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Monday, 22 April 2019 08:00 pm

New Waka Ama – the unofficial sport of New Zealand

May 3rd, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, News, Student Features

The restored war canoe ‘Te Ahi Kākāriki’ being launched  by members of Toa Waka Ama on Waitangi Day.

New Zealand’s fastest growing sport might not be soccer or basketball, but Waka Ama, or Māori outrigger canoe racing.

Waka ama is a relatively new sport according to Toa Waka Ama Club president and Ngati Toa iwi member Jeanette Grace.

“Waka ama was only really revitalised in this country in the 1980’s, after Hawaiki Nui was sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand,” Jeanette says.

Jeanette (right) thinks the importance of waka ma cannot be understated.

“Anything that offers the opportunity to revitalise our culture and our language and to enable our people to have access to it is a very good thing,”

Toa Waka Ama club president Jeanette Grace with ‘Te Ahi Kākāriki’ a restored Ngati Toa iwi war canoe

“It’s very significant, people don’t actually realise that we have very few opportunities to access our culture in ways that are meaningful and fun for us,” Jeanette says.

“We began it as a therapeutic cultural intervention, a Maori way of doing things, it really just took off from there,” says Jeanette.

Based in Porirua, Toa Waka Ama was started as part of the Rangataua Mauriora alcohol and other drugs service, using waka ama as a safe way for Maori children to access their culture.

“There are huge numbers of Maori children in Porirua paddling now. It’s a discipline activity, they have to get up early, they have to train hard, they have to eat properly, they have to respect each other and the resources, so it’s a really significant activity that’s actually in their DNA,” says Jeanette.

Jeanette says there are now thousands of people paddling at a national level, and Toa Waka Ama has a team going to participate in the world championships in Tahiti later this year.

“We have young people from this area who have come back with gold and silver medals at international levels, so we’re going to continue to participate in waka ama as a sport and also as a way for whanau to come together and be active and do something that really resonates with us, we are water people,” says Jeanette.

“The future is bright for waka ama, I would hate to see it regulated and controlled outside the aspirations and dreams of whanau and the people who began it.”

On Waitangi Day 2018, Toa Waka Ama were showcasing the sport by giving members of the public the opportunity to go for a paddle around the Porirua Harbour.

As part of Waitangi Day celebrations the Porirua Council funded a launch ramp for a restored waka tauā (war canoe), originally built in 1989, which was piloted by members of Toa Waka Ama.

Nathan Ray, a carver, who helped restored the waka, says it fell into disrepair over the past 15 years.

“It’s like a vessel for our tribes, our iwi, our tikanga and history, science, technology, all that,” says Ray.

“We crossed the Pacific Ocean to get here, it’s all symbolised on the waka, I’ve been teaching people the symbols and how they work and reviving all that,” says Ray.

The name of the waka tauā is Te Ahi Kākāriki, The Green Flame. It was named after waka that were given to Porirua-based iwi Ngāti Toa through a marriage in the 1820’s. Ngāti Toa used them for campaigns to the South Island. The original waka is on display at the Nelson Museum.

The difference between waka ama and vessels like Te Ahi Kākāriki is that unlike traditional waka, waka ama has an outrigger for added stability and speed.

Waka ama as a sport is gaining a lot of traction in wider New Zealand culture.

The captain of Porirua Canoe Kayak Club (PCKC), Lawrence Hynes (right), who received his first paddle from Nathan Ray, is Pākeha and extremely passionate about waka ama.

Lawrence Hynes

“My stepdaughters were involved in waka ama, and they were talking about waka this and waka that, and I thought well I better go down and check this out. I jumped into one of the waka and thought, that was fun, then I had another turn, and another, and I was addicted,” Lawrence says.

It didn’t take long for Lawrence’s passion to supersede his stepdaughters’ – they’ve all stopped paddling but Lawrence is still going.

“As soon as you get in and start paddling, it’s all downhill from there,” Lawrence jokes.

The founder of PCKC is John Hodges, an Englishman, trained as a slalom kayaker.

“He took kids from Porirua over to a competition in Australia, kicked ass and came back with loads of gold medals, and that’s where Porirua Canoe Kayak Club started 25 years ago,” Lawrence says.

John Hodges still competes in waka ama events, coming in fifth place in the masters 500m sprint at the 2017 nationals.

Lawrence went to the world champs last year and unfortunately didn’t make it out of the heats, but a few current club members have done well on the international stage.

Waka Ama events are done as long distance and sprint events.

“A couple of our women have actually won gold, so we’ve got world champions in the club and a runner up world champion.”

You can find a club near you to go for a paddle at

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