My time at Te Aito in Tahiti…

Te Aito in Tahiti has been a memorable race, in many respects. Many have asked about my time there, and I am happy to share a brief overview of my experience in Tahiti.

I was fortunate to be able to stay with one of the local paddlers, Hantz Salmon and his family. There were fantastic and provided assistance beyond what I could ever have hoped for. My sincere thanks to them for all their support.

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A special thanks also to Joe Bunton from Fai Vaa. Joe provided me with a brand new loan Fai 3x that matched the specifications of my own Fai 3x. As many will know, it is incredibly helpful if you can paddle a canoe that you are used to.

I have not seen official entry numbers for the men’s race, although the organiser noted that nearly 700 men entered the race. The results list 580 paddlers that actually finished the race, so this gives an idea of the size of the field. Other divisions are additional to those numbers.

The race starts at Point Venus and the start line is on the beach, but with over 600 paddlers entered, the start line actually spreads over 500m. Click here to watch a video that shows the race (picture quality a bit average). The start line was controlled by officials, paddlers had to stand behind a marked line, otherwise they risked penalties. Surprisingly, I have never before seen a long distance race start that was so clean and without anyone trying to jump the line. Having said that, once it’s under way, all hell breaks loose and it’s a feat to stay clear of collisions or entanglements.

As it was my first Aito, I decided to start at some distance away from the Northern part of the beach, the part many paddlers consider the more advantageous place to start when the wind is blowing down the course. At the same time, that place is also very crowded, so there is a higher risk of entanglements.

The course goes downwind for about 7km, then back between reefs via a boating channel (see above photo, the start line is to the right of the picture). I estimate that the wind was blowing at about 20 knots, quite strong in the latter part of the upwind leg as the wind was channelled by the land features. The men did two laps (28km), the women one lap (14km).

I got away quite well, although my intensity at the start was perhaps a little conservative. I found out quickly that I was completely outclassed in the surfleg and I therefore ended up right in the middle of the field. As a result it was very challenging to negotiate the turn marker and the channel through the reef given that there is little room to manoeuvre with hundreds of paddlers around you. The congestion also meant that the water felt in places like a washing machine.

During the second lap the field had spread a little more, and at the turn marker I must have been sitting at about 300. Also, the water was a lot cleaner now, and as I worked my way upwind again, it was becoming clearer that while I sucked at surfing, I slowly pulled in paddlers in conditions that were now more similar to what we see in our harbours and inlets. Over the last 7 km I managed to overtake about 40 to 50 paddlers, and ended up finishing at 257. Given that there were about 50 paddlers in the 200m immediately in front of me when I finished, with a little improvement on the surf leg the final result has got significant room for improvement.

I am very pleased with the result given it was my first year, and my congratulations to all other New Zealand paddlers. Tupu King was the top NZ men’s finisher at 128, a fantastic result. Marianne Hodges achieved a fantastic 7th place in the women’s division.

Here a link to the results: http://www.ftvaa.pf/site/Classements-et-Resultats/classements-resultats-un.html?base=392

Some observations and things to consider:

  • It was incredibly useful to arrive six days before the race. The time provided a chance to acclimatise, to sort out the canoe and prep it for race day, and to paddle the race course a couple of times. I think the more time one has before the race the better. As the last week is all about tapering, it may be worthwhile arriving even earlier, in order to do some more serious training runs in surf conditions.
  • The standard of paddling in Tahiti is incredibly high. Clearly, the balmy temperatures year round plays a role, but many paddlers also train very hard (up to 3 times a day, and runs longer than 3 hours are not unusual, in both W1 and W6). But I also found that it’s not just the intensity, it’s also about how they train smart and take into account all factors that affect your performance (eg nutrition, training structure, recovery, going out in a range of conditions, etc).
  • The skill level and the ability to surf and read the water is very high. I went out with my host on a couple of training runs, where a group of about 15-20 paddlers met up and did a downwind course in a race format. Well, it was an eye opener, I ended up at the back of the field in both cases. When a Golden Master cruises easily past you, while you work at your highest intensity, you start to wonder what you are doing wrong. They train in all conditions, both inside and outside the reef, so it may be worth doing the same here, by paddling rudderless in all conditions, especially on the ocean.
  • The start at Te Aito is crucial, and getting out in front is incredibly helpful as the water tends to be cleaner and less churned up as it is in the middle and back of the field. While its a long race in hot and humid conditions, it may not pay to be overly conservative at the start.
  • Knowing a little bit of French does go a long way! I’ll be practicing for next year.

See you on the water

Jörn