Champion paddler Tupuria King shares his epic experience of the Hawaiki’nui Va’a

This years 26th edition covers 3 days of racing from the islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora in Tahiti. The distance varies from 25km to 60km; the competition reveals the physical and moral strength of the canoe racers. We speak to Tupuria King to get his take on it.

“Anticipation and appropriate application” Tupuria King. Photo: Hayden Ramler

Race creation and History

Born in 1992 from a man’s idea, named Edouard Maamaatuaiahutapu, who wanted to make a tribute to the beauty of the islands where he lived and to his group of friends who loved the sea and canoe races. This mythical race was thought from simple criteria: to be as prestigious as the Moloka’i Hoe race in Hawaii but more arduous. The 3 stops of the canoe race vary between 25 to 60 km to go through the most beautiful islands such Raiatea, Taha’a, Huahine and Bora Bora and last between 2h to 4h30.

The va’a (outrigger canoe) symbolises the fundamental link between man & sea; in the case of Polynesians it represents the essence of their civilisation and how they came to be transporting plants, animals and people necessary for there survival.

The Hawaiki’nui Va’a is the ultimate expression of this and now sport enjoyed internationally. More then a sport it has a sense of ancestry & tradition combined with progress & development, extreme challenge & great camaraderie, individual & team synchronisation, planning & strategy combined with effort, determination & courage. Va’a is a sport of many facets, a great sport:

Day 1 (in green above) — A 45km race across the ocean from Huahine to Raiatea. The leaders will cover the distance in around 3 hours & 15 minutes; the course record — 3h 11’ 47”.

Day 2 (in yellow above) — A comparative ‘sprint’ of 26 km within the lagoon from Raiatea & Tahaa. The leaders will complete the course ‘comfortably’ within 2 hours; the course record — 1h 52’ 49”.

Day 3 (in mauve above) — A gruelling 58km race across the ocean that separates Tahaa for Bora Bora. The leaders will complete the leg in just over 4 hours; the course record — 4h 07’ 01”.

Edouard also had a deep love for the islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora. They each brought something different to their surrounding waters: Huahine, the most feminine of the islands, is soft, smiling and welcoming; Raiatea, the heart of Polynesia, is sacred and majestic; Taha’a, known as the “Vanilla Island,” is wild and spellbinding; and Bora Bora, a celebrity in her own right, is romantic and breathtaking.

He wanted to find a way to connect each of these islands, and decided that the Hawaiki Nui Va’a was the best way to do that.

Can you tell me a few things about yourself?

I’ve been paddling since age 7, I am now 24yrs which makes 17yrs paddling. Only within last 5 years have I taken paddling more seriously training throughout the year and competing internationally.

Physiology: 187cm, between 92 & 97 depending on the time of the year and season.

What team/s you paddle for?

I paddle for NZ team: Herberts on Tour. Tahitian team: Paddling Connection. Also paddled for both Sprint and Distance NZ Elite teams.

Your seat position?

I tend to sit in 3 or 4 with my Tahitian team. I tend to sit in 1 or 2 with my NZ team as we have a few power houses that fill the middle.

Years traveling to Tahiti, which island/s?

I have been travelling and competing in Tahiti for the past 5 years. My first race being the Tahiti Nui Va’a 6man race with an NZ team. We were shocked by the level of the tahitians which inspired me to train and come back.

I’ve been to Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and the beautiful Borabora.

The finish line — Bora Bora Photo by Tim McKenna

Tell me about the Hawaiki Nui?

Why is this a special race?

The Hawaiki Nui Va’a is the most prestigious outrigger canoe race in the WORLD! Not just dominate over other races because of the distance (3 days covering 130km between 4 islands) but the participation, the support (via support boats, catamarans, yachts and more), and the level of the paddlers is tremendous. On top of this, the tahitian people, the history, the culture and the natural beauty of each island makes the experience that much more amazing.

What is the hardest aspect about it?

The hardest aspect for the paddlers would be the physical demand of paddling between islands with no change overs (iron). Normally, races with this kind of distance allow teams to change paddlers during the race to keep paddlers fresh. However, the Hawaiki Nui races aren't allowed change overs during each leg. You can however change between days although many teams choose not to.

How was your teams preparation?

This year our team prepared harder than the previous two races I’ve have raced with them. Unfortunately due to a busy schedule I only had two and a half weeks to prepare with Paddling Connection before race day which I believe was not enough time to blend well and fix small faults in my technique.

How does the team get picked for each leg of the race?

Our coach, Wilfred Ahmin, tests combinations during training leading up to race day. You start to figure out based on how often you get put in a seat which ones you might get picked for and who else you’re up against for the same seat.

It keeps all the paddlers hungry in training. The team is picked the night before race day. Each paddler respects the decision made by the coach. No hierarchy, no egos, the team stays together.

What was your training program like?

If I was to describe Paddling Connection and training I would say it’s simple but effective. We definitely follow a quality over quantity style when it comes to training. We train with a purpose, focusing a lot on technique, blend and feel for the water. It’s not about how strong you are or how intense you can paddle, it’s about moving the canoe together in the most efficient way possible especially in the surf. Compared to the big corporate teams, I think we train a lot less. We gym a couple times a week and paddle maybe 5 times a week in the afternoons.

We listen to our bodies a lot. If the boys are tired we just play soccer. Recovery is key.

Who were your biggest rivals in the race?

As always the big teams like Shell, EDT and OPT were expected top contenders. However, this year there were many good teams who knocked some of these bigger names off the podium such as Air Tahiti, Tamarii CPS, Paddling Connection and many more. The competition was tough this year.

What was the biggest factor that led to your success?

This year we placed 2nd. I think the biggest factor for success is that a lot of the paddlers in our team have been paddling together for the last couple of years. We have grown together having placed 7th two years ago, 6th last year and now 2nd.

Most importantly, we are a family and we work together both on the water and off and we have a HUGE support crew of family, friends and supporters that make our race run smoothly throughout the 3 days.

Can you tell me a bit about your year paddling?

How has your performance been?

It has been another big year of racing both nationally and internationally. I am just realizing at this moment now that this has been my most successful year yet in my paddling career. The year has gone by so fast that I haven’t really had time to sit back and reflect on the number of races I have competed in. It’s quite mind blowing. Time does fly when you’re having fun!

What your biggest success and failure?

The biggest success for me would be placing 6th in the Super Aito this year. It’s always my one true aim of the year to do well in this individual race against 100s of the world best paddlers. Even to qualify for this race is considered an honour to many.

The biggest failure would have been in 2015 when I trained for my first Molokai Solo. That year I had a lecturer who had previously been associated with Olympic rowing champions and he assigned me some ridiculous mileage. It might have been alright if I worked my way up to it, But I jumped right into it to give it a try and got injured in under 2 weeks. I was well over trained for race day and had one of my worst performances and experiences.

2017 NZ Premiere men 500m Sprint Champion, Winning 4 times consecutively

What have you learned?

The learning never stops and there is always room for improvement. Paddling with a tahitian team has taught me a lot of technique and skill for ocean paddling.

Although I have still got a long way to go believe it or not. In terms of training, I have learned what works best for myself and I think that is important for every paddler.

Take in as much external knowledge as you can, but make shape it to fit you and your lifestyle.

Who inspires you in the sport of paddling?

When I was growing up I had a few NZ paddlers to look up to like Bo Herbert and his three sons, Maui Kjeldsen and more. As soon as I discovered Tahiti racing, it opened up a whole new degree of inspiration for me. Watching individuals like Kevin Jerusalemy and Steeve Teihotaata winning the Te Aito was inspiring to me before I even started competing there and it was an amazing feeling to be competing next to these athletes for the first time.

What motivates you to keep paddling?

I love the sport of paddling, keeping fit, training, racing and celebrating with good people afterwards.

It truly is a lifestyle. I don’t know what I would do without it. I like to keep the next big race in mind, whether it be national or international. This keeps me motivated to train hard. Having a goal in mind is important.

Goals for the next year?

My goals for next year is to complete my Masters degree, hopefully get a job in the sport industry that allows me to continue paddling and competing. All the better if the job is to do with paddling. Race wise I would like to give the Molokai Solo a good go again, the world sprint championship campaign and the usual Tahiti races such as Te Aito, Super Aito and the infamous Hawaiki Nui Va’a 2018!

I would like to thank my sponsors Tai Paddles, Fai Va’a, Air Tahiti Nui airline, and strongarm apparel for all of there support.

To my family, friends and supporters both here in NZ and in Tahiti I couldn’t do it without you all. Mauruuru roa!

Paddling Connection 505 second place HWKN Va’a 2017. Photo: Hayden Ramler

Final words

Before Edouard died in 2007, he made the following statement:

“We received a beautiful heritage from our ancestors: the va’a. And, it is of our duty to take care of it, in order to transmit it to our children who will do the same. Let us not forget that we are the guarantors of its durability.”

Thanks Tupuria for taking the time, sharing your experience of paddling in Tahiti and taking on this huge race. Many paddlers around the world are going to love hearing about your perspective. By Nick Nelson.

Blueys are here to inspire you, to stay true to an blue way of live. We are Ocean people. We are Blueys..

Read the other story in the series.

The world’s greatest outrigger canoe, a gruelling 128km paddling race in Tahiti tells you about the people who love it.

Manutea Millon is a team member of the legendary Shell Va’a club in Tahiti, he shares his experience of the great race.
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