Super Aito Virgin
by Luke Evslin
Itâ€™s a Wednesday afternoon and Iâ€™m stuck paddling my second race of the day in a rudderless Tahitian Vaâ€™a into a blazing headwind while getting passed by a steady stream of Tahitian paddlers. The frustration of getting passed soon gives way to loneliness as the last few stragglers paddle by. I finally finish amid French accented cheers of â€œgo Hawaiâ€™i.â€ My relief at having finished one of the most agonizing races of my life turns to astonishment as I realize that I was almost in last place. And there were still two races to go before I would be done with the Super Aito.
I arrived in Tahiti three days earlier with Manny Kulukulualani, Peter Konohia, Kelly Foster and Keizo Gates in order to attempt the worldâ€™s most competitive V-1 race. No international paddlers that we knew had attempted the race within the last seven years and Tahitian paddlers rarely come to Hawaiâ€™i to compete in the OC-1. All we knew of the race was that more than 600 men enter the Te Aito a month earlier in hopes of becoming one of the 100 qualifiers for the Super Aito. However, foreign competitors were not required to qualify for the race.
We flew in to Tahiti late Saturday night with absolutely no idea of what was in store for us. The typical paradise flight passengers included the tourist families wearing matching Aloha shirts, the surfers who had been to Tahiti dozens of times, the stoic looking Tahitian aunties returning home, and then there was us. A mismatched group of guys who did not look like tourists, were not Tahitian, and not quite surfers either. One lady asked me, â€œOh are you going down for some race?â€ I wanted to yell at her that itâ€™s not just â€œsome race,â€ but instead I replied compliantly, â€œyeah, weâ€™re going to try and do a race.â€
On Sunday afternoon we went to Pirae Vaâ€™a for our first practice in Tahiti. After we got there the five of us stood around admiring the Tahitian canoes and trying to look competent by not doing anything wrong. By imitating the Tahitians we successfully carried the canoes into the water and then proceeded to paddle out the pass at Pirae to do a short downwind run with some of Piraeâ€™s juniors. What was supposed to be a short and easy paddle turned into an eye opening experience. I had spent the entire summer trying to figure out how to paddle rudderless and by the time we went to Tahiti I was feeling pretty competent in my ability. That first day paddle in Pirae made me feel as if Iâ€™d never paddled rudderless before. As I tried my best to keep from spinning out, a young Tahitian kid casually took off on a swell as if he had a three-foot rudder on his canoe. After that it seemed to me that every time we told a local we were there for the Super Aito they would smile and say â€œgoodluck,â€ as if all the luck in the world would not help us.
Wednesday morning I pulled up petrified to the starting line of the time trial. I did not have long to think about it because a second later the trial started. The format for the first day is four paddlers race together in intervals of 2 minutes. We quickly formed a line to make it through the narrow pass with Manny easily taking the lead. The race course goes upwind through the lagoon then out around a motu for a short downwind section around the other side of the lagoon and into the finish. As I rounded the motu I drifted too far inside and got caught by a wave which hulied me ama under. To make matters worse, I kicked the reef while righting my canoe leaving me with a bloody foot and a canoe full of water with three quarters of the race to go. Luckily, the canoe had a foot pump, which allowed me drain out a little of the water. After finishing 72nd I foolishly assumed that that was as bad as things could have gone and that the races would only get better.
The second race was scheduled for that same afternoon. It was from Point Venus to Pirae and back, which normally should take around an hour. I started that race thinking only of redemption for the morning race. I had trained the entire summer in Kailua paddling straight into the wind and then surfing back to the beach, so I figured that that was my strength. However, the downwind section of the race was like nothing I have ever experienced before. Everywhere I looked I saw canoes swerving and slamming into each other. In twenty minutes I mustâ€™ve rammed five or six canoes. Then at the end of the downwind section the pack has to compress itself to funnel its way into a pass through the lagoon. As soon as we hit the lagoon it felt as if everyone besides me suddenly doubles their speed. The entire way through the lagoon was non-stop Tahitians flying by, often riding escort boat wake that I couldnâ€™t even see. Then we turned up wind and I thought that maybe with all of my practice paddling upwind in Kailua, Iâ€™d be able to re-pass some of the guys who had passed me. But as soon as we turned upwind, another giant pack of guys started to walk by. That final half hour upwind section was the most brutal paddling that I have ever done. My muscles were screaming at me to stop torturing them and my mind kept on going over the reasons that I was there. I finally finished the torturous upwind race vowing (for about ten seconds) to not touch a rudderless canoe again.
My new found appreciation for the rudder quickly gave way to respect for the rudderless Vaâ€™a and the Tahitian paddlers. That second race changed my whole mood. I was no longer in Tahiti to test myself against the Tahitians. I was going to finish the Super Aito, but how I did was of no consequence to me anymore. A part of it was that it is hard to keep up your competitive drive when you are competing for 90th place, but it was also the huge realization that I was eons behind the Tahitians in terms of skill on a rudderless vaâ€™a. I began to feel as if the rudder had given us in Hawaiâ€™i the ability to surf incomparably, but that it had also taken away something much more valuable. To successfully surf an OC-1 you can never rely on just your strength, which is one of the reasons that I love paddling. The skinniest and scrawniest guys can compete at the top level by being able to surf the OC-1. This aspect of paddling is multiplied to the extreme in the V-1. Of course, like most any sport, fitness and strength play a huge role in paddling, but, in the V-1, technique is king. Someone (like me) can train everyday and be in the best shape of their life, and because of a lack of technical knowledge, get their ass kicked in the V-1. Some of the most fun experiences of my life have been on huge downwind runs on my Waveblade or Kainalu. But after racing in Tahiti it felt as if I had been cheating all along.
During the next two races of the Super Aito, I tried my absolute best and physically felt great. And I never made it past 4th to last. It didnâ€™t matter much. I developed a more profound respect for paddling in Tahiti, and I was able to catch a glimpse of what is possible on a rudderless vaâ€™a.
Mahalo Nui Loa to Maire, Teva, Tuariâ€™i, Patrick, Juanita, Tere, Tamarua, Nariâ€™i, Charlie, and Timi.
Posted by luke on Wed, 08/22/2007 - 10:31am