Va'a Va'a Va'a Voom!
Story by Sonny Ganaden
Photos by Elyse Butler
“Ever been to the Tuamotus?” he asks in broken English to accommodate my bad French. “That’s where these barrels are going. Good life out there— could be just me and my va‘a.” Driving back to the depot we rumble through a back alley, avoiding feral dogs and shirtless men on mopeds. “Hawai‘i is best at surfing,” says Yoann over the reggae music bleating from the radio. “But we’re the best in the va‘a. And some of those Hawaiian guys are old already; they’ll never catch us. We’re too young—et comment dire? —hungry.” He smiles and shows me pictures on his phone of his new bride and two blue-eyed pit bulls. “Mes bébés,” he jokes.
Yoann’s loose and funny, as down to earth as you’d expect a guy who delivers diesel for a living to be. But he’s also one of the best—if not the best—outrigger canoe paddlers in the world. That might not mean much to someone who doesn’t live in Polynesia, but what soccer is to Europe and Latin America, what basketball and football are to the United States, paddling is to Tahiti. And this blue-collar 25-year-old is the star player on the sport’s best team.
For the past seven consecutive years, Shell Va‘a has won the grueling Moloka‘i Hoe, the most established of the long-distance canoe races, which crosses the Kaiwi channel from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu. Five times they’ve won Tahiti’s three-day, 125-kilometer Hawaiki Nui, now considered the sport’s most competitive long-distance race. They just won the second running of the Olamau, a new three-day, hundred-mile race around the northern tip of the Big Island, from Hilo to Kailua-Kona. (Perhaps the only reason they didn’t win the first running is that they didn’t enter.) The only real competition Shell Va‘a faces these days is from other Tahitian teams; not a single team from Hawai‘i has yet to challenge the Tahitians’ dominance.
The day I arrive at Shell Va‘a’s fare va‘a (literally, “canoe house”) in Papeete, Yoann is alone in the weight room attacking a punching bag with roundhouse kicks. He’s a tough and physical paddler but also a master of nuance—one of the best, it’s said, at exploiting “bumps,” swells that when caught allow a canoe to surf. In 2012 Yoann won the most competitive V-1 race in the Pacific, the Super Aito. (V-1s are rudderless, one-man canoes; each stroke must both steer and propel the va‘a, unlike in the ruddered OC-1s preferred in Hawai‘i.) Such an achievement can’t be overstated in the paddling world: Hundreds battle to qualify for one of only a hundred spots in the race. Few non-Tahitians have ever qualified, and none have gotten close to the podium.
On some days Yoann paddles to work, leaving before dawn from his home at Point Venus nearly ten kilometers away. Then he might paddle during his lunch hour. Then after work it’s practice, and then he paddles home again. “If it’s too dark after practice, I just ride my bike back home,” he says. On his days off, Yoann might paddle to his father’s home in Papara—over thirty kilometers—just for fun. “I take breaks, though,” he smiles.
“More than half the boys work at the depot,” says team president Richel Moux. “As employees they don’t get anything special, really, except time off to compete.” When they’re not working, they train to the brink of exhaustion in the waters around a petroleum depot at the end of Motu Uta, a man-made industrial island.
Many of the teams that Shell Va‘a has beaten also train rigorously, so questions naturally arise. It could be a case of sour grapes, but Shell Va‘a’s success has some in the paddling world questioning what it is, exactly, that makes the team as good as it is. Answers have ranged from dumb luck to steroid use to hiring ringers—none of which, says Richel, is the case. “Our first year, I heard we won [the Moloka‘i Hoe] because the channel was flat,” says Richel, explaining that because Shell Va‘a’s home waters are calm, some believed they were unbeatable in flat water but wouldn’t perform well in the kind of rough conditions typical for Hawai‘i. “The year later, someone said we broke the rules with too many paddlers. Last year was when they said we were professionals or using drugs. It’s not true. Some of our paddlers are just kids, and they show up to practice hungry.”
What makes them so hungry? Apart from a national culture of paddling that makes celebrities of these athletes, there’s an economic incentive. “We do our best to get them jobs,” says Richel— a huge draw in a place as isolated and expensive as Tahiti. As in Hawai‘i, Tahiti’s electricity is generated primarily by oil delivered weekly on barges. Decades ago a shareholder group led by Richel’s father, Albert Moux, entered into a venture with Shell Oil Company to process and market petroleum in the South Pacific. When Shell’s competitor, Mobil, sponsored a team out of Pirae, Shell followed suit in 1996, and in 2002 Richel was offered one of the company’s most coveted titles: team president. Shell Oil divested in 2006, but its signature crimson-and-yellow diesel barrels had become iconic in New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in addition to supplying Tahiti’s public utility Électricité de Tahiti (EDT).
The posters of Shell Va‘a that line the hallway to Richel’s office show crews in exquisite unison, each paddle precisely parallel to the one in front of it. Richel sits behind his receipt-littered desk, fielding calls in an attempt to get a sleek new ama, or outrigger, from Papeete to Hilo in time for the Olamau race a week later. Now that Shell Oil is no longer part of the company, I ask, why didn’t they change the team’s name? “So as not to confuse people,” Richel says. “The new name is Pacific Petroleum. We’re now also Vodafone, so hopefully we’ll be able to give most of our paddlers jobs at some point. Soon we might call ourselves Shell Vodafone Va‘a, but I don’t know if that’s too many words already.”
Roland Tere, with his son Arearii
“I’ve been at Shell since 2006,” Roland says as we ascend creaking metal stairs on the side of a five-story building at the end of the depot. “I used to have to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to get to work at a bakery. But this job is much better, and I get time to paddle.” We exit a door onto a tarred roof, and the painfully bright blue Pacific spreads before us. The southern tradewinds push clouds through an endless sky, and Moorea looms on the horizon nineteen kilometers away. Yoann’s already here, seated precariously on a ledge. He raises his chin to acknowledge us and returns his attention to the ribbon of reef fringing the depot.
In the lot below us, men load barrels, refuel trucks, clean tanks and restock equipment. Suddenly Yoann cheers, “Allé! Allé!” and waves his white hard hat in the air. A fleet of some twenty one-man canoes comes into view, racing toward the breakwater on the lee of the islet. “Trop lent! Trop lent!” Too slow! Yoann yells, and the men in the canoes yell back as they pass, but their shouts are a wash in the surf. What I thought was a quiet perch from which to look wistfully at the sea is in fact the observation deck from which team members watch the daily sprint competition. “How far around Motu Uta?” I ask. “About one hour,” Roland responds, using the metric of time rather than distance. Just far enough for lunch hour.
At the other end of the depot, Roland shows me the team’s old fare va‘a: a converted shed overlooking Papeete across the Taunoa Channel. Three one-man canoes lie on the ground, still wet from the workers who took them out for practice during an early lunch. On the wall is a Xeroxed nautical chart of the Kaiwi channel on which someone has penciled a line from Hale o Lono harbor on Moloka‘i to Kühiö beach at Waikïkï: the route of the Moloka‘i Hoe. “First team to Diamond Head wins,” Roland says, forefinger pressed firmly on the southern tip of O‘ahu.
“It started with Hinano at Hawaiki Nui,” says former Shell Va‘a coach Gerard Teiva, referring to the local beer of which he is on his second. Gerard’s an old salt, a character out of time: muscular and dark with a gravelly voice that lends resonance to his frequent jokes. A legend in the sport, Gerard coached the Shell team from 2006 to 2010. He gives me a history of Tahitian paddling over lunch: the ways that paddlers from the villages of Tautira and Teahupo‘o revived the sport half a century ago and clubs bloomed around the archipelago; the experience of the first intrepid Tahitian teams to compete in Hawai‘i in the mid-1970s. “Us Tahitians learned from the Moloka‘i Hoe,” he says. “We would read anything we could get our hands on about it. Moloka‘i is still the best race for me because of the history.” That history includes two paddlers inducted in the Hawai‘i State Athletic Hall of Fame: Toots Minvielle, who created the Moloka‘i Hoe in 1952 and whose bronze likeness one passes in Honolulu International Airport on the way to Tahiti, and Joseph “Nappy” Napoleon, who has competed in the Moloka‘i Hoe fifty-five times. “I met Toots once,” says Gerard admiringly. “Someone pointed out an old man to me at Hale o Lono, and I went up to him and shook his hand. I told him, ‘You don’t know me, but I know what you did here.’”
Prior to the mid-1990s paddling in Tahiti was the way it remains in most of the outrigger racing world: a local sport where clubs are named for the beaches they paddle from. Then in 1992 Jean Pierre Fourcade, president of Hinano, sponsored the Hawaiki Nui. Fourcade used the event to market his product aggressively: Men who worked at the brewery comprised the paddling team, Hinano Hoe, and the Hinano logo was emblazoned across the race like Le Coq Sportif ’s is throughout the Tour de France. It worked: That logo, a seated vahine (woman) in a red pareo with a tiare flower in her hair, became an emblem not just of Tahiti, but of Pacific Island culture, seen today on pickup trucks, tank tops, paddles and surf trunks throughout Polynesia.
Other companies took notice. As a metaphor for teamwork, athleticism and the Oceanic lifestyle, the va‘a is an ideal vehicle for selling products both to isolated South Pacific communities and abroad. After Mobil sponsored its team in Pirae, Électricité de Tahiti formed a team and practiced from the utility’s wharf on Motu Uta. Even the post office got in on the action: Office des Postes et Télécommunication (OPT) formed two teams, built a massive fare va‘a on its waterfront and practiced out of the private park where Mario Cowan was both groundskeeper and paddling instructor. Mario became the head coach of Shell Va‘a in 2010 while remaining a groundskeeper at OPT. When I visited him at his day job, postal workers were taking their lunch breaks by stripping to surf trunks and paddling out.
While EDT and OPT are running close behind and have each won the Hawaiki Nui in recent years, Shell Va‘a remains dominant, in part because of the stable, well-paying jobs that Pacific Petroleum and Vodafone offer. Jimmy Pirato, once regarded as among the strongest paddlers in the Pacific, sat in the number three seat of the Shell Va‘a senior boat until a stomach surgery ended his paddling career. He now drives the escort boat and is building a house down the road from Richel’s with a view of Moorea on his income as a truck driver. As the sport has grown, it’s become ever more embedded in and emblematic of Tahitian culture: Crimson-and-yellow Shell Va‘a hats and T-shirts are ubiquitous in Papeete’s Sunday morning market. The Tahitian news channel Polynésie Première sponsors a long-distance race, as does Toyota. There are rumors that Powerade might soon sponsor the Hawaiki Nui. What does Gerard think about such commercialization? “Without the corporations,” he says, draining another Hinano, “paddling could not have grown the way it has.”
Still, I say, big sponsorships and good jobs can’t be the only drivers of Shell Va‘a’s success. “I just got back from Hawai‘i, was brought there by Jim and John Foti from Lanikai, to coach a seminar,” Gerard says, referring to the brothers who are among Hawai‘i’s best paddlers. “They asked what the Tahitian difference was, because they actually kept up with the top teams at last year’s Moloka‘i Hoe for two hours. What I told them blew their minds.” Paddling is woven into the lives of athletes through work, family and culture, Gerard told them. But there’s something else, he’d said, something ineffable, even counterintuitive: A higher stroke rate does not always translate into greater speed; what matters is the stroke itself. The “Tahitian-style” stroke “doesn’t lift the boat out of the water, but pushes it forward,” Mario had said earlier. “It’s a dance, a tamure. It’s supposed to be beautiful,” Gerard says now.
Such technique is the fruit of long experience and the kind of intense training you don’t see elsewhere in the paddling world. “When I coached Shell,” says Gerard, “I got to put my experiments about paddling in place.” It was his idea to push his team members to lift weights before work at 4:30 a.m. three times a week, practice relentlessly in the afternoons and run eight km up a mountain twice a week. But just as important as the quality of the product is the brand image: It was Richel’s idea for the teams to wear bright red nylon caps for races, the types seen on paddlers beaching their canoes after winning the Moloka‘i Hoe in Waikïkï. “We wanted a look that people would recognize,” says Richel. “I don’t know, maybe something like the Chicago Bulls.”
When Jimmy casts off the escort boat I’m overcome by the beauty of being on the sunset sea. Part of paddling’s appeal has to do with its arena: Gilded by the blaze over Moorea, cumulus clouds cast lace-like shadows on the water. Today’s practice is typical: a long circle around Motu Uta and back to the fare va‘a. Though they often race in Tahitian-style OC-6 composite canoes that weigh less than two hundred pounds, the paddlers train in six-man, four-hundredpound Hawaiian-style canoes they call “Bradleys” after master canoe builder Sonny Bradley, whose canoes have become the international standard for outrigger racing. And they practice with heavy, outdated wooden paddles.
The two boats are through the pass in a beat, and Jimmy throttles the engine to catch up, Mario at the bow holding a stopwatch in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. “Deux minutes!” he shouts as we bob over the rolling blue hills, a countdown to the waiting canoes. When Mario shouts “Go!” the two canoes sprint toward the breakwater, racing each other. The senior paddlers’ canoe catches a bump, lifting and becoming weightless. The team members rest their paddles on their laps and lurch forward in unison to ride the wave. Yoann glances at us in the escort boat and then stands, arms spread in a Christ-like pose as he rides the forty-foot canoe as though it were a longboard. Roland calls the change, and Yoann tosses his blade from his left to right hand while taking his seat, staying on the bump, never missing a stroke.
As I read the results, I was reminded of Yoann’s trick at practice, standing like a demigod in the fastest human-powered canoe in the sea. Everything about being the best paddler in the world was expressed in that act: With the junior team just behind, Yoann had pulled harder as the va‘a caught the bump. Then he’d stood for a breath, poised and waiting before the change called him back, savoring a moment in flight before recommitting himself to action, uncatchable.