This Man Will Crush You: Canoe Sailing the Tahiti Pearl Regatta


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How many races do you know where it takes 57 hours of paddling and sailing just to get to the starting line? That’s what Teiva Veronique did for the 20th anniversary of this year’s Tahiti Pearl Regatta, held in the turquoise, reef-lined lagoon between Raiatea and Taha’a islands in French Polynesia’s Society archipelago. While the race draws upwards of 60 boats in multiple classes from throughout the South Pacific, the real division to watch, for those who prize paddling as much as spinnakers, is the va’a ta’ie (canoe sail) category, which combines paddling and sailing. And the odds-on favorite is Teiva, a buffed, bronzed and, yes, tattooed local who runs Tahiti’s largest canoe sailing school.

This Man Will Crush You


Forget the other classes of boats in the race, from mono- and multi-hulls to 60-foot Oysters and Hobie Cats. For paddlers, the sailing canoes, including Holopuni (Hawaiian for “to sail everywhere”), a specific three-man, 30-foot outrigger, steal the show. While everyone else relies on the breeze, the va’a ta’ies also rely on brawn, with their crews combining strokes and their sails for speed. And the race’s location, in an inner lagoon protected from swell by outer reefs, makes it perfect for both.

After catching our flight on Air Tahiti Nui and a quick night at Tahiti’s  Te Moana Hotel, we catch a flight to the island of Raiatea, where a speedboat, docked right at the airport (gotta’ love Tahiti), whisks us out to our catamaran off a tiny islet, or motu, in the lagoon. Thanks to its reefs protecting it from swell while still letting in wind, this region off Raiatea is one of the most popular areas for sailing in all French Polynesia. “It’s the perfect location because we can organize different kinds of courses in the lagoon depending on the wind,” says race organizer Stephanie Betz, who bills the event as a Polynesian festival as much as a sailing regatta and raced it a few times before it grew too big to do both.

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When we arrive, a fleet of sailboats is already anchored near a tiny sand- and palm-lined motu. This is where the welcoming and awards parties will be held, with participants dingying over from their sailboats for the festivities. It’s also where I first meet Teiva, who’s putting the final touches on his boat after his 57-hour crossing from Tahiti for tomorrow’s first race. A schoolteacher in the off-season, he runs a sailing school in Tahiti with more than 10 va’a ta’ie, teaching week-long classes to more than 1,500 people a year in the art of historic Polynesian sailing canoes. And he teaches far more than how to just sail and paddle. He also instructs how to navigate the old way, using stars, currents, swells, clouds and even birds—the same tools the ancient Polynesians used to get here in the first place. “We’re trying to keep those old traditions alive,” he says from the beach, cinching a line. “It’s important not to forget how good our predecessors were at all these skills.”

The motu serving as the regatta’s meeting and partying place. (Photos courtesy Bertrand Duquenne)

To that end, to get to this year’s race, just as he has the other three times he’s entered—which he won in 2019 and took second in 2022—he first led a group of canoes sailing and paddling here from Tahiti, without any instruments and using only the stars for navigation. With lackluster winds, this time, admittedly, was a little rough. It took 42 hours to get from Tahiti to the island of Huahine, seven hours from Huahine to Raiatea, and another six hours from Raiatea to Taha’a: 57 total just to get to the starting line. And the real race starts in about 12 hours.

“It was light wind, so it took a long time,” says Teiva, 39, whose arms look like they’re still pumped from the effort. “But it’s good training for the race. And for us, we’re not just coming here for the race but to help people learn how to voyage like the Polynesians did. And to show them that you can do voyaging and racing using the same boats. So, getting here the traditional way is an important part of it.”

While most others are staying onboard their racing and/or support boats, Teiva and company are camping on the motu, with his family, including two kids ages 2 and 6, joining him tomorrow. (They could likely make the crossing on their own.) While Teiva’s canoe class won’t hold a tiki torch to the times of the other sailboats, they’re well respected by the other racers, who hail from throughout French Polynesia and as far away as New Zealand, Australia and France.

The va’a ta’ie going at it

We find out the next morning. With easterly winds, the first event is a broad reach, paralleling Taha’a to its far point, where the King Kong-like island of Bora Bora rises into full view. There,  the racers turn around a buoy and begin making their way back up the lagoon. The va’a ta’ie aren’t far behind, strokes matching their billowing sails. At the race’s end, Teiva’s crew finishes barely ahead of Team Holoholo from Hawaii.

That night, a raucous dinner party welcomes racers to the motu, complete with flower garlands, Polynesian dancers and musicians. Soon grass-clad hips gyrate to fast-paced drums followed by baton-twirling fire dancers. It’s not the hokey type of show you might find at a hotel, but the real deal, straight from the small island of Taha’a across the lagoon. You don’t come here just to race sailboats and canoes, I realize. You come for the culture and the whole experience, from the blessing of the captains who drink from a coconut to the dancing and food, which tonight includes mahi mahi barbecued over coral with a vanilla glaze straight from Taha’a next door. From the hip-swaying dancers to grilled delights, you can’t blame the mutineers from the Bounty, I muse, from abandoning ship under Captain Bligh in 1789 and opting to sail back to the island.

Such allure has been here ever since the islands were discovered by Europeans in 1767, when England’s Samuel Wallis arrived in Matavai Bay aboard the Dolphin and was befriended by Queen Purea. A year later, France’s Louis de Antoine Bougainville had the same impression. As did Captain James Cook on his first visit in 1769, who’d end up dropping anchor here four more times (ill-fated Captain Bligh even served on Cook’s third trip to Tahiti.

“This regatta is much, much more than a race,” says Stephanie later that evening, sweeping her hand across the scene. “We want to showcase the true spirit of the Polynesian culture. That, and the camaraderie the sailors get hanging out with each other, is just as important as the racing.”

The sailing canoes keeping pace with the sail boats…

Day 2

Today’s morning race involves a quick course in Taha’a’s Ha’amane Bay. If the island is known as the Vanilla Island, and where last night’s fish glaze originated, the course is anything but, with tight turns and tacks, and spinnakers up and then back down. It heads downwind directly into an upwind setting and is too technical for the cruiser class. But it’s perfect for Teiva and company, who gruel it out between filling their sails and flexing their pythons paddling.

In the afternoon, another leg takes racers east and south, paralleling the coast of Raiatea, the “Isle of Ancient Kings.” They wrap around the eastern end of the island, heading out through the only nearby pass through the reef into the choppier water beyond. Then they turn around and head back downwind at Taputapuatea, meaning “sacred passage,” for a large set of stones marking the most famous marae ceremonial temple and religious center in French Polynesia. The Polynesian islands are shaped like an octopus, I’m told, with Raiatea at its head, the most sacred of all of them. Polynesians travel here from all over the islands to visit it, often bringing sample stones back to their own maraes to provide “mana,” or spirit.

Right now, Teiva and the rest of the racers will simply take full sails over help from the spirit world. The wind has died down a hair, spelling luffing sails and ceaseless paddling for Teiva and company. By now, the boats have spread out, the bigger ones pulling more propulsion from the breeze. At scattered intervals, they pass the mouth of the Faaroa, the only navigable river in French Polynesia. With its discharge, the river also marks the only pass through the reef on this side of the island. It’s guarded by two tiny motus, which the boats pass between before veering to port in the rougher outside water and racing back to the finish in the lagoon. While the segment is tiring for the va’a canoes, they have the rest of the afternoon to rest up for tomorrow’s longer leg around Taha’a.

After that night’s dinner on the motu, a less rambunctious affair than the welcoming party, we give a dingy ride to two 20-something girls racing in the catamaran class, heading to their cabana on a neighboring motu. Brunette, bubbly and bouncing off walls to be here, Adriana is originally from South Africa but has lived in Tahiti for eight years. A member of a sailing club in Tahiti, she’s an ardent sailor and is here because it sounded fun. “It’s a great adventure,” she says, our dingy bouncing over the water in the dark. “You never know what you’re going to get. And it’s an absolutely beautiful setting. It’s about as fun of a race as you can do.”

“Ready about? Hard to lee!”

Day 3

Just as the ancient Polynesians had to deal with fickle winds, so too do today’s racers. The next day dawns with the doldroms. But there’s enough to race. After my morning snorkel and supping over to the organizers’ catamaran for breakfast, I learn that today’s circumnavigation of Taha’a has been shortened; it will be an out-and-back working around the island’s eastern, windward side. It will also be a mass start, which honorary host Loïck Peyron says could be “a bit crazy.” Peyron, the younger brother of famed sailor Bruno Peyron, should know. The French yachtsman won multiple world-class races in the 1990s on his trimaran “Fujicolor” and has raced in several America’s Cups. The fact that’s he’s here (and taking breaks to wing foil with Stephanie’s son, Nino) sheds light on the race’s clout in sailing circles.

Mayhem might be a better word than crazy. Boats jockey for position to cross the starting line as close to the beat of the Tahitian Toere drum as they can. The sailing canoes have a bit of an advantage, nimble enough to turn and get to the start quickly. But they get quickly get out-powered once the starting drum sounds. The racers make do in light winds that carry them around the point to the north side of the island in the shadow of Bora Bora. It’s a stunning sight, more than 50 boats with full sails against the verdant backdrop of mountain-topped Taha’a.

The wind is light, but enough for the race. And it does have a silver lining, says Stephanie—just like the clouds hovering over the rainbow off the far side of Taha’a. “It might mean people will have more energy to dance tonight at the awards party,” she says. Everyone, that is, except for Teiva and the rest of the va’a ta’ie teams, who churn their paddles in the water to augment the wind.

In the afternoon, we sail over to a snorkeling spot behind the reef, where a dozen black-tipped sharks circle just below. “Don’t worry, they’re harmless…most of the time,” chimes in Loick. Afterward, we tour a black pearl oyster farm—which the region is known for and take nearly five years to grow—and then take an ATV tour of Taha’a, led by a jovial guide named Aro. We tour a vanilla farm and rum distillery and then take in sweeping views of Bora Bora while Aro catches land crabs and whittles a flute from a hibiscus branch, complete with a sliding plunger.

A va’a ta’ie canoe making its way around Raiatea Island. (Photo courtesy Yoichi Yabe).

At sunset, I take my turn, along with Japanese photographer Yoichi Yabe, in Teiva’s canoe, with Teiva manning the helm. The wind has picked up and he effortlessly steers us around the other boats anchored in the lagoon. Yoichi and I offer additional power with our paddles. Teiva makes it look simple, micro-adjusting his paddle on the fly with one hand while sheeting out the sail with the other. Then we switch off and I take the stern position, learning how to hold the rudder paddle firm against the hull to steer, lifting and sinking it deeper rather than prying outward to maintain speed. “You’re always moving and adjusting it up and down,” he says. “There’s a fine art to it.” I appreciate the early Polynesians’ crossings and navigating all the more.

Soon, we paddle-sail back to the motu, where the festivities have already begun. Turns out, there’s a fine art to hosting the awards party as well, with captains and crew arriving in costume—from togas and tridents to tight-fitting shorts—for the celebration. Soon the fire twirlers and hip dancers come out again, as does a dinner of grilled tuna and spit-roasted pork. Rum punch from Taha’a is served, awards are handed out and a live band draws everyone to the dance floor. Teiva’s team ends up winning the holopuni division and taking second in the pirouges a voile category.

Like the racers trimming their sails perfectly to maximize hull speed, the regatta is a perfect blend of competition and camaraderie, which Stephanie doesn’t plan on changing anytime soon.

“While the race now has international recognition and is part of the World Tour, we want to keep the same format, which mixes different classes together,” she says. “Everyone is welcome and gets to mix together, which you don’t get anywhere else. But we also want to showcase the beauty of the Polynesian culture.”

As with the hula dancers and coconut husk-roasted fish, that culture doesn’t get any more apparent than the va’a ta’ie canoes commanded by the likes of Teiva. Which is why Stephanie welcomes them just as she does all other sailing vessels. “It’s great to have the sailing canoes as part of the race,” she says. “They remind everyone that we are all children of the ocean, and that our ancestors were the greatest sailors in the world. They invented the catamaran and knew how to sail against the wind and with the stars. It’s great to see people like Teiva push the sport and remind everyone of our past.”

That past, of course, also includes dancing. And even if this year’s race involved a bit more paddling than racers bargained for, it certainly didn’t keep them from the sand-lined dance floor. Info:

TahitiWant to race?

The best way to race, says organizer Stephine Betz, is to either bring your own boat; ask organizers if you can help crew on someone else’s; or charter a cruiser out of nearby Raiatea (four charter boat companies are based on Raiatea, with more than 100 boats available for hire). And stay longer than the race to sail between its many reefs and islands afterward, including the islands of Bora, Bora, Taha’a, Raiatea and Huahine. Info:

Getting there:Air Tahiti Nui offers daily non-stop service to Tahiti from Paris and Los Angeles as well as convenient flights to Auckland and Tokyo. With code share partners SNCF rail in France, American Airlines in the USA and Qantas in Australia, it links to over 39 other cities including Sydney, New York and Marseilles.

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