In Tahiti, women are rocking the boat

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Put your paddle in deeper and feel the water,” says Hinatea Bernadino, as our outrigger canoe glides effortlessly through the glassy Tahitian lagoon. I can clearly see the bottom six feet below me and the parrotfish darting by us. “You and the canoe are one person.”

In an outrigger canoe, called va’a in Tahitian, the ability to be guided by manathe life force, the energy of ancestors and nature—trumps physical strength, explains Bernadino, whose wins as a professional paddler have earned her legendary status in the Polynesian islands.

“If we feel the mana during the race, it means we are not alone in the canoe. It helps us go faster,” says Bernadino.

On July 24, Bernadino took home her 11th win in the 33rd annual Te Aito competition, held off the shores of Papeete, Tahiti. The Te Aito, which means “warrior” in Tahitian, is considered the most prestigious individual va’a race in the world.

Centuries before Western explorers set sail with compasses and maps, Polynesian “wayfinders” were using ocean swells, stars, and flight patterns of birds to guide them in their canoes. In his book The Wayfinders, anthropologist Wade Davis writes, “What is even more astonishing is that the entire science of wayfinding is based on dead reckoning. You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are.”

Knowing where you’re from is important to athletes like Bernadino, for whom outrigger canoeing is not just a sport but a cultural practice that connects her with her heritage. Yet, despite being the most decorated va’a female athlete in French Polynesia, she and other women athletes still battle to be treated equitably. As a leader in her sport, she hopes to smooth the path for other women athletes as well as educate visitors about how va’a is a key to understanding the heartbeat of French Polynesia.

‘The canoe is an island’

Most international tourists don’t come to Tahiti to experience va’a. They come to lounge in the overwater bungalows and soak in the 83ºF turquoise lagoons.

But Tahiti and the other 117 islands comprising the five archipelagos of French Polynesia wouldn’t exist as we know them today if it weren’t for the va’a. Genetic research suggests Polynesians migrated from the mainland of Southeast Asia to the South Pacific islands, eventually sailing to Tahiti in the double-hulled va’a about 4,000 years ago. Its name charts a linguistic voyage of its own through the Pacific: An outrigger canoe is called va’a in Tahitian, vaka on the Cook Islands, waka in New Zealand, and wa’a in  Hawaii.

The saying in both Tahitian and Hawaiian goes, “The canoe is an island, and the island is a canoe.” The va’a, like the pito (navel), is sacred to many Polynesians. Both represent life and origin. Even the Tahitian flag depicts a double-hulled va’a.

Traditionally, the hull was made from a hollowed-out koa tree, and the stabilizing arm, called the ama, was attached with coconut fibers woven into ropes. The va’a was used to barter, fish, battle, and celebrate.

To understand Tahitians, says cultural expert and filmmaker Johann Hironui Bouit, one has to know that va’a means the displacement of time and space. Polynesians focus on today with confidence in tomorrow because of their faith in the guidance of their ancestors, he says. The word for “future” in Tahitian, muri, translates to “behind.”

“When you leave an island to voyage, you are looking back at the island as a reference point. We focus on the source where we are from to guide us towards the future,” says Bouit.

Paddling as a family affair

The first recorded organized va’a competitions took place in the 19th century in the lagoons of Hawaii and Tahiti.

When Bernadino races, she says, “I always bring my family with me. I always say a prayer and ask my ancestors to help me.” The 33-year-old attributes her success to her father who has also been her coach since she started paddling at the age of 14. Since then, this fierce competitor has been practically unbeatable.

“It’s in my blood,” she says. The Bernadinos epitomize the va’a family culture. Her father has won multiple world championships and, at 65, still competes. Her uncles on both her parents’ sides are either va’a champions or famous va’a builders.

French Polynesians tend to dominate the sport. “Nowhere else in the world is va’a so supported by the government and the TV stations. Nowhere else do people get paid to do va’a,” says Lara Collins, the New Zealand-based president of the International Va’a Federation….”

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