Waka ama memorabilia is evidence of sport's progress

16:00, Jan 16 2014

Since the waka ama nationals began in Aotearoa 25 years ago, a lot has changed.

The uniforms have got less fluoro, the boats have got lighter, and even the paddles have undergone a transformation.

And the memorabilia display at the National Waka Ama Sprint Championships this week is testament to that.

A Tahitian paddle from 1982 tops the display, brought back to New Zealand by the Kiwi founding father of waka ama Matahi Brightwell.

Mr Brightwell, at the nationals this year with the Gisborne-based Mareikura club, lived in Tahiti for six years, and "learned everything there was" about paddling - their national sport.

He also built a canoe in that time, and sailed it back to New Zealand in 1985.


Then he set to work reviving the sport in Aotearoa, with knowledge gained from Karlo Putoa of the Papara Canoe Club, and especially Carlos Perez of the Tamarii Tahiti Canoe Club.

"Everything you see today he taught me, I brought back to New Zealand. Thanks to him."

And looking at the paddle from the past, Mr Brightwell considers how far the sport has come in New Zealand.

"I'm like - sort of being the father of this sport, 25 years later - how could I have started this?"

Waka ama is still his baby, but there have been changes to the gear the "beautiful young people" of today use.

For example, the Tahitian paddle has no T grip at the top, something which is now standard.

Other paddles on the wall show the S bend in the handle, which Mr Brightwell brought in for better leverage.

Young competitors trickled though to check out the old gear.

Among them was 14-year-old Kaharau Pickering from the Taupeke Surfers club.

The old paddles were a familiar sight since he's a fourth-generation paddler, but he still thought they were "magnificent".

However, they looked like they would be heavy and tiring to use compared to today's paddles, and "just everything" about them was different.

Waka Ama New Zealand national development manager Conan Herbert has also seen his fair share of changes.

His parents were part of the original group which set up the nationals, and he has competed in around 22 of the 25.

Now there are single clubs who have about as many canoes as could be found at the whole event in the early days, he said.

"In terms of equipment, it's probably got lighter and stronger since then.

"But it still comes down to the person paddling at the end of the day," he said.

However, a single canoe from the 1990 world sprints weighed 36kg, whereas now they weigh in under 10kg.

Paddles are also tailored to the paddlers' height and weight, unlike when he competed as a youngster using adult gear.

Extra divisions were being created as the original paddlers aged, he said.

This year there are six people competing in over 70s races - two men and four ladies. libby.wilson@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

Waikato Times