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Aotearoa's first waka ama club building on solid base

'Waka ama is in a really good space'.

The first waka ama club in Aotearoa is looking to build on the knowledge base of its founder and expand its reach among the people of Tairawhiti.

Matahi Brightwell formed the Mareikura Canoe Club (now the Mareikura Waka Ama Club) after he and his wife Raipoia came to Gisborne in response to a request from his carving teachers Rua Kaika and Kohe Webster that Matahi bring canoe culture back to the region.

In 1985, Brightwell and his father-in-law Francis Cowan, along with a small crew, sailed the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hawaikinui from the Society Islands to New Zealand.

Brightwell had cut the trees, shaped the hulls and made the carvings for the craft.

Raised in Masterton, he had learned — largely on marae over an 11-year period — of the traditions associated with carving, canoe-building, tattooing, history and genealogy.

Tired of hearing that Maori did not have the technology to sail from east Polynesia to New Zealand, he set out to build a traditional craft and prove it could be done. He travelled to Tahiti to finish his project.

Francis Cowan had been building a double-hulled canoe in Tahiti in the 1960s but lost it in a shed fire. He heard about the young Maori carver’s vessel, and they joined forces, completing it in Tahiti and setting sail from an island in the Society group.

Buffeted down the coast from their planned landfall in Auckland, they accepted a fishing-boat tow for the last few miles into Wharekahika (Hicks Bay), but otherwise the voyage was unaided.

Francis Cowan navigated by the stars and, in a 200-page manual, Brightwell recorded how he did it.

Cowan’s daughter Raipoia and Matahi Brightwell had married in 1981, and Raipoia was part of the land support team for the Hawaikinui voyage.

Matahi and Raipoia settled in Gisborne, the tribal area of Matahi’s mother, Hinerangi Whakataka. Matahi did a significant amount of the carving, conceptualised the project and oversaw the youth contribution to the construction of a waka taua (war canoe), Te Aio o Nukutaimemeha.

He also founded the Mareikura Canoe Club, a venture in which he had the help and support of Raipoia. She has continued to play an integral part in administration, coaching and paddling.

In addition, Matahi travelled the country reintroducing waka ama to Maori communities. In this, his part in the Hawaikinui voyage helped establish his credentials. From small beginnings, waka ama has become the growth team sport among Maori, in particular, but also among increasing numbers of Pacific Islanders and Pakeha.

That pioneering work in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s has paid long-term dividends in the past few years. Youngsters taught the skills and discipline of waka ama paddling have reached adulthood, made their way in life and returned to the club — often with sons, daughters, nephews or nieces — and are giving back through coaching or club administration. A few have got back in the waka.

The trend showed up in the strength of the club’s presence at the national sprint championships on Lake Karapiro in January.

About 20 Mareikura teams were entered in grades ranging from Taitama and Taitamahine (midget boys and girls) to master men and women.

Raipoia Brightwell said that was the biggest entry the club had taken to the champs in recent years, and was the result of increases in membership and people willing to be coaches and managers.

The club ran “have a go” sessions once a week to boost membership, and benefited from the return of former junior paddlers who were prepared to coach teams, which reduced the load on more senior club members.

As well, the club had some notable podium success. Jarrod Hill won the J16 men’s W1 500-metre final and went up a grade to finish fifth in the J19 men’s 250m dash.

Gizzy Gurlz won the plate final of the Taitamahine (midget girls) W6 250m.

The Mareikura Kaleegaa and Hinetekapua crews combined to win silver in the intermediate girls’ W12 500m.

Bronze-medal finishes went to the Mareikura J16 men’s crew Hiro in the W6 1000m; the combined Nga Tama Toa and Ease Up crews in the J19 men’s W12 500m; and Te Pikinga in the master women’s W12 500m and W6 1000m.

Mareikura also had an input into the preparation of Horouta paddlers Akayshia Williams, premier women’s W1 250m and 500m gold medallist, and Aoatea Gardner, J16 women’s W1 500m silver medallist.

Both had developed their paddling skills under the guidance of Matahi Brightwell, and — in addition to their Horouta team sessions — took part in Mareikura W1 training in the build-up to the sprint nationals.

Raipoia Brightwell and Denise Tapp, both eligible to compete in the golden masters division (60 to 69) were in Te Pikinga W6 and W12 crews, paddling with and against master women aged 40 to 49.

Becoming champions, doing what they love

One of the coaches “roped in” to take a seat in the W12 Te Pikinga crew was Joelene Takai, but she was no greenhorn.

She started paddling as a junior in the 1990s, won a lot of medals, and competed at world championships. But she qualifies that with the observation that the number of clubs competing in the early national championships could be counted on your fingers, and the champs were over in one or two days.

“If you were under 20 you were a junior and if you were over that you were a senior,” Takai said.

In contrast, nearly 3500 paddlers from 66 clubs attended the 32nd annual national waka ama sprint championships, held over seven days at Lake Karapiro in January.

Takai left Gisborne in 2012 and returned (from Hamilton) in 2018.

“I got back into waka ama because my nephews and nieces are in it. They’re in the teams I coach.”

This year she coached the Mareikura intermediate girls and helped out with the J16 men. She is also on the club committee.

“I love what the sport brings out in our rangatahi (young people),” Takai said.

“Plus they get to become national champions and world champions just by doing things they love. It’s in our DNA.”

On a practical level, committee members are confident the club is in a better position than ever to make progress in the provision of a storage shed for waka ama and other club equipment at Anzac Park.

“Sport Gisborne Tairawhiti and Gisborne District Council have started the korero about the possibility of a water sports hub at Anzac Park,” Takai said.

“We just want a storage shed.”

They had been trying to get one for nearly 20 years, and now they had their “ducks lined up”.

“Our plans are there, we’ve gone through the feasibility-report stage and we’re now in the process of applying to trusts and the like for funding,” she said.

“We have money from 15 years ago building interest . . . from sausage sizzles and raffles. Back then we only wanted a tin shed. But we’ve expanded. All our resources are in people’s sheds; we only bring them out when they’re needed.”

And the club had its own storehouse of knowledge in Matahi Brightwell, she said.

While his influence had been primarily in the field of waka ama training, techniques and competition, he also had extensive knowledge of celestial navigation, carving, canoe construction and traditions relating to all these fields. That knowledge was a tremendous resource.

“Maori were seagoing people, yet we spend most of our time on the river,” Takai said.

“We can expand on that, and over the past two to three years we have thought about what we can offer our people. Waka ama is in a really good space; what else can we offer? It’s been quite a big journey for us. We think we’re ready for what it brings.”

Te Pikinga power: Mareikura Waka Ama Club’s master women’s team Te Pikinga make one of three turns in the final of the W6 1000 metres, in which they finished third, at the waka ama national sprint championships at Lake Karapiro in January. Te Pikinga team members are (from the front, some obscured): Denise Tapp, Kara Te Whata-Maynard, Sheryl Tuari, Naomi Whitewood, Atareta Kemp and Raipoia Brightwell. Pictures by Garrick Cameron
INDIVIDUAL SPRINT WINNER: Mareikura Waka Ama Club paddler Jarrod Hill celebrates his victory in the final of the J16 men’s W1 500 metres.
DOUBLE-HULL BRONZE: The combined Nga Tama Toa and Ease Up crews, of Mareikura Waka Ama Club, on their way to third place in the final of the J19 men’s W12 500m. They are (left hull, from the front): John Horua, Silas Brown, Manaia Tuari, Hayze Nepia, Whakaruru Waitai-Te Kurapa and Jai Henare-Hiki. Right hull: Wiremu Maxwell, Huatahi Patuwai, Uetaha Wanoa, Zekei Collier, Te Ariki Pomana and Matiu Anderson.