The small and normally quiet village of Fare, on the island of Huahine in French Polynesia, is abuzz with activity. Children play in the ocean, climbing the mooring line of a research ship, and jumping into the water below. Local vendors of island crafts and food sell their wares along the main road, which with the influx of people, has become a walking street only. Large and muscular men carry their paddles as they walk through town, while Va’a (outrigger canoe) teams take turns carrying their canoes from the water to an empty grass lot. There they will be carefully measured and weighed, in preparation for the big race, which starts the following day.
This is the opening ceremony of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a, the largest annual sporting event in French Polynesia. In this race, nearly 100 six-man paddle teams from island nations and beyond gather to put their experience, their determination, their strength, and their will to the test.
The Hawaiki Nui Va’a begins on Huahine, and over the course of the three-day, 80-mile race teams will paddle to Raiatea, then Taha’a, before finally finishing in Bora Bora. This event is deeply rooted in Polynesian culture, and is very prestigious. Competitors train rigorously all year, and this is the culmination of their efforts. It’s also very much a spectator sport, with what seems like the entire nation coming out to watch. All schools are closed for the whole week, and many businesses close up shop as well. This is, as the Communications Manager for Tahiti Tourisme puts it, the Superbowl of Tahiti.