Fun, laughter, infectious camaraderie and flat-out competitiveness greet international participants at the Cook Islands largest sporting event.
Hundreds of paddlers and their supporters hit Rarotonga’s shores in November for Vaka Eiva; an exciting and fun outrigger canoeing festival, which is now the largest sporting event in the country.
While the rugby 7s festival generates plenty of excitement in these rugby mad islands, there’s no doubt the influx of paddlers and supporters to the island hypes things up even more for the exciting week of Vaka Eiva activities; and oe vaka is fast establishing itself as one of the largest and most popular sporting codes in the country.
What makes it even more special, is that outrigger canoeing is one of the few traditional Polynesian sports that survived the test of time, plus it has strong cultural significance and roots in the Pacific islands. Vaka Eiva is a festival promoting both competition and the culture of oe vaka.
Held annually since 2004, Vaka Eiva has established a reputation as a hugely enjoyable week of racing, culture, and festivities, and attracted crews from throughout the world as far flung as Italy. “It’s the best race ever!” said Hawaiian paddler Grace Emanuel. “We will definitely be back!” she added. The interest is such that each year sees a waiting list of crews hoping to be a part of the festival.
Recently we saw the biggest participation of more than 600 paddlers - members of 70 crews from New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, Tahiti, the host country and for the first time crews from Guam and California. The event is only limited by the number of canoes and support boats available to cater for crews.
For young and old, oe vaka attracts paddlers of all ages, from the U14 junior paddlers to the master crews and paddlers in their 70s. There are the serious teams in it to win and there are those who come to participate and enjoy paddling in the beautiful waters of Rarotonga. It’s obvious that all are here to have a good time. There’s the buff looking serious paddlers, and there’s the happy go lucky teams decked out in their matching pareus and flower head eis. However don’t let such names as Fluffy Slippers deceive you, because there’s no doubting outrigger canoeing is a pretty demanding sport, which requires both strength and co-ordination.
Spectators are treated to an exciting week of outrigger canoe racing as teams compete in the OC1 (singles) races, the V6 (six-man) 12k and 18k Iron races, the Muri Beach sprints, the Under 19’s 10k and 15k ocean races, the Under 16’s and Under 14’s races and the premier events - the around island women’s and men’s Pacific Cup relay race.
There’s an air of festivity on the island the whole week long, from the opening ceremony throughout the week of racing and social activities, to the wrap up paddler’s party. “The high was the racing, quality crews, battling it out and having a ball doing it, the place was made for outrigger canoe racing and don’t they know how to put a party together!,” said one of the Australian paddlers.
The paddlers bring families and supporters with them bringing tourism dollars to the Cooks. The Cook Islands Government recognises the event as an important fixture and has put its support behind the festival. “It’s become one of the major international drawcard events for the Cook Islands and we are proud to support and be a part of it,” says our sports minister Hon. The event was also recognised at the 2009 inaugural Air New Zealand Cook Islands Tourism Awards, winning the ‘Supreme Award’. Vaka Eiva also has an impressive host of sponsors, happy to support what they recognise is an event that improves and grows each year.
Trader Jack’s waterfront bar is one sponsor who has been in from the start; this is the hangout of choice for paddlers and spectators, giving close views of the start and finish of the ocean races. It’s also the venue for the famous paddles-up ‘wrap up’ party. The Vaka village behind Trader’s is always a hive of activity with souvenirs, food, paddling wares and even masseurs on hand for aching paddlers.
And you won’t find any water bottles littering the beaches or waterfront. Paddlers are encouraged to think ‘green’ and use their sponsored Vaima water bottles for cheap refills. Other green initiatives included a tree adoption project where crews adopted tou seedlings, the wood of which is commonly used to carve drums and oe vaka paddles.
Charities also benefit from the Vaka Eiva, with the nominated charity receiving the proceeds of the Trader Jack’s Charity Boiler Swim; a frenetic 700m dash around the Boiler which last year saw a record 105 swimmers taking part. The Hospital Comforts also benefited from a generous donation of $3000 plus crutches, sports gear, kids clothes and toys from an Australia paddling crew, who the previous year donated arts and crafts supplies to the Creative Centre.
The Esther Honey Animal Foundation also benefited from a generous donation of supplies. So much more than just a paddling event, Vaka Eiva has positive implications and benefits for the wider community.
Despite its huge growth, the Vaka Eiva maintains its unique Polynesian character, with dancers and drummers welcoming all in the opening ceremony; drummers on the waterfront welcoming the race finishers; local warriors setting off the Muri sprints day with a traditional turou (welcome). A genuinely friendly spirit embraces all participants throughout the week.
“You’re lucky, don’t lose what you have here”, said one of the Guam paddlers, who was in awe of the beautiful backdrop to the event.
One of the most popular events of the week for paddlers and spectators alike is the Muri Beach sprints day, which sees hordes of people take to the beach for a day of fun and racing at picturesque Muri lagoon. A festival atmosphere sees hard out sprint racing across the lagoon, interspersed with fun novelty races, including the famous ‘pop the ama’ contest and plenty of partying into the evening.
The premiere event is the around island “Pacific Cup” relay race. This requires teams to paddle around the entire 36km circumference of the island, substituting paddlers throughout the race. A fantastic spectacle at the start, as the teams line up against Rarotonga’s impressive mountain backdrop. A noisy, cheering, flotilla of vehicles carrying spectators follows the race along the coast, driving from one lookout spot to the next to catch the action. The excitement is palpable. The top crews complete the circuit in around two and a half hours.
Before the event has even finished organisers are fielding inquiries about the next year and already teams are booking their spots. Each year Vaka Eiva just keeps getting bigger and better than ever!
Photography copyright Harvie Allison. Thanks Harvie! visit www.harvpix.com