Kiting Aitutaki

Kiting in Rarotonga and Aitutaki is a real buzz. With sheltered lagoon water and (usually) a constant south-east trade wind, both islands offer the enthusiast some of the best kiting in the world.

In August some of the biggest names in kitesurfing head to the Cook Islands to vie for the top spot at the Manureva Aquafest on Aitutaki. The event showcases the culture and beauty of the Cook Islands to a gathering of like-minded people with a love for the ocean and ocean sports.

A full week of ocean activity starts with Kitesurfing Freestyle and Race competitions early in the week, then swimming, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), outrigger canoeing and a ton of fun events later in the week. There is also a Kite Kids Program and a kite making competition. So why not join in the fun while soaking up the atmosphere in this truly pristine location.

The Cook Islands Kitesurfing Association is an official member of the Manureva Aquafest. They, in conjunction with the events team at Cook Islands Tourism, manage this big event which has grown considerably over the past few years, catapulting the Cook Islands on to the international stage as an extremely desirable kitesurfing destination.

For a taste of what to expect at this event, here is our story from the Kitesurfing Association’s inaugural International Kitesurfing Competition which was held in 2011…

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As far as kiting spots go, world champion Jesse Richman has pretty much seen it all. He spends his year travelling in pursuit of wind and waves, and he grew up on Maui’s north shore, famed for its consistent breeze and mammoth swells. But this year Richman kited the waters of Aitutaki, a tiny island in the Cooks group he’d never given much thought to. After a week of kiting and filming, wakeboarding and snorkelling in Aitutaki’s flat, sprawling lagoon, Richman was sold. He and Tahitian rider Moehau Goold agree that the island offers some of the best flat-water riding in the world.

Aitutaki is the picture conjured in dreams of a South Pacific paradise. Think pregnant coconut palms, beaches of sugar-white sand and a sparkling turquoise lagoon separated from a cobalt sea by a ring-reef.

The people radiate that pan-Polynesian spirit of unparalleled hospitality and friendliness. They trundle along the island’s one pockmarked road, stopping to wave and grin at oncoming traffic. Small shops selling staples like corned beef and rice dot the main road. Towering white-coral churches - evidence of the 19th-century missionary zeal, outnumber high-brow resorts.

More tourists occupy the lagoon than the island itself, ogling through dive masks at pa’ua (giant clam) shells the size of truck tyres, lunching on the deck of a double-hulled canoe or struggling to stay upright on a wakeboard.

Richman agreed to visit Aitutaki at the request of the Cook Islands Kitesurfing Association (CIKA), which staged its first kiting event in June 2010. In Aitutaki and the country’s capital, Rarotonga, kiting is just starting to take off. A handful of locals have picked it up, and the odd group of kiters from overseas will rent out budget rooms.

The kiting competition was borne out of CIKA’s desire to increase the sport’s profile within the Cook Islands, and the country’s profile within the international kiting community. With Richman, Red Bull’s Queen of the Air Susi Mai, Goold and KSP head judge Brad Price on board, the event snowballed, and the Cook Islands started to get behind it.

For CIKA’s Paka Worthington it was important to give the competition a local flavour - he christened it with a Cook Islands Maori name, Manureva, which translates roughly as ’flying toward heaven’, and organised traditional welcome ceremonies and dance performances to give visiting riders a real taste of his South Pacific paradise. “People all over the world have beautiful lagoons - what makes us different? Our point of difference is the culture and traditions and customs of our tupuna (ancestors),” Worthington said. “We carry that on.”

In deference to ancient Cook Islands custom, race jerseys were red and yellow - colours that adorned the ariki (chiefs) of a not-so-distant past. “Red denoted rank - ariki put strong mana and value to it because it was really difficult to get red feathers from the tavake (Rarotongan seabird). The ariki wore red headdresses - it was a color of power,” Worthington said.

The jersey’s logo incorporates traditional tatau (tattoo) patterns, including the manu tai (sea bird) and the more contemporary motif of the eye of Tangaroa, god of the sea. Kitesurfing, naturally, is at the mercy of both Tangaroa and the wind gods.

To mark the start of the competition, a young spear-toting warrior of the are taunga (loosely, the house of knowledge) clothed in painted tapa cloth performed a chant-like turou (a warrior’s welcome) in his native tongue. In the 7.30am mist, he invited the group of riders and judges - who had flown from Rarotonga, Hawai’i and French Polynesia - to approach the wharf, where a dinghy-cum-water-taxi waited to ferry them to a small sandspit off the Aitutaki ‘mainland’.

An orometua (pastor) of the Cook Islands Christian Church said a prayer, and a choir of mamas and papas joined together in a reverberating imene tuki (traditional hymn).

“As you return to your different countries where you come from, take this love of our people,” the orometua urged. Mayor Tekura Bishop echoed his extension of Polynesian hospitality: “From the bottom of our hearts, the people of Aitutaki are happy to welcome you”, he said.

The crew arrived at Maina Iti, a small islet on the south-western corner of a sparkling turquoise lagoon, under a gray-blue sky. Price laid out the rules. Because there were only a handful of competitors and it was a fledgling event, he was clear that the judges would be lax - there would be no area boundaries and no real rules, and points would be awarded on the basis of the ‘wow factor’.

Judges used a ten-point scale, awarding zero points to an attempted but failed trick, two to four points for an ‘okay’ trick, between four and six for an average effort, six and eight for a good trick and between eight and 10 for an ‘awesome’ attempt.

A rider busting as many tricks as possible but landing none, earned fewer points than one who pulled off a few impressive tricks with clean landings. A crash meant no points, and a ‘buttcheck’ – or a trick that landed a rider on his backside – meant docked points.

Judges were also looking for variety – someone pulling the same trick over and over, even if it was successful each time, didn’t earn as many points as someone mixing up his or her moves. Price said that a more serious, high-level competition would be ‘much more technical’.

“But here (in the Cook Islands) that’s not our sole purpose – it’s about big air, exciting moves,” he said. “On the PKRA (Professional Kiteboard Riders Association) it can be so technical that the average person doesn’t know what’s going on. “But with this competition it’s more lax. It’s more attractive for the spectators and more fun for the competitors – it’s not just about the technical aspects.”

By virtue of his twofold world title, Richman was a default contender in the finals. All heats prior would determine who would oppose him. Spectators lined the shore, their handheld cameras trained on the riders, who boosted high over the lagoon, just feet from the shore. Reggae music wafted from the judges’ marquee where Price, Goold and local Ianis Boaza were marking their score sheets, and where water taxis arrived intermittently, carrying tourists and smiling school kids from Aitutaki.

In about 18 knots of wind Richman and Tahitian up-and-comer Orava Terai eliminated local boys Pauro Arnold, Evaraima Koteka, Ina Nooroa and Worthington, one by one, and faced off in the finals. Richman swept the final heat, clinching the win with eight 360s - a ‘wow-factor’ move that elicited whistles and bursts of applause from the foreshore and then and a kite loop front mobe. Not to be outdone, he also won best trick, biggest air and even best crash.

The wrap-up function and awards ceremony fell on the Friday night, and the people of Aitutaki crammed onto the Arutanga Wharf to celebrate their visitors. The kiteboarding competition was cause for Aitutaki to party and the local people turned up in droves to the island’s first-ever night market. Mamas adorned with ei katu, or crowns of flowers, sold drinking coconuts, grilled fresh-fish-and-papaya kebabs and served hot buns smothered in coconut cream. Kids ran around barefoot, a chicken kebab in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other.

At the wharf Worthington presented prizes and pearl-shell trophies to Richman, Terai and Arnold, who won third overall and first in the locals’ division. Arnold said he was just grateful for the experience, though winning was a bonus - “just to kite with some of the best was awesome”, the local kiter said. Rarotonga-based kiter Brynn Acheson won a medal for coming first in the girls’ comp, a two-contestant affair organised spontaneously the day before the awards ceremony.

A fireworks display fizzed and popped over the lagoon, and a Cook Islands dance team took the stage. The girls in their coconut bras and grass skirts shook their hips furiously, their shoulders detached and still, smiles fixed on their hibiscus-framed faces. Young bare-chested men shuffled out for the tamure and fire dancers spun their burning spears before an awed audience.

Goold, who travels around the world with his kite - he’s from Bora Bora, lived in Maui for nine years, and most recently travelled to South Africa for a photo shoot - called Aitutaki the ‘best place on earth’. Susi Mai, Richman and Price agree that with a bit more planning and exposure, Aitutaki could qualify as a stop on a professional kiting tour. It might not have Cape Verde’s chop or Maui’s nuclear wind, but its lagoon is flat and sprawling and its people are generous and welcoming almost to a fault.

Kiting at Maina Iti, Aitutaki
Aquafest adrenaline rush
Flying high
A postcard perfect location
Kiting Aitutaki a good breeze most days
Manureva Aquafest camaraderie. Priceless!
Manureva Aquafest final night celebration