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vol. 10, No. 5
October/November 2007

  >>   The Great Race
  >>   In the Land of the Western Sun

The Great Race 

story by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg


The plane to Huahine is filled with paddling’s elite, row upon row of tattooed biceps, sculpted bodies, focused faces. In two days, these athletes will take on the most punishing outrigger canoe race in the world.{The man sitting across the aisle from me leans over. “Paddling is like a drug, you know?” he offers. “You get addicted. Actually, there is no pleasure in paddling, only the challenge and the pride when you finish the race. It’s hard. It’s tough.”

In Huahine’s tiny airport, men mill about looking for rides, holding their paddles with ease and care, the way they might a child’s hand. They are headed for Fare, Huahine’s capital, where the race will begin in about forty-eight hours. Fare is a backwater with little more than one main street, but now it has become a fairgrounds, with music, food stands, colored lights strung from the trees and thousands of people wandering about: paddlers, fans, officials, kids, mothers, grandmothers, journalists. A massive French battleship, the Dumont d’Urville, is at the dock; it has just arrived from Papeete, bearing dozens of canoes for the race. People are drinking Hinano, swimming in the harbor, eating watermelon. A bad cover of “Islands in the Stream” plays in the distance. I talk with one paddler who has just emerged from the sea. His black hair hangs down to his waist; he wrings it out as we speak.

“Is it true,” I ask, “that there’s no pleasure in paddling?”

He nods his head. “It’s rough,” he agrees, “it’s tough. Vraiment, ce n’est pas une plaisir. Mais c’est la rame de nos culture.”

I rack my brain, searching years of French vocab, but I have no idea what rame means.

“La quoi?” I ask. The what?

“La rame, la rame.” He can see my confusion. He grabs a paddle from someone walking by, holds it toward me. “La rame.”

I get it. “La rame,” I say, grinning, “the paddle.”

He grins back. “Vois alors, you understand. Paddling is itself the paddle of our culture. It takes us where we’re going; it keeps us who we are. We don’t paddle for pleasure. We paddle because we’re proud to honor the culture.”