a barman, a free-lance chancer, and a couple of less easily defined characters. All white: Popa'a is the local word for it. Literally, it means "grilled". That's what the Polynesian sun does to your skin if your ancestry hails from anywhere north of the mediterranean. But that's the beauty of this race, as long as you can raise the money and all rowers are licensed with the federation, any team can take part and mix it with the big boys on a level (though seriously undulating!) field of play. We're the small, unheard-of outfit from Moorea, we're white and we're attracting many incredulous gazes and a few wry smiles.
Soon after a furious, water-churning start, we have the ocean to ourselves as the leaders vanish and the back of the chasing pack disappears in the hazy distance. Plenty of time to work on that smooth synchronised stroke and to make friends with the nurses on the medical boat that brings up the rear of the race: that is, right behind us.
Thankfully, it's a relay. After an hour, the first changes are allowed, and are at the team's discretion for the remainder of the day. The process is fairly straightforward. The back-up boat races ahead of the canoe, the substitute crew jumps into the water, aligned in reverse order from the positions they will take on board. In the canoe, the helmsman lines them up in his sights and pulls alongside, they grip the gunwale, the rowers eject themselves overboard on the other side, up come the fresh subs, hoisting themselves effortlessly, sliding into place and slipping into the groove before the canoe even slows down, and they're off again. At least, that's what it's supposed to look like.
We look like a train pulling up at a summer resort's station: bodies all over the place, the canoe grinding to a halt, passengers clambering on (some needing several attempts) and the restart so slow that a late-comer with a couple of suitcases could still jump aboard. That is if the canoe doesn't actually completely miss the floating substitutes, leaving them to bob up and down, waiting for the boat to come around again.
The black-tipped sharks are small and shy enough. The grey sharks are more vicious but stick to very specific spots. The lemon sharks are much bigger but debonair. The tiger sharks? Well, they live way down below 300 feet and only ever come up after nightfall (according to the latest research). So we don't really linger in the cooling waters of this great ocean but hop on board rather hurriedly.
The great thing about a relay is that you can spend about half of it resting. Stretching your legs on the back-up boat, refuelling on fruit juice and cereal bars while you watch your teammates paddle along the reef, against the magnificent backdrop of Tahiti's jagged green peaks. That is, of course, if there are enough of you.
Unfortunately, a good few of our faithful partners, who have never missed one of our daily training sessions, suddenly found themselves caught up in all kinds of professional obligations on this long weekend. And so, instead of the twelve required to do a full change of personnel, there are only nine of us. After three hours of rowing in the scorching heat, I have been at it for two and a half, which is already longer than I've ever done before - and we aren't even close to being halfway there.
The thirst is constant. The sun is molten lava on your back. Your muscles seize up. The salt in your eyes blinds you. All sorts of pains pop up everywhere as you discover muscles you never knew you had. Your shoulder joints refuse to rotate properly. The irony of dehydrating in the middle of all this water hits you hard. The thought of a hammock in the cool shade by the waterfall hits you harder. A giant glass of ice-cold lager floats by in front of your eyes. You realise the salt in your eyes is actually from tears. Tears of pain, tears of exhaustion, tears of despair, tears of anger. How could you be so stupid?
You're a sensible, well-rounded individual. What on earth made you think you could do something like this? You bloody idiot, what's the point of damaging your health? What for? You certainly can't think of a reason now, can you? All you can think of is throwing yourself overboard to make it stop. The only thing that's keeping you from doing just that is knowing that you don't have long to wait for the next substitution. Do you? Well, do you? You look imploringly at the lads on the boat - and they finally call it. You throw yourself into the water with relish, not even thinking of the sharks now.
Just hoisting yourself back on the boat is a superhuman effort. Or would be, if you could manage it. They have to pull you up. You collapse on the deck, gasping like a speared fish. You can't relax, your mind won't let you. You know you have to go again soon and that thought spoils your moment of rest. As you steady yourself and get your breathing under control, the sound and smell of the diesel engine take effect. You retch. You try to drink. You retch again. Some kind person puts a cold, wet towel on the back of your neck. You pull it over your head and wish you could lose consciousness. Those nurses on the medical boat could probably sort you out. After all, we're on first name terms by now...
A tap on the shoulder. Time to go again.
Back on the canoe, the first series of strokes are pretty smooth. It's a relief to get away from that diesel engine. But the merry-go-round of pain starts all over again - only worse. You try and focus on a fixed point on land, way up ahead, which could be your landing place. You concentrate on the rhythm and the all important synchronicity. Next time you look up, that point on land has actually receded. Now you're going insane. You begin to lose your grip on the oar. You hands feel like they're made of wood. And your backside... oh sweet Lord!
When we pull into Vairao, the officials' tent is being dismantled. The winners have had their shower, their lunch, and are probably enjoying a massage before drifting off to sleep. Their time: 6 hours and 15 minutes. Our time? Over 8 hours and 30 minutes. We still attract smiles, but no sniggering. They've all been through exactly the same thing. "C'est bien, les popa'a," and a pat on the back. Not condescending either, just recognition. Nearly worth it, too.
That was the first day. There were two more to go. More of the same, except the ocean decided it would be more fun with a ten-foot swell. Predictably, Shell Va'a won all three stages and the race. Did we finish last? Well, only if you don't count the three teams that gave up and the two that lost their canoe to the battering of the waves...