The last day it is raining. Bora Bora is a faint shadow on a gray horizon, more convincing as a mirage than as an island. The paddlers mill about, preparing themselves for the hardest day. They are strong still, but their tiredness shows now, too. For the youngest, who are doing this race for the first time, they are approaching the end of an initiation. They stand in the drizzle silently, paddles in hand, waiting to launch. Just before the start, the Shell Va‘a A team arrives. Despite their loss, today they walk with the certainty of victory, with the jaunt of rock stars about to take the stage, and they hold their paddles like instruments they will play perfectly.
The canoes take to the sea. For the first hour they paddle the long stretch alongside Taha‘a, then they head out the pass, into the ocean and toward Bora. I am on the race officials’ boat today, and we watch the teams go through the pass: OPT, Mana He‘e, Team Hawai‘i, dozens more. The Australian team, the Pacific Dragons from Sydney, is the last through. Earlier that morning, I’d spoken with one of their paddlers, Grant Billen. “It’s been wonderful,” he enthused. “It’s been everything we’d hoped the experience of paddling an outrigger in Polynesia would be. Sleeping in school halls, taking meals together: The teams have treated us so well.” Where the Dragons place in the race seems, to him, to be irrelevant.
There are medics on the officials’ boat, and I ask what they most commonly treat. “Cramps,” they say, “blisters, cuts, rashes, dehydration.” But today, with the downpour,
dehydration won’t be a problem. The ocean is glassy in the rain, calm and colorless. As we head toward Bora in advance of the paddlers’ arrival, at one point we pull alongside Shell Va‘a A. They are stroking with perfect precision, sixty-eight to seventy strokes a minute, faster than a heartbeat, and their rhythm does not break. I think back to three days earlier, that sense of seeing bodies that had transcended mortal limitations: Watching now, their strength, their synchronicity seems pulled from elsewhere.
When we arrive on Bora, the party is in full swing in anticipation of the canoes. Hundreds of Tahitians stand in the ocean at the finish line, waiting to welcome the paddlers, to celebrate a seminal and centuries-old connection to the sea. A stage has been set up in the water for Tahitian drummers and they pound out beats with the same speed and intensity that drives the paddlers. There are dancers, a flower-strewn stage, TV crews. People are selling cold coconuts, grilled meat. The excitement builds when the announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Shell Va‘a A is seconds from entering the pass at Bora.” And when the canoe appears, the air fills with cheers and shouts. The team paddles in, rhythm strong and unbroken to the last. There is no other canoe in sight. They have triumphed in a time of four hours, sixteen minutes and twenty-three seconds.
Other teams begin to arrive. OPT makes it in in second. Team Hawai‘i arrives in fourth; its captain, Mike Judd, embraces the Shell paddlers. Mana He‘e comes ninth.
The paddlers take the stage. Young women dance. Everyone is draped in lei. Awards are given. Overall, Shell is first, OPT second, Team Hawai‘i eighth. I talk with Mike Judd, captain of the Hawai‘i team, who is gracious and, despite the intense paddle and the heat, energized. “There’s a Tahitian style of paddling and a Hawaiian style of paddling,” he says. “To be the world champions, you have to be the best at both. This year for the first time, the same team
won both the Moloka‘i Hoe and the Hawaiki Nui. Shell Va‘a is the best team ever in the history of paddling.”
I run into Jacques Siu. Mana He‘e has come in twelfth overall, and after the challenges of the first day, he is jubilant. “My club is only four years old,” he says. “It’s great, because we’ve seen a progression every year.”