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Heiva va'a : de la pratique ancestrale au sport de haut niveau

Va’a is without doubt an essential component of Polynesian culture, related to its most ancient traditions.

A means for transport, exchange, discoveries, war va’a or parade va’a, it has been used from time immemorial. While it is no longer used for the same purposes as in the past, it has nevertheless evolved in order to become an indispensable element of the sport and cultural scene.

The drawings and sketches of the first western voyagers give an idea of the splendour and size of these one or two-hulled vessels, often using sails. No doubt they were impressed by those impressive deployments of profusely decorated canoes, heralding festivities to come or sometimes battles. But competition has always been part of the life of villages, which confronted each other amicably. Our modern practice of va’a therefore remained linked to its origins and, since the 19th century, plays a major role in the festivities organised by the authorities. It was not before the middle of the 20th century that categories were set up: from V1 to V16. The vessels are getting lighter and lighter, designed for racing. The materials reflect the constant search for speed and hydrodynamic shape. And there are now versions for lagoons and for high seas.

Va’a today is a sport, an intense cultural expression and a passion for those who practice it. It is one of the most intense moments of the July festivities and gathers more than 1,000 participants, men, women, cadets, juniors and seniors, who, first of all, must be enduring. From V1 to V16, paddlers will race between 2,600 m and 24 km for the longest race. There are many pitfalls and the victory is enthralling when you have prevailed over the swell and the wind, while steering your vessel, that may sometimes weigh as much as 200 kg…

There are different types of va’a, from V1 to V16, each one with its specificities and preferred sailing places. Most of the time paddlers train all year long, in solo or in team, but the Heiva races are among the no-miss annual events, for the paddlers and for the public alike.