Drops of saltwater fall from the string of flowers around the men’s necks as they carry canoes across the sand to a group of women waiting to compete.
“We’re a small island, so we only have a small pool of canoes,” Chrissy Thomas says. “That’s why we run individual races because we have to share the canoes.”
This is Vaka Eiva, the annual paddling competition held on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Chrissy is the organiser for this year’s event which has about 550 people registered to compete, most of whom have travelled from overseas.
“We have people from Canada, Hawaii, USA, Fiji, Samoa, Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands,” she says. “Normally we have people from more places.”
Competitors have several divisions to enter with age ranges from 18 to 80 and a challenging race of 36 kilometres around the entire island.
Among the travelling paddlers is Suzie Graf from California who is racing for a Hawaiian team, Anuenue.
“I’ve been paddling for 34 years and this is my first time in the Cook Islands. It’s just great”
Returning competitor Anthony Bonaccurso jokes he’s been dragged back to the island by his teammates.
“Second year in a row, It’s a beautiful place.”
Anthony broke his back in 1993 and is an adaptive paddler, requiring a backrest and straps to paddle with his team.
“You wouldn’t really know that it’s on there, it’s all about the paddling anyway. Just hopefully you don’t tip upside down because you’re strapped into it.”
Bobbing in the harbour near the beached fibreglass canoes is the wooden vaka, Marumaru Atua which is sailed using traditional navigation methods and supported by a solar powered engine.
Maintaining the vaka and its crew can be costly so the vaka has been sailed into Avarua Harbour in the hopes of luring some of the hundreds of tourists to take a ride.
But enticing locals for longer ocean voyages is a tougher task.
The captain of the Marumaru Atua and Cook Island Voyager Society member, Tetini Pekepo, says the interest from Cook Island Maori people is waning.
“A lot of our people are leaving. I did a trip back earlier this year from New Zealand. We came back here and there was only five Cook Islanders on board.”
“A lot of people come out and they’re only out for a short time, they do a short sail or maybe even a long sail but you don’t see them back on the canoe for a long long time.”
Tetini says people just don’t have the time.
“Everyone’s got to work and it does take time, a lot of time to get out there and away from family, there’s a lot involved,” he says.