Tahitian Dream

PADDLE ON

First, there was the sea, silent and alone and endless in shades of blue. Then, volcanoes rose from below the sea, throwing water and rock into the air in great cacophony. Afterwards, all was silent. And then, from across the sea, from over the horizons, came humans in floating crafts, harnessing the wind and using paddles to move across the water’s surface. Fatigued from their journey, they settled upon this hardened and overgrown chaos, building their homes near to the sea from whence they came. There they stayed and lived with the sea.

That was the story I saw in my mind as I flew into Tahiti and then on to Bora Bora. Shimmering shades of blue leading up to barrier reefs that protect the lagoons within, palm trees swaying on lonely atolls, verdant green peaks rising incongruously from the water below with human structures lining the shore. When we landed on the airstrip in Bora Bora we were only a few feet above sea level, directly inside the barrier reef that rings the island like an aquatic shield. To get anywhere on the main island required a taxi—and that taxi is a boat.

The wind whipped my face as I tried to relax on the boat after spending 12 hours inside air-conditioned airports. The salt air sat heavily on my skin. Though I was tired, I had gotten there with the modern luxuries of engines and props; the Tahitians had arrived almost 2,000 years before using hand-made boats, paddles, sails, their bodies, the stars and innate sense of adventure, a journey nearly unfathomable today. In short, they’d earned their lives in paradise. I hadn’t.

But I was going to try. I was in the Society Islands for the Bora Bora KXT Ironmana Liquid Festival. To call the Ironmana an event is a disgusting understatement, akin to calling an ultramarathon a jog or a hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a walk. It started in 2000, as a va’a, (a traditional rudder-less Tahitian canoe) race and has since fledged into a full-on combination of open-water swimming, prone paddleboarding and standup paddling, similar to a triathlon, except that it lasts four days and you don’t know when and how long you’ll be doing any of those disciplines. There was a full moon while we were there and at one point I was sure we were going to be sent out to paddle underneath it. Each day was a new form of torture.

Stephan Lambert is the man behind this madness, although he seems an unlikely endurance event organizer. A French expat whose sun-beataen skin battered by the tropical rays he smoked cigarettes after sessions in the ocean, completely unlike the athletes he’d host. Traditional Tahitian tattoos decorated his right arm and hand. His sense of humor was droll and he easily talked shit in both French and English.

“So this is Will, from the famous SUP magazine,” he said laconically when magazine contributor and all-around water-woman Morgan Hoesterey introduced us. “Are you ready for this?” ready for this?”

His look seemed to say that maybe I wasn’t. I mumbled something along the lines of “Yes,” and went off to find my room, knowing I hadn’t convinced him, or myself for that matter, that I was ready for an event with such a level of suffering. But there I was.

World-class athletes wandered the beach in front of the hotel waiting to get the lowdown from Lambert: triathlon coach-to-the-stars Roch Frey, Manhattan Island Marathon Swim winner Grace Van Der Byl, former All-American Stanford swimmer Alex Kostich and many others.

  1. Then there was the Tahitian crowd. They looking frighteningly fit and decidedly more relaxed as they bantered back and forth in French, laughing regularly. Niuhiti Buillard stood unassumingly with a skinny frame and slouched posture. Tamarua Cowan looked like a poster boy for Tahitian tourism with a gleaming white smile and uninhibited laugh. Gwladys Messerlin had just recovered by Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness with malaria-like symptoms; she’d still race that day.
  2. Soon after I dropped my bags, Lambert gathered everyone. It’s the first time we heard what would become a refrain over the next four days.
  3. “Expect nothing, be ready for anything,” he warned. “Everyday will be a new adventure.”
  4. We didn’t know what that meant at the time. But we’d learn.
  5. The games started that afternoon. First up was a group relay composed of run, swim, prone and SUP. Then we did the same course solo.
  6. To finish Day One we prone paddled over five miles, myself and others using SUPs because there were not enough prone boards to go around. It was a windy, chin-grating, saltwater-in-the-eyes grind but when I lay my head on the board to rest my neck while I paddled along, I could see the volcanic block at the center of Bora Bora that towers over everything. Bungalows stilted over the water made popular by travel shows and tiny atolls covered in palm trees decorated the horizon while other Tahitians—unrelated to the event—paddled their canoes around. Lambert had the right idea: it was an idyllic place to suffer.
  7. Months passed before I realized that during the week I spent in Tahiti, I was never more than a mile from the ocean.
  8. That from each bed I slept in I could toss a rock into the salt water without even trying. That I spent almost as much time in the ocean as I did out of it.
  1. That there were people in the water constantly—on outriggers, standups, prone paddleboards, surferboards, boogie boards—wherever we went. It was a water culture like I’d never seen before.
  2. This culture has developed in part because of the geography and is as intertwined with the ocean as it was when the first explorers arrived there many centuries ago. Georges Cronsteadt, Tahiti’s most famous standup paddler and a veteran outrigger paddler, literally has this history in his blood. He lives across the street from the water and trains in it everyday. Raihei Tapeta, a SUP racer and water photographer, lives next to Georges and is on the same regimen. He recently started a brand, Mataiea Lifestyle, centered around this culture and history. Tamarua Cowan, a 24-year-old SUP upstart that was a standout at Ironmana, lives on his family compound on Point Venus and sometimes does downwind runs to Mo’orea, another island, starting from his home.
  3. Niuhiti Buillard, a 22-year-old paddler, is another Tahitan star at Ironmana. He’d only been SUPing for a year—but paddling outrigger for nine. He won two major Tahitian SUP races during the week. Besides standup paddling he also digs his blade for OPT, one of the best outrigger canoe teams in Tahiti. And to understand how big of a deal that is, one needs to understand just how influential va’a is here.
  4. Outrigger is THE biggest sport in Tahiti and its biggest race is the Hawaiki Nui Va’a, a three-day stage race where 200 six-man teams paddle between islands as fast as they can. Hundreds of boats filled with thousands of people—school’s out for the week and many businesses are closed—follow the canoes as they paddle for hours at sprint pace in the tropical heat.
  5. Competitors from Hawaii, California and Australia come and try to beat the Tahitians but have not taken a title from the islands in over a decade. And now many of those paddlers, such as Niuhiti, are hopping on SUPs, bringing their technique and impressive engines to the standing world.
  1. Lambert sat on the front porch of my bungalow in the fading Bora Bora sunlight, waxing philosophical about this event and the race series he runs throughout the year. That evening was the most excited I saw him while I was in country. That’s saying a lot. Lambert participated in each race throughout the event and then ran around setting up for the next, organizing boats that took us around the island or setting up parties and dinners. It was all that myself and the other competitors could do to talk to each other between events and he’s out there, calmly taking care of business. While he talked that night, his grey eyes lit up, his hands gesticulated wildly and he punctuated his sentences with sound effects.
  2. “I use sports as a vehicle for philosophy, for a personal experience,” he said. “You can have that same high with heroin or with a joint but (the high) from endorphins can last for six months. That’s real, man.”
  3. It’s unusual motivation. Many race organizers want something. Money. Fame. Brand recognition. As far as I could tell, Lambert just wants people to have experiences unlike anything they’ve had before. I asked him why he doesn’t just run a “normal” race, why he surprises athletes with start times, courses, even what sport they’ll be doing.
  4. “‘No expectations’ is freedom,” he said. “If you take those away, their spirit will be there. Plus, who wants to watch the same movie twice?”
  5. The Pacific Islanders that landed here nearly two thousand years ago certainly didn’t know what they’d find when they pushed off into the sea in the canoes. They knew that freedom. But in the modern world, it seemed to me that this format might limit the size of the race, that many SUP racers would be hesitant to come to Tahiti and participate in sports that are not their forte.
  6. “Winning is not happiness,” he said. “People say that I’ll never have a big event. I don’t care. Only a certain person will say yes to something like this. Those are the people I want.”

Grace Van Der Byl was nowhere to be seen. After dominating the female competition—and many of the men—in a four-mile swim, Grace took to the six-mile SUP race with a smile, even though she’d hardly paddled standup before. We stood, toes in the white sand, rehydrating with cold water and Powerade, waiting for her to come in.

“Maybe she gave up,” said Maeva Hargrave, a 46-year-old Tahitian waterwoman who steadily finished every race at the same pace, no matter the conditions.

“That doesn’t sound like her,” Hoesterey said. She would know. As a warm up to the Ironmana, Lambert had organized a multi-day, 280-mile sail/paddle on traditional Tahitian sailing canoes from Tahiti to Bora Bora for a select few, Grace and Morgan among them. They’d gotten there the old-fashioned way.

After a bit of concern, Morgan rallied a posse of paddlers to go check on Grace. They limped across the line 15 minutes later. Grace was smiling.

“First in the swim, DFL in the paddle,” she laughed. “Gonna have to work on that.”

It was common feeling throughout the competition. No one was an expert at all of the disciplines. Many of the Tahitians paddled the prone legs on their SUPs because they didn’t own or have access to proper boards. Some people had never SUPed before while others had no swimming technique. This affected the atmosphere: it was competitive, but not in a cutthroat way. The Tahitians in particular waited at each finish, hugging and cheering and congratulating each other as they crossed the line. People exchanged stroke tips, everyone cheered for each other and I, for one, felt like we were all in excruciating pain together. Maybe it was a fraction of what the Tahitians felt like when they spotted these islands for the first time.

Alex Kostich, the swimming phenomenon who won each swim by a healthy margin, watched Grace come in from her standup journey. He’d been coming to Bora Bora for the Ironmana four years running and had never tried the SUP races. He simply swam. But after watching Grace grit it out, he opened up.

“I gotta try that,” he said simply. And the next day, he did.

At the beginning of the last lap of the final race—a 20-mile SUP grinder consisting of five laps sidewind, upwind, then side/downwind inside Bora Bora’s lagoon—I lapped Maeva. The Tahitian woman waved at me as if out for a morning stroll. “Only two laps to go,” she said, like she was almost there.

I only had one to go, and I was dying.

And then, a sea turtle popped up next to me. It seemed to look curiously at me, the creature grunting along the surface standing up on a board. Surely it was a good omen. The squall that I’d seen brewing on the horizon would blow past us and we would all finish the race in a relatively low state of agony. It was not a good omen.

The turtle plunged underwater and the squall engulfed us. The rain was cool on my overheated, dehydrated body but with it came the wind. I snuck into the lee of a motu, dreading when I had to turn the corner and face the wind head-on. It was nearly two miles to the final buoy and it was directly into the leading edge of the squall. This part of the course had been the worst of the whole race and there it was a final time, but now with twice the breeze. My energy was gone. I was out of water. My neck was seizing up.

The reef moved in slow motion beneath me. I paddled from coral head to coral head to measure my pace. I was so slow that I considered standing on the reef until the storm passed, but I wanted so badly to be done with the race—and with the four days of exertion—that I stroked sloppily along, my board flexing in the punishing wind chop. Roch Frey, the triathlon coach, who was out in front of me during that leg, said that at one point he consulted his watch and had been moving a single mile per hour.

When I finally reached the upwind buoy I wasn’t excited, just tired. I hobbled to the finish line and did my best not to collapse. Niuhiti had won the race with Tamarua in second and, in the way Tahitians seem to be in tune with the water, had the squall as a tailwind to finish the race.

“There were actually some good bumps,” Cowan told me with a smile.

It was two hours before I could even manage to stand up and talk to people in a normal fashion. And that’s about when Maeva crossed the finish line—after spending six hours paddling in the brutal South Pacific sun—looking tired but beaming. I still wanted to cry. She looked like she wanted to party.

It looks like paradise from here. In the water, the swim legs were some of the toughest in the event. .
  1. Fighting every cell in my brain and every muscle fiber in my body, the next day I found myself “training” with Tahitian legend Georges Cronsteadt and photographer Raihei Tapeta.
  2. I wanted to spend my last days in Tahiti relaxing but also checking out the paddling culture on the main island. Hanging with Tahiti’s leading SUP paddler seemed like a good idea, even if my body hated me for it.
  3. Raihei put me up in his parents’ house, just across the two-lane highway from where he lived. Their doors open up to a lagoon with a private island out front and a reef pass wave visible in the distance. As soon as I walked in, I considered staying forever.
  1. At four o’clock paddlers start showing up at the dock in front of the house. I sighed and dragged a board down to the water. Eight paddlers participated in the beach run to paddle interval combos. Then we paddled outside of the lagoon and into the open ocean for a run to the next reef pass. There, we caught waves and joked around before it was unanimously declared beer-thirty. We sat on plastic chairs in Raihei’s driveway sampling the local array of Hinano and talking paddling.
  2. “I know Tahiti is the best,” Georges said. “I want to show the world what we can do.”
  3. He’s not alone. Guys like him, Niuhiti, Tamarua, Raihei and others, like outrigger paddler Bruno Tauhiro, are starting to take SUP seriously, thanks to people like Lambert putting on events that attract international talent and put SUP at the forefront.
  1. The rest of the paddling world should take notice. While paddling outrigger is still their national sport, it’s only a matter of time before more talented Tahitians start standing up and taking on the world.
  2. “In Tahiti, paddling is about the feeling,” Georges said.
  3. It’s hard not to get the feeling. Being on the water is life. When you’re out there—which is the majority of the time if your trip goes right—angular green peaks rise from the sea like earthen shark fins, lonely waves break on the outer reefs and harmless black tip sharks cruise beneath you. The fishing’s bountiful; ditto the downwinding and the surfing. The Tahitians will be a force to reckon with—if they ever leave to go on tour. I won’t blame them if they don’t.