The green flag flies on Lake Karapiro at the 2024 Aotearoa Waka Ama National Sprint Championships.
Sixty women aged between 60 and 70 years old, including myself, push our paddles down and “catch “ the water. This is the final of the 500 metre Golden Master Women’s double-hull sprint race and I am in one of five teams competing. Ours is made up of six women from Hawke’s Bay’s’ Maraenui Club and six from Gisborne’s Horouta Club.
“Hup!” shouts our team caller as we all swap our hoe (paddles) to opposite sides of the waka. At the 250 metre mark my chest starts to heave. This race will last just over two and half minutes yet it has been months in the preparation as we’ve practised up to four times a week at Pandora and Ahuriri basin in Napier, been up and down Te Awa o Mokotūāraro (Clive river), and even travelled to the Wairoa River to meet our Gisborne team mates.
Now as another waka nibbles closer at Karapiro, our coach yells “Mongrel it up” and we “empty our tanks” over the last 50 metres. We cross the finish line in third place, jubilant!
Waka Ama (outrigger canoe) is one of the fastest growing sports in New Zealand. Three and a half thousand paddlers from around the country, including more than 150 from Hawke’s Bay, competed in last weekend’s national championships. Competitors ranged from a growing number of Taitamariki (midgets 6-10 years old) through to Rangitahi (youth), to masters, golden masters, over 70s and this year five 80-plus competitors.
In Hawke’s Bay we have five roopu (clubs) – Heretaunga, Maraenui, Takitimu, Te Rau Oranga and Haeata. These each fielded male and female teams across most age ranges at Karapiro with Te Rau Oranga, based at Napier’s Pandora, entering an impressive 13 junior teams.
What’s more, at the end of competition more than 30 Hawke’s Bay paddlers had excelled at Karapiro and will represent New Zealand at the World Waka Ama Championships at Hilo, Hawaii, in August.
Waka ama is steeped in the history and traditions of Pacific waka sailing and voyaging. It is not just a sport though, but also a vehicle for fostering identity, pride and community. For many its attraction lies in its inclusiveness, accessibility (you can take it up at any age), a firm grounding in Māori and Pacific culture and its focus on hauora (wellbeing).
“Māori culture is deeply embedded into waka ama from the language to the protocols we follow,” says Lara Collins, CEO Waka Ama NZ.
While many paddlers are Māori, our HB roopu, as elsewhere, welcomes whoever wants to have a go. I joined two years ago, aged 63, and have trained with two teams of 60-plus women at Heretaunga and Maraenui. And it has been a revelation: I am fitter than I’ve been in years; I have learnt much about Māori tikanga; and I have rubbed along with a diverse group of fellow paddlers learning to share our commonalities and differences.
Waka ama seems to be in the bones of many of the Māori women I paddle with. I watch them slip effortlessly into rhythm, keep time, and catch and pull strongly through the water, while I have struggled to “twist” my stiff hips from my core, and keep focused with “my head in the waka”.
But I’m getting it now and I am learning the magic and power of working as a team of six women, focused and in time.
He waka eke noa (we’re all in this together).
HB Waka Ama clubs’ contact details are at:
Maraenui is looking for more golden master women paddlers, contact Yvonne Aranui 022 278 6471
Heretaunga Roopu regularly runs training sessions for all ages. https://heretaungawakaama.co.nz