National | Waka ama

Cyclone Gabrielle-affected schools proud to paddle at Waka Ama Nationals 2023

Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao Te Arawa welcomed 105 secondary schools to Tikitapu Lake today for the National Secondary Waka Ama Championships.

Despite the devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle in the East Coast and Hawke’s Bay over the past few months, students from schools from these areas still attended despite their home challenges.

Waka Ama New Zealand chief executive Lara Collins said she was overwhelmed by the number of schools entering despite the competition being cancelled last year due to Covid- 19.

She praised the commitment shown by those schools that faced the ordeal of floods over the past month but which still decided to participate in Rotorua at Tikitapu Lake.

"When they go out on the water it doesn't matter the outcome. They’re here and we are here to āwhi them for everything that they have been through,” Collins said.

Among the schools participating was Wairoa College based in Hawke’s Bay where Cyclone Gabrielle destroyed homes and people’s lives. The waka ama teams from this school had to find other locations to train due to their waka shed and waka being destroyed and damaged during the floods.

Waka smashed apart

Kaumātua Val Irwin had rushed in the early hours in the morning of cyclone Gabrielle to the waka shed across from his home to try to save the waka only to see one waka break in two as it was pushed up against a tree with the full force of the flood.

“That’s a morning I’ll never forget but today I’m just happy these girls are here today. I’ll do anything for them. They have faced so much and their kaiako too just to be here. That’s why I’m here to help,” Irwin said.

Only a few tents away from the Wairoa setup were camp Gisborne Boys and Girls. They had just finished a W12 16S Girls 250m race and had qualified for semi-finals.

But it was no easy feat for them as they had only two weeks to prepare due to the cyclone.

Unsafe to train

Waka Ama coach Sieda Tureia explained that Te Tairaawhiti waka clubs like Horouta, Mareikura and YMP Waka Ama had a lot of damage to gear, river banks had been destroyed, there was debris in the river, and sewage had also contaminated the river, making it unsafe to train on.

“This is the least prepared we have ever been, I just want us to be present, and represent our families well and I hope they have learned resilience goes a long way,” Tureia said.

Today started off with a haka pōwhiri, with all schools from Te Arawa leading and welcoming the nearly 700 paddlers.

Special visitor Tahiti was also welcomed before Tuhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao chief Wairangi Te Hurunui Jones blessed a new taonga, Te Tohu Tautokohia, in remembrance of the late Laurie Durand, a youth advocate and waka ama contributor for many years in Rotorua and abroad. This is to be awarded to the overall school contribution.

Today was W1 and W12 Tomorrow W6s will start and the Waka Ama Secondary Schools Waka AMA Nationals will finish on Friday.