The history of Waka Ama (outrigger canoeing) in NZ
By Kris Kjeldsen
For the Tangata Whenua - the people of the land of Aotaroa, the Maori, the paddle symbolizes a sense of purpose and direction whilst also affirming their culture links with the canoe. All individual Maori ancestry is intrinsically linked with a particular canoe upon which their forbears arrived on the shores of Aotearoa. This provides each person with an essential link back to Hawaiki - and beyond to creation itself.
Being one of the elders of Outrigger canoe building in New Zealand and one of three people responsible for the revival of the sport here, I will tell our story of the history and growth of Waka ama in Aotearoa.
Waka ama (outrigger canoe) paddling was re-introduced in 1995 with the arrival of the Hawakiki Nui, the replica Polynesian voyaging canoe built and sailed by Matahi Whakataka (master builder) Brightwell on an epic voyage from Tahiti to Aotearoa. Matahi spent four years in Tahiti building the Hawaiki Nui, during which time he became involved in Outrigger canoe racing, the national sport of Tahiti. He recognized that this would be the very thing to help the youth of New Zealand regain some of their culture heritage and traditions.
Before coming to New Zealand, I had paddled for Kai Nulu Canoe Club in southern California and was also involved for a short time in Hawaii. So when I finally settled in the small Maori community of Pawarenga in the far north of the North Island on the edge of Whangape harbor, (where I lived for about fifteen years) I wondered why there was no traditional Maori canoe racing. On reading in the newspaper about Matahi's intended voyage and his dream to rekindle racing of traditional canoes, I knew it was time to do soothing about it and so I was on the beach at Okahu Bay, Auckland on the day the Hawaki Nui arrived in December 1985.
I met Matahi and told him of my plan to start waka ama paddling in the north and to start building canoes. Matahi encouraged me and told me he wanted to do the same thing in the Gisborne/East Cape area.
With the high unemployment in both areas, especially amongst the Maori people, we were able to take advantage of training schemes funded by the government to start these projects. The people of Pawarenga got behind the project wholeheartedly and made it happen. By early 1987 we had a work-training scheme in place; building canoes and paddles and learning the art of paddling and handling them. Ocean knowledge, surf skills and swimming were very much a part of the program.
About this time, I met a Samoan named Pili Muaulu who lived on the coast near Whangarei. He told me of his father's dream to find a suitable log to carve a traditional Samoan Pao Pao, a small two person fishing canoe. Coincidently I had a friend who had a suitable log in his property who I managed to talk into donating. As a result, our trainees, Pili and his family built the first traditional Samoan canoe in New Zealand.
The training scheme in Pawarenga eventually evolve into Nga Hoe Horo O Pawaregna (the fast paddles of Pawarenga) Matahi's group in Gisborne became Mare Kura Canoe Club. Pili's extended family formed a club called Mitamitaga Ole Pasefica Va'a Alo (pride of the pacific canoe club) of Ngunguru. These three clubs along with one other in Okahu, Auckland represented the original four clubs of New Zealand.
In May 1987 at the launching of our first canoe in Pawarenga, a meeting was held to form a national outrigger canoe association. The three founding members of the association named Tatou Hoe o Aotearoa (all the paddlers of Aotearoa), were Nga hoe Horo o Pawarega, Mitamitaga Ole Pasefica Va'a Alo of Ngunguru and Mare Kura of Gusborne. Immediately we started plans to bid for the 1990 IPCF World Outrigger Canoe Sprints.
In July 1987 a team of NZ paddlers, Matahi and Myself traveled to Tahiti to participate in the Turai Festival races. On this trip we gained a lot of experience in paddling and racing Polynesian canoes.
In June 1987, Pili and Myself attended the first international regatta held in Apia, Western Samoa. Whilst there, we spoke of our newly formed association and our wish to host the 1990 World Sprints. When we returned we formally adopted a constitution and elected officers for the association. Matahi was elected as president, Pili as vice president and myself as executive committee.
In August of the same year, teams for Mare Kura and Nga Hoe Horo traveled to Hawaii to participate in the world sprints at Keehi Lagoon, Honolulu, with one men's crew and one women's crew. While there we put in our bid for the 1990 titles and we won the honor.
Much had to be done including the building of a fleet of canoes which was left to me - sixteen, six-person canoes. Although we were supposed to build the newly adopted IPCF hull we had problems in getting it and were instructed by Mary Jane Kahanamoku to "do the best we could with what we had".
The 1990 canoe
We had begun Waka ama with two Tahitian style canoes, which were given to Matahi by Edward Mamaatua. The hull was altered to be as close to the IPCF canoe while keeping in mind the New Zealand ocean conditions. New decks and ama were designed and made.
In re-designing and building the 1990 canoes the over-riding idea was to build for New Zealand conditions, so that the canoes would subsequently be useable for both offshore racing and flat water sprints.
These canoes became the nucleus fleet for outrigger canoe sport in Aotearo. We built them to last and perform and they have. As of this writing they still remain one of the most popular design in New Zealand.
The vast majority of W6 canoes in New Zealand are the 1990 design. There one fault was that they were a little hard to turn, by putting a little more rocker in later models, the turning improved.
As a result of the world sprints held in Orakei Basin in Auckland, which were a resounding success, waka ama was finally and really running. Since then, Outrigger canoe sport in NZ has enjoyed phenomenal growth.