Sailing Canoes Return to Bora Bora
The arrival of outboard motors sparked the disappearance of the Polynesian-style sailing canoe some 40 years ago. But around the turn of the new millennia, French expat Stephan Lambert re-introduced a fiberglass version of the small, nimble watercraft being produced in Hawaii and brought them to Bora Bora. During the past three years, a small armada of the sailing canoes joined the ceremonial opening of a watersports festival in French Polynesia, setting out on a 270-mile sail-and-paddle across the open ocean between Tahiti and Bora Bora. These boats have now become an integral part of this event about tradition, adventure, stamina and, of course, checking Bora Bora off of your travel bucket list.
Photographer John Canning and writer Eric Hiss traveled to Bora Bora for the 2013 Liquid Festival, riding alongside competitors every leg of the race.
More than 200 years ago, Captain James Cook stood here and watched the transit of Venus across the sun, inspiring the name of Tahiti’s northernmost coast, Point Venus. Now, we are about to make a transit of our own. During the next seven days, our small armada of local paddlers, a handful of American pro-paddlers, and a small crew working on a documentary prepare to make a 270-mile crossing from Tahiti to Bora Bora. Five Polynesian-style sailing canoes will make the crossing with no instruments or motors—just the raw power of the paddlers, wind, and waves. Our arrival in Bora will also serve as the symbolic opening of the Bora Bora Liquid Festival & IronMana, a yearly watersports festival.
Underway Off of Moorea
Moorea is the first stop for our canoes and cats after a four-hour passage from Tahiti. Winds are favorable, and the sailing canoes surf a following sea like dolphins. The ocean mesmerizes us with its cobalt-blue hue, but as we get closer to the island, it’s hard to take our eyes off Moorea. Known for its soaring, spiked volcanic peaks and lush green escarpments, Moorea is the island we picture when we dream of eloping to the Southern Seas. It’s also nirvana for kitesurfers who caught some serious air as we dropped anchor between the island and a private motu, one of the small islets that sit on the fringing reef. We snorkel at sunset before an island feast and chalk it up to a perfect day.
The day starts at 5 a.m. The most difficult segment of the journey, the 100-mile-leg between Moorea and Huahine, is ahead of us. Tweleve hours of sea-slaps to the face, cross currents, two- to four-foot swells and, of course, the relentless South Pacific sun. It’s the true test of endurance. Just before sunset, the canoes are pulled onto the beach near an infamous bone-crushing surf break—thankfully calm today—near the town of Fare.
Everyone is thankful for some R&R on the island. It also happens to be Thanksgiving Day, and even though it’s not a holiday here in the Pacific, locals are always up for a party. It starts with a traditional, island-style jam session that’s definitely not your father’s Polynesian floorshow. Our crew sits in the sand as a local headman welcomes us with Tahitian chants. A group of local vahines draped in leis made of the fragrant tiare flowers sing and sway. Jokingly, the island elder informs us to enjoy the feast they’ve prepared, but we are not to touch the women. Fair enough.
Downtime at Relais Mahana
The sailing canoes were beached and the catamarans anchored in front of the Relais Mahana hotel, a small beachfront gem with 32 thatched bungalows fronting tranquil Avea Bay on the southernmost tip of the island. Everyone found a shady spot on the talcum-white sand or on a bungalow’s lanai and drank in the scenery…and a few Hinanos.
Racers at Hana Iti
Race and event creator Stephan Lambert made sure to include ways for participants to experience French Polynesia’s authentic island vibe. For Lambert, the experience is about culture and place, not beating the other guy.
The morning after our Thanksgiving welcome feast, it’s time to burn off those pineapple poi carbs with a race from Avea Bay to a hidden beach called Hana Iti. An hour’s paddle later, the racers arrive and we have the beach to ourselves. Besides the abandoned resort once owned by Julio Iglesias (of all people), there’s nothing here but dense jungle framed by towering palms. If you’re up for a little adventure, a 20-minute hike takes you across a frightening excuse for a bridge to a high promontory. The pay-off is worth it: epic views of the vast Pacific splashed in more shades of blue than you ever thought possible.
Bora Bora Sighting
No matter how many times you arrive at Bora Bora, the sight of Mount Otemanu piercing blue skies will leave you awestruck. There’s something very special about arriving in a sailboat. Tacking towards the green escarpments, spray dancing over the bow, a steady breeze pushing your hair back, and the boat forward is—well—magical. Now at the end of the ocean-going part of the adventure, Bora Bora’s vast lagoon hosts new adventures: SUP races, distance swims, and the evanescent float away from reality and into the sapphire-hued water.
The race with the most old-world flavor—and perhaps the most technicalities—is on the one-man outrigger or OC-1, known as a va’a in Tahiti. It might look simple to a novice—a canoe with a pontoon, or ama, on the left side for stability—but one false move or errant stroke to the right and your sucking saltwater faster than you can say, “Oh sh--!” Va’a are usually around 35 pounds and made of fiberglass, while higher-end models use carbon fiber. The Tahitians also race rudderless.
Alex Kostich and Chase Team
Now for the Bora Bora Liquid Festival circle-island swim. Every year, the festival introduces different courses of varying lengths so both local talent and international competitors can compete, but for the past five years of the event, United States master-swimmer Alex Kostich (second from left) has dominated every race. A three-time Pan American Games gold medalist, L.A.-based Kostich dominates the field so completely that he was given a special challenge for last year’s event: an exhibition swim around the island. The “short” 25K course started and ended on Sofitel Marara’s white-sand beach. Stroke after stroke, over coral gardens and past stingrays and paddlers, Kostich completed the circuit in six hours, accompanied by two local swimmers who swam relays while Alex was in the water. By the time they all hit the beach again, the local swimmers were breathing harder than Kostich. And when he got to shore? He promptly knocked out three victory pushups.
Jenny Kalmbach, #2 Female SUP Racer in the World
The Bora Bora Liquid Festival is by no means a boys' club: Local and international female athlete numbers increase every year. Last year’s field included Jenny Kalmbach, the No. 2 female racer in the SUP world. Like the other international pro-paddlers and endurance athletes—George Plsek and Brennan Rose—who participated in the 2013 event, Kalmbach played the good sport and accepted every challenge that came her way, including a SUP, prone paddleboard, surfski, and beach sprint event. At the end of the day, she said her biggest challenge was the ocean crossing: “I’ve never paddled so far in my life." And that’s coming from one of only five people to navigate the entire Hawaiian Island chain on SUP.
Kid's Day at the Liquid Festival
One morning during the weeklong event, kids—locals and visitors—come down to the Sofitel Marara beachfront and play with the latest watersports gear and get tips from the pros. Here, a local girl gets to take a spin on a Naish carbon fiber SUP board while being coached by Kalmbach. Who knows, we might be looking at the future of the sport in this Bora-Bora-grown talent.
Circle Island SUP
The IronMana, a mash-up of a Western “Ironman” with the Polynesian term mana or spirit, instills the true mana of this week’s competition—that, ultimately, the race is only with yourself and, frankly, the race is an ass-kicker. It changes every year. In 2012, it was a 27K, Indy-style circuit for va’a, SUP and prone paddleboards held on the south tip of the island. The 2013 edition featured a daunting 35K SUP and prone paddleboard circle-island race that challenged athletes to circumnavigate Bora Bora. Even the most experienced paddlers staggered to the finish line. Case in point: Young Hawaiian pro Riggs Napoleon’s first words on the beach were a series of four-letter expletives.
Bora's Super Couple, Moehau Goold and Wife Uranui Chevalier
Get to know the locals. Everyone knows Bora Bora’s super couple, Moehau Goold and Uranui Chevalier. Moehau is a perennial top finisher in the event, but 2013 was his first first-place finish in the overall Men’s Waterman Series, comprised of a one-, three-, and 5K swim, mixed-discipline “Chronos” event and three- and 5K SUP race. It’s all capped with the Big Kahuna, a 35K circle-Bora SUP paddle. Uranui is no slouch either. She finished third overall in the women’s division.
Infinity Pool Zumba
Sure, the Liquid Festival is made up of some pretty grueling races, but it’s not all sweat and stamina. Some of it is a little more splash and salsa, such as the Zumba classes offered in the infinity pool at the Sofitel Marara. During breaks in the schedule, racers, spectators, and guests mix it up in the pool, sip cocktails and coconut water, and shake a little bootie. Hey, it’s Bora!
Stephan Lambert, Event Founder
The Bora Bora Liquid Festival and IronMana began in 2000 as the vision of one professional athlete and trainer, Stephan Lambert (left), who wanted to create a celebration of watersports and Polynesian culture. A French expat who has lived in Hawaii and French Polynesia for over 20 years, Lambert is credited with reintroducing the traditional Polynesian sailing canoe to Bora Bora, which had all but disappeared in the 1960’s with the arrival of outboard motors. Lambert steadily grew the event over the last 15 years and now welcomes Tahiti’s top paddlers as well as an international crew of enthusiasts and pros from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. When asked why he puts so much time and money into the event, the tanned-and-tatted Lambert answers, “To go deeper.”