Va’a: Paddling French Polynesia

Learning to paddle a traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe is harder than it looks.

November 6, 2014
Who’s paddling in the #5 spot? Could it be? Mike Litzow

Va’a are the outrigger canoes that you see everywhere in French Polynesia.

I don’t like the phrase “bucket list” – it implies such an acquisitive attitude towards experience, to go along with everything else that is acquisitive about our culture.

But for the longest time I have been keen to try paddling a va’a. They’re so sleek and fast and such a part of the culture here.


So, mark up one more to Rapa. Our friend Johnny – Tihoni Faraire, to use his Rapa name – was quite the paddler as a young man, and today is the coach for the local paddlers in Rapa. People train for this, and compete at a variety of levels, you see.

The other day, when the blokes had gathered at his house to paddle the va’a ono, the six-person canoes, he let me take out his va’a hoe – the one-person version.

Ruben, the raconteur and nurse who has been a great friend to Galactic, was there to train with the other blokes. (“The paddling, it is so very hard,” he says. “The other men in the boat with me are so VERY FAT. It makes it so hard.”) Rueben helped me to get into the va’a hoe and gave me the most basic instruction. He let go of the boat – and I immediately flipped it. Turns out they’re stable as can be to port, and completely unforgiving to starboard.


Once I had that figured out, it was a breeze to paddle around the protected Baie Haurie while the big boats disappeared around the headland, six men paddling in unison in each.

I showed up again yesterday at the appointed hour (3:30, gotta love the non-9 to 5 lifestyle) and Johhny looked at me and said, “Va’a ono!

Va’a ono Mike Litzow

Now, it was not my ambition to paddle in one of the big boats. You’ve got to paddle in unison, you’ve got to keep up with the pace, and these guys have been paddling since they were boys.


Plus, I don’t speak French, Tahitian or Rapa, remember?

But my only goal with all this travel is to be game for whatever comes along. So I hopped in, a little nervous, and started a-paddlin’.

The best paddlers are in the bow – that’s the guy who sets the cadence and calls the frequent switches from side to side – and in the stern, where responsibilities for steering reside.

Va’a hoe Mike Litzow

I watched the paddles ahead of me, and tried to catch on to the timing of the switches as quickly as I could. And then, presto – there I was, in a va’a ono, paddling out of the bay of one of the most remote islands in Polynesia, over the reefs and close to the waves breaking on the rocky headlands.

We paddled for an hour. With one break early on and one break right at the end. My concern at first was just keeping up, but later I also started to concentrate on not splashing the men in front of me, not dropping the paddle on a switch as my hands got tired (!) and not throwing up. I might not have paced myself so well at the outset.

But what a treat to be out there with those big Polynesian men (fat or not, they’re fit for paddling – and I wasn’t the oldest by more than a decade) paddling off a high volcanic island with the bowman calling the switches and Johnny behind me calling out instructions now and then in the delightfully guttural sounds of Rapa.

In terms of getting down with the people of Polynesia, masculine-style, it’s a much better experience than smoking dope with the pig hunters of the Marquesas, let me tell you.

Ruben holding court during the long BS session that follows the paddling. Mike Litzow

I think I’ll show again this afternoon.

And – further Rapa twist – we had Johnny and Jackye over to the boat last night for a light dinner. And I coulda sworn Johnny said he was going to give me the paddle that I used.

My rule of thumb in Polynesia is to refuse no gift. But honestly, generosity like that can easily overwhelm.

Meet the crew of *Galactic: Mike and Alisa Litzow and their sons Elias and Eric. “When we left Alaska to sail to Australia with our toddler for crew, we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But then we had our second child, and bought our second boat, and sailed across the Pacific a second time. We’ve been living aboard for seven years now. Sometimes we wonder how long we’ll keep at it, but all we know for sure is that the end doesn’t seem to be in sight just yet.” Follow their story at


More Destinations