Thursday, March 1, 2007

Tahiti Nui Va'a – White guys finish last, offsideintahiti

By offsideintahiti

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...


Ebren said...

Offside - you are insane to do that.

Well played sir!

pipita said...

Amazing stuff offside, and I thought I was wacked out after yesterday's five-a-side footy session.... the office suddenly looks an ever duller place than usual after reading this. One things for sure, I'll never be supporting those grilled-popa yanks with em boca colors.

kokomo said...

did you send this one to seani? honestly, it's in a different league to any that have been posted on big blogger, and they have been pretty good.

What a read, i felt like i was there - no, i wished i was there, brilliant.

Loving this site, but am sure that i can't come up with anything good enough now, so don't think i will bother

andrewm said...

offside, I couldn't be more impressed. I'm off back to work now but I look forward to reading this a few more times when I get home.

The standard on this blog is very high, but you are definitely out in front now in my opinion.


miro said...

A tap on the shoulder. You make me feel like expired milk. A 10 out of 10!

marcela said...

blown away...

Ebren said...

Offside - that was reporting in its truest sense. I hate you. How dare you be able to do that in a second language, live in Tahiti, and still be funnier than a dog in a Wonder Woman outfit.

I shall sit here and sulk until I fail to get into the big blogger tomorrow, then I shall post people's work, then I shall sulk, then I will get horrendously drunk and try and pull someone from marketing.

I think hangover, regret, and embarrassment are the next stages - along with fry-up and Liverpool-Man U on Sky.

BTW - yesterday there were 208 visits to these pages. Including three people from Argentina, one from Ireland, one from the US, and up to nine from Belgrade.

Someone from Edinburgh seemed to be logging on a lot and there was a person from Barcelona and one from Cafers in Australia too.

Anyone want to hold their hands up?

tonyellis said...

ok, barcelona here...

I've been spending more time on cif recently, but still like to look in here once in a while. If offside's piece is the current benchmark, I'll definitely come more often.

One tiny criticism of the site, if I may. Is there any chance of posting articles as a full page link? I can't get used to that single thin column. Otherwise, keep up the good work, ebren!

bluedaddy said...

Keyboard currently fucked so cant write much.

Ebren "funnier than a dog in a Wonder Woman outfit"

Bluedaddy (puts on 8 stone in weight and blue tuxedo): "you didnt tell me you'd met the wife!"

Offside: Formidable! I felt your pain. Did you get that ice cold lager though?

Ebren said...

tonyellis - I bumped into you over in cif this week. You get quite a lot of unmoderated abuse and a rather large sense of humour failure over there.

I will look into making it wider (it annoys me too) but I am pretty bad at this - so unless it’s an option I can click to enable we're stuck like this.

francaise said...

magnifique! je suis très jaloux de votre style et contenu

guitougoal said...

You are the best kept secret in the sportswrting world it's not even sportswriting its literature.Watch out Marcela.
And you want me to write something after this? Only if you draft the first 500 words.
Let me know, Olivier Flaubert.

marcela said...

i don't need to watch out.
i always knew offside was a writer of outstanding excellence. i read him regularly.

as the old aztec saying goes, best to travel through life 'sin miedos y sin egos'.

no fears and no egos.

i'm sorry ebren wants to sulk and miro feels like rancid milk.

i am humbled and delighted to have read this, and it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that there are many more talented people than myself out there.

it is an honour to encounter them at all.

francaise said...

just adding another few words to comment on the magnifence of offside's piece on canoeing madness in the pacific and checking to see if i'm joined up to pseud's corner - i'm new to all this don't you know - if i can get all my marking and prep done soon, i may be inspired to attempt to emulate offside's piece haha! - don't think this can be done even by accredited journos! excellent piece, excellently written - wish i was there...

Ebren said...

Just for you tonyellis, I have widened the page.


olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...

ia ora na,

thank you all for your comments. Easy on the compliments though, I'm easily tickled first thing in the morning and you've nearly given me an ego-rection.

Special thanks to greengrass for taking the time to proofread this, edit it into proper English and prune some of the froggisms.

I didn't send it to Big Blogger as they were pretty clear on the 500 words limit and I am no good at keeping it short. Especially with this subject matter which needs at least a little back-story for a non tahitian audience.

Also, I'm not sure it would draw a lot of comments from the usual football crowd.

Did I get that ice-cold lager? You bet. And another. And then another.

Ebren, thanks again for the site and the opportunity and good luck with the lady from marketing

MotM said...

Offside - About a third of the way in, I thought, "I'm going to youtube this and see what it's like", but by the end, I just wallowed in the glory of the pictures in words the piece summoned up, swimming before my eyes, as I looked out on a South London dusk.

You've topped the Doc's piece, which is high praise indeed. Dear me, my effort for tomorrow reads like skimmed milk next to the clotted cream of your post.

Never mind the Big Blogger, this should go in the Big Paper.

Ebren - We're playing a different game, but a game worth playing for all that. No despair now, just sit back and be inspired. My hat's in the ring for next week once I get the inspiration.

andrewm said...

GG, you're going to have to take a bow for your involvement in this masterpiece.

Congratulations all round.

zephirine said...

Dusk coming down in wet and windy London as I read this.... total escape, wonderful. Thanks, offside, great piece of writing.

guitougoal said...

Tahiti, in addition to a Camus tee-shirt in reward for your masterpiece I will send you the Hemingway & Bailey's bartending guide to great american writers.(as a bribe for my 500 words).
Marcela, si se tienne dos miedos y egos se puede.
ego could be a driving force helping to overcome your fears. No?
Francaise based on the above go for it.It's nice to have you on board.
Miro, nothing to worry, with expired milk we make the best yoghourts, and your brillant piece is still there to enjoy.
Everybody keep sending emails it's free.

marcela said...

but where is greengrass?

a joint effort... makes it all the more enjoyable.

honolulu said...

well done, offside, really well done. Good luck next year... or when's the next race?

olivier said...

Hi Honolulu,

nice to see you here. With a name like that you should be able to tell us about Hawaiian canoe racing. This year, Tahiti sent three teams to Hawaii for the Molokai race and they ended up 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Shell Va'a were the winners again, shattering the course record and their hosts' pride in the process.

Next race for me is this saturday. It's a small one, a "district race" as it's called, organised locally by my new club in order to raise funds for the coming season. I don't think I'll take part in this one as a couple of niggling injuries have kept me out of training recently. I'll probably just give a hand with the organisation. Much safer. It's sure to be good fun and a nice day out in the bay of Pao Pao, feel free to stop by.

Yeah, where is greengrass?

Ebren said...

When did he edit you?

I have turned my football as art into a 498 word blog.

I'll post it tomorrow - and just realised how many mistakes I put into stuff as I type.

bluedaddy said...

Olivier, couldn't you get your friend Lezard to do your rowing for you. He seems a great guy!

olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...

I sent it to greengrass for proofreading earlier on in the week. Or last week, can't remember exactly as all the days are the same shade of blue here. Haven't heard from him in a while. Maybe he's been banned from using the Internet by his Swedish provider?

Le lézard is giving a bad name to all reptilian life forms. No friend of mine, but I enjoy reading his outrageous posts.

Paddleman said...

You did it great Offside, either this incredible race but also the way you describe it.
Is there any pleasure beyond the pain ?

From my point of view, it is a definite YES : I had great pleasure reading your prose

PS : don't be afraid, "sharks are your friends, well,most of the time"

honolulu said...

Ha! I only know about the America's Cup, but I am now fascinated and look forward to seeing a canoe race. (but, if the Hawaiian contest took place two weekends ago, my friend's cousin might have competed...)

I wish I could go to the bay of Pao Pao for the weekend. You should be careful with your invites, though, it is very easy to imagine dozens of SportsBlog/Fiver readers disembarking- and asking for you! bien grillés by the end of the day... and not just the fresh fish. Do you want that on your conscience?!?!

olivier said...


don't tell anyone but there is already talk of a bloggers' convention in Tahiti. It's early days and the logistics are not yet finalised but, as they say, watch this space.

marcela said...

maybe we can get some huge multinational lab to sponsor the convention.
you know, to promote their sunscreen products.

honolulu, hope you are considering submitting a piece either to big blogger, or here.

cameroon 1990? preparing for 2010? poems from africa?? i can't wait.

olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...


how about we work on getting the convention sponsored by The Guardian, to promote, you know... blogging.

marcela said...

even the guardian will need the sunscreen money.

why would, you know, promoting blogging be in any business model's interest?

we can work on GU helping us sell more sunscreen, i'm sure.

but just honolulu and my own flights to pao pao are probably beyond the guardian's blogging budget, never mind everyone else that's going to try and jump on the bandwagon once they hear about it.

i know you said not to tell anyone, but trust me, they're all going want to come along when they hear about it. and they will.

olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...

Allright, now is the time to answer Paddleman's question.

- Is there any pleasure beyond the pain?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is plenty.

- In a race like that, just being on the same starting line as the world champions, with the same equipment, same paddles, same rules. OK, short-lived pleasure once the race actually starts, but still, it's not everyday.

- Living together as a team for three days, having our meals with all the other teams, sleeping in classrooms in remote tahitian villages, enjoying the hospitality...

- In another relay race, Fa'ati Moorea (from Tahiti, around Moorea and back), being neck and neck with Team Mamao for close to five hours. Never being in front or behind by more than a couple of lengths. Then, when their back-up boat suffered engine failure and drifted close to the reef, our boat went to tow them and help with the repair job while both canoes waited side by side. In the end, beating them by two minutes.

- Being part of the back-up boat crew and official team masseur (another one of my many talents) for the Hawaiki Nui Va'a race, from Huahine to Raiatea to Tahaa to Bora Bora in three days. Following the whole race without touching a paddle. Amazing.

- Training every day on the most beautiful playground in the world, between 4 and 6 pm, when the sun turns to liquid gold and lights up Moorea's turquoise lagoon.

- Getting it right. When all six oarsmen hit the groove and catch that perfect sync. Gliding almost effortlessly.

- Venturing outside the lagoon, through the pass, to be met by a wall of water. Tearing through it and emerging on the other side in an explosion of spray. Feeling like you just got slapped in the face by the Pacific Ocean but it let you through.

- Catching the surf sideways along the reef. Actually going faster than the wave that carries you. Flying.

- As you sweat and toil away, catching sight of a humpback whale jumping out of the water in the distance.

- Finishing every training session under the most glorious tropical sunset, from pale yellow to indigo.

- Being accepted in an all-tahitian club - not on performance! - but just accepted as one of the lads. Earning their trust, and friendship, has been the greatest pleasure of all and a true privilege.

- Oh, and when it's over, getting out of the bloody canoe and being handed a cold drink.

tonyellis said...

Thanks, Ebren, I enjoyed it even more that time...

Rikard78 said...

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed Offside's piece. I know that the Graun's word limit is there for a good reason but it seems a shame that it means that a piece of this quality is automatically denied from reaching the wider audience it deserves.

Don't think I'm the guy from Edinburgh that Ebren mentioned has been logging in a lot (I do live there but I've been away a lot in India and China) although I have been quite a regular visitor. Working a long way from home, I've probably spent way too much time reading the blogs every day but never felt confident enough to comment. And for what it's worth, I didn't think there was ever a problem with a 'clique'. I just enjoy reading witty, insightful comments - if they happen to come from the same people regularly so what?

Paddleman said...

Eh ! little white chicken !
don't you dare winning saturday race and share the prize (a dead calf and a fruitjuice teeshirt)with your friends.
Anyway, thanks for your answer(s).
I feel the same way about paddling in Polynesia but unable to transcribe these impressions with words. I'm more into stuff like "Waouh, cool !", "yeehaa, so cool".
Thanks again

honolulu said...

I say we sail, Marcela, and yes(!, blushing) I will send something in for next week, if my proofer gets it back to me on time...
but count me in for the convention-how should we form teams for the five-a-side tourny? by hemisphere?

50KaWeekSub said...

Offside - edit this down to 500 big words and send it on to Sean/Baz - either that or I will.

Excellent imagery - I was there with you.

olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...


if you feel you can bring it down to 500 words, feel free to tinker with it. I actually had to restrain myself, otherwise it would have been more like 5,000+.

I've had a look on youtube and could only find one, short, grainy clip of the Hawaiki Nui Va'a race:

Maybe Paddleman could post some of his own on youtube?

bluedaddy said...

I hope that 5 a side tourney is footie, and not sea rowing. If the latter, I will nobly volunteer to cook lunch, keeping Mrs Offside company, and regularly checking the beer temperature is constantly correct.

I learned to surf last year (yes I know, why wait so long to learn) in Wales. I'm thinking Tahiti should be on my agenda. How's them breaks OiT?

50KaWeekSub said...

Was being facetious - extending it to a novel would actually be a better idea. I could even ghost-write it for you at a small fee of course.

marcela said...

i have no native speaker intuitions and i've certainly never subbed for 50 k a week but... shouldn't that be FOR a small fee?

bluedaddy, at risk of gooseberrying your plans i'm hanging out with you and mrs offside in the kitchen. not that i can cook but i'm certainly not taking up surfing, canoeing, or five a side anything. anyway, the simmer frame wouldn't hold out.

honolulu, sailing? getautahere!

olivier said...

offsideintahiti said...

the five a side tournament I'm planning is underwater hockey, with sharks. I'll have a set of rules ready shortly.

Surfing, bluedaddy? Sure, if you're mad enough. All the good spots on Moorea are reef waves, which means that if you wipe out... you get a mouthful of razor sharp coral. The local lads do it. You can usually tell the Moorea surfers by their scars. There are a few spots on Tahiti itself that are safer, i.e. where the waves break on a sandbank, which means that if you fall, you only get a free skin cleansing and 5 kilos of sand in your bathing suit. And don't worry about the sharks, like Paddleman says, sharks are your friends, most of the time.

Marcela, thanks for offering to be the chaperon. Mrs offside can take care of herself but I'm not altogether sure about this bluedaddy character. He acts the family man on the blogs but who knows, really? I'm sure she'll enjoy your company and is very good at getting the beer temperature just right.

greengrass said...

I don't think I deserve much applause
- Offside's English is very good so I
didn't need the silver scissors, and I DID have the privilege of reading his yarn before everyone else...
Sorry about my absence; I had to take part in the world premiere of an Elvis show in a sleepy lickle Swedish town. Never mind - it helps cure my unhealthy blog obsession.
I'll try to get round to writing something soon for this blog - a far superior site.

50KaWeekSub said...

Marcella, thanks for the impressive correction. I have no geriatric intuitions but you'll thank me for pointing out that it's actually "zimmer" frame.

marcela said...

50k - yes, i noticed after i posted. i think 'simmer' slipped out because i was thinking about hanging out in the kitchen. :)
i do thank you, though!

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