Waka ama in the Pacific
Waka ama are widely used in the Pacific for fishing, transporting goods, travel and racing. In Hawaii and French Polynesia, waka racing is a popular competitive sport. Races are held between islands over distances of as much as 70 kilometres. There are also sprint events over distances ranging from 500 to 1,500 metres. In New Zealand, waka ama are predominantly used for competitive racing. Almost all New Zealand waka ama are constructed from composite materials such as fibreglass, as are most of the waka ama raced competitively around the world.
Interest in waka ama was reignited in New Zealand in the late 1980s, after Matahi Brightwell and traditional Polynesian navigator Francis Cowan built the double-hulled sailing canoe Hawaikinui. In 1985 this canoe sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand without modern navigational instruments. During its construction Brightwell became involved with Tahiti’s national sport of waka ama racing. He facilitated the gifting of two six-person waka ama to New Zealand, beginning a wave of popularity for the sport.
First waka ama clubs
The voyage of Hawaikinui inspired US-born Kris Kjeldsen to teach waka-building and -racing to young people in his community of Pawarenga, in the Hokianga. They formed a club, Nga Hoe Horo o Pawarenga, in 1987. Several other waka ama clubs were set up in the mid-1980s: Mareikura in Gisborne (Brightwell’s home town) in 1985, Okahu Bay Canoe Club in Auckland and Mitimitaga o le Pasifika in Whangārei.
First national organisation
In 1987 a national governing body, Tatou Hoe o Aotearoa, was formed. The following year two New Zealand teams travelled to Hawaii for the World Outrigger Canoe Sprint Championships. More clubs joined and the national association grew. In 1989 the first Waka Ama National Championships were held at Lake Karāpiro.
The International Polynesian Canoe Federation (IPCF) granted New Zealand hosting rights to the World Va’a Sprint Championships in 1990. This placed a responsibility on the race organisers to build a fleet of waka ama for the event, to the standard IPCF design. These were the first waka owned by many clubs. Some continued to own and race these 1990 waka in the 21st century, although they had been surpassed in performance and speed by newer designs.
National and international bodies
In the 1990s Tatou Hoe o Aotearoa changed its name to Nga Kaihoe o Aotearoa (later Waka Ama NZ). The International Polynesian Canoe Federation (IPCF) also changed its name to the International Va’a Federation, to acknowledge that not all Pacific people who raced va’a (waka) were Polynesian and neither were their va’a. Competition categories were formalised for races between single paddlers and two-, three- and six-person waka.
National waka ama championships have been held annually since 1989. New Zealand has sent representative teams to World Va’a Sprint Championships every two years since 1990 and has been very successful, becoming world champions in a number of divisions. Teams have also travelled to many other races around the world.
Waka ama competitors
In 2012 Waka Ama NZ represented over 1,000 members belonging to 43 local clubs organised into six regional associations. They ranged in age from the ‘midget’ (primary school) category to over 70. Women outnumbered men, especially in the open and masters categories.
Future of waka ama
Waka builders are constantly trying to make waka ama faster and more responsive. Crews develop new training techniques and racing strategies. There are many traditional rituals, proverbs and Māori-language terms associated with waka building and paddling. As a result, many waka ama clubs emphasise Māori language and customs, and some practitioners have been introduced to Māori culture in this way.
Although racing is the mainstay of waka ama in New Zealand, some people are happy to use their waka ama for fishing or, as in the old days, just for having fun.