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First time round Aitutaki!

Saturday 6 November 2010 | Published in Regional

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Over 40 paddlers clock

50km and survive sharks

50km, 5 hours and 20 minutes, 11 paddlers, 6 sharks, 2 whales and 1 flip – a history making paddle around Aitutaki our ancestors would have been proud of.

Paddlers from the Aitutaki Toa Moana, Te Mana and Aitutaki Oe Vaka clubs set out to make history in paddling around the island – a feat many believe had not been done for hundreds of years, perhaps since the time of our ancestors.

The crew of Steve Schofield, Alan Maki, Steve Doherty, Taura’a Kareroa, Mike Henry and Paul Henry together with the support paddlers Junior Maoate, Ron Henry, Ali Webb, Roxy and George, and our boat support crews Quinton and Melo in Wet and Wild, Poppy and Rose aboard Miss Janice, headed out on a voyage to circumnavigate Aitutaki.

Aitutaki’s Toa Moana Oe Vaka Club was formed to complement the two Aitutaki oe vaka clubs of Te Mana and Aitutaki Oe Vaka and the main purpose was for the over 40s (masters) to have a chance once a week to paddle together then share a beer or two.

As with many great ideas (and some not so great) it was over these beers that the decision was made to enter 2010 Vaka Eiva in the masters 12km and the masters round Rarotonga race. So for the last few months the team have been training towards this November event.

Along the way with much help from Vaea and Fletcher Melven, Paka Worthington and Mena, the Aitutaki clubs have organised a number of events on our lagoon including a 30km change over race last month all in an effort to get some race experience and encourage others to visit and experience the fun of paddling on our beautiful lagoon.

And like many Aitutaki adventures, the decision to paddle around Aitutaki began at a party – Pekum Maoate’s 40th birthday party where of course the over 40s gathered.

It was well into the evening when the idea was suggested that Toa Moana Club should be the first to paddle around Aitutaki and by 11 o’clock that night when all experts had gathered – a plan was quickly agreed to take up the challenge.

On Saturday October 30 – a week after the fateful party – all gathered at the Aitutaki Fishing Club at 6am ready to embark on what was a journey of many firsts.

Forecast conditions were not perfect but exactly what we were looking for to challenge us on our circumnavigation – SE winds of 17k to 25k with a SSW swell of 2.5m with peaks of 3.5m – and we actually found a few of those waves as we worked our way down the long reef on the southern side of Aitutaki.

As this first attempt was not a race but rather a chance to test our selves while achieving the first Oe Vaka V6 circumnavigation of Aitutaki, we set a medium pace averaging just over 7 knots in the sheltered first leg from Arutanga towards Maina Point, we made our changes at 20 minute intervals and all felt strong and in good spirits.

Rounding Maina Point we experienced the first real challenge as we battled confused seas and a head current, changes were shortened to every 10 minutes and we pushed directly into 20 knots of wind and building seas and for most of the way, our no 1 and 2 paddlers were either underwater as the bow buried into the face of the next wave or in the air as we crested a large swell – all very exciting stuff but it took its toll.

The leg from Maina towards Motukitiu was perhaps the toughest with big swells and strong winds directly on our bow and it was here in these rough conditions that sea sickness took out two of our team and affected a couple of others.

Being in the vaka was fine but it was during change overs that a couple of the team succumbed to the conditions while sitting in the escort boats.

It was also in the rough that our dual escort boat system really proved its worth with the first boat dropping one crew and the second directly behind ensuring the paddlers were in the sea for the shortest time.

At first this was planned so that the chance of encountering Portuguese man o war (blue bottle) jelly fish was reduced as there had been a few encounters in the lagoon during the week.

As we approached the southernmost point of the island having two boats took on another dimension as we also encountered sharks – two at first then a couple of others as we worked our way down the eastern reef.

The upside of this encounter was that changeovers improved considerably with even the big guys managing to enter the vaka with ease.

Rounding Motukitu point at about the three-hour mark saw us heading towards home and with the winds and swells on our beam we were starting to experience some great rides.

A first for us was using the rough water skirts and getting into and out during changeovers was great practice.

It was just after one of these change overs as we approached Tekopua motu that we got to try out another first – capsizing with skirts on in rough onshore seas escorted by sharks!

As an exercise it went perfectly – no panic, except from one or two of the escort boats as they counted heads. The vaka was not damaged so we quickly righted her, climbed in, bailed and carried on towards Amuri point.

This was the fun leg riding the big swells and ‘surfing’ the long waves – talk about an adrenalin rush, whoops and hollers of excitement as we charged down the face of the bigger swells and reaching familiar territory at Papau and then at Akitua with just 12km to go from making history for our club and island of Aitutaki.

At the last changeover at Maunga Pu, the excited crew almost had to be dragged out as the paddlers seemed to be rejuvenated.

Crossing our finish line at Arutanga was cause for hugs, high fives and a huge sense of satisfaction of having done it!

There are many to thank and we will all get together soon to relive the experience through our photos and the slightly embellished stories and share this great first ever experience.

To all our brothers and sisters in oe vaka from Rarotonga and around the world, we can promise you your chance to enjoy this great experience as we will hold an annual Round Aitutaki oe vaka race. So watch this space as your chance is coming sooner than you think.