Waka ama more than a boat race

HAPPINESS IS: Kaumatua Riki Cherrington, right, with the winning Murihiku waka ama crews from the 2014 Icebreaker Challenge at the Nga Hau e Wha Marae in Invercargill.
HAPPINESS IS: Kaumatua Riki Cherrington, right, with the winning Murihiku waka ama crews from the 2014 Icebreaker Challenge at the Nga Hau e Wha Marae in Invercargill.

Kaumatua Riki Cherrington stands at the Nga Hau e Wha Marae in Conon St talking to a group of women.

"I didn't think this was going to go to this level where you have passion and to use yourselves and enjoy yourselves," he says.

The members of Wahine Ma stand smiling, coming forward one by one to receive their third-place certificates from him. They might as well be first prize.

In the grandest of Olympic ideals, simply taking part is enough for the Southland contingent. Maybe that's why they're cleaning up the competition.

Mauri and whanau.

Life-changing and peaceful.

New and old at the same time.

Waka ama is a growing sport in New Zealand - it has been since the late 1980s - and it's now really taking hold in Southland.

Queen's Birthday Weekend resulted in four Southland waka ama (outrigger canoes) travelling to Dunedin to take part in the Icebreaker Challenge.

The teams came home with two wins, a second and a third, breaking a record along the way.

It all sounds, frankly, awesome, a sport that is totally supportive - if someone is sick or unable to attend, someone else will jump in their place - and with a great sense of whanau, and that is also physical but not necessarily exhausting.

"It's not running," someone says, laughing, when I ask just how hard it is.

"I haven't found a word to describe it yet," says Bridget Keil of Wahine Ma.

"It was a privilege."

And, in the middle of racing, instead of remembering the hard slog, Keil can only think of feeling that she was in a "peaceful" place.

It's clear we're talking about more that just boat racing.

Gina Nathan, also of Wahine Ma, says it's mauri - life-force.

"You felt the mauri," she says. "The essence of it."

"Everyone supports each other no matter which club they belong to. Our mutual passion is for the sport itself," says Jodi Conway, Nga Whetu team member.

"All crews in Murihiku are very supportive of one another."

At the Icebreaker Challenge, all of the Southland waka crews entered the water together, then all waited at the finish line to support the crews who were still racing. They all left the water together once everyone had finished, she says.

It was an extremely proud moment for the Murihiku crews that they not only competed together but that they all did so well in Dunedin.

"Waka ama is so much more than just relying on you alone to perform," Conway says. "It takes all six people to, in a sense, gel together."

Looking to the future, Conway is keen to see the sport grow.

"I'd like to see more of our children coming through, being trained and having interschool competitions, even possible summer school holiday programmes, getting them ready for entering national maybe even international competitions now that the sport is professional."

If you see the crews out on the water at the Oreti River, please come and say hello and find out more, Conway says. It might just change your life.

New paddler Amanda Powell is visibly fizzing about her new-found passion.

"I think about it all the time," she says.

"I think about it when I wake up. It changed my life for the positive. It's making me feel like I can do better in my life."

The Southland Times