Paddlers brave the waves in 2016 Savai’i Crossing

It was a late race this year with the annual Savai’i Crossing taking place in late June.

But all that mattered for the three competing teams from Samoa and neighbouring state American Samoa yesterday was to reach Savai’i and come back as soon as possible.

And that’s what the Samoan team Alotasi Pualele did best: with a fast time of 4 hours and 16 minutes, the host team took out the title.

The race hosted by Pualele Outrigger Canoe Club for the first time in 2008 was not meant to be an actual race back then. 

“Back in the day, it all started off as an annual club event to provide our paddlers with a unique, different paddling opportunity”, explained Situfu Salesa, the club’s vice president at Sheraton Samoa Aggie Greys Resort, right before the event started.

Now, eight years later, the Club launched three canoes, each and every one of them ready to overcome the more than 42-kilometre long distance to cross the finishing line in a new record time.

The teams this year also included paddlers from American Samoa, starting in two separate teams with one being a mixed team while the other consisted of a canoe full of all female paddlers.

The event began from Mulifanua on the island of Upolu turning at Salelologa wharf on the island Savai’i and heading back to Mulifanua. A though route that stretched the race’s participants to their limits, both physically and mentally.

“The Savaii Crossing is a very difficult race. This is because the second half of the race is coming back from Savaii to Mulifanua where teams are paddling upwind and against the current sometimes with 20knot winds at 6ft swells. The 2nd half usually takes twice as long as the first half of the race.

This is where paddlers usually get sea sick, fatigued, de-hydrated and sometimes overwhelmed with the elements”, Mr. Salesa stated. Another kind of difficulty the paddlers had to be aware of was indeed of a human kind. “Every year we have to make sure that the ferry schedule and our schedule don’t intermix during the time of the race.”

Because of these difficulties, the teams were well prepared with the right strategies during the race, as Suisala Mele Maualaivao, the event’s Deputy Director was able to tell Sunday Samoan. 

“We’ve been paddling on a six-person outrigger each, but the race actually has twelve people and there are always changeovers for the entire distance every twenty minutes, where people were switching in and out”.

Despite these general strategies, every team had its own way to approach this year’s race. 

“We did the best we could in terms of preparation for this year’s race. Of course there were some ups and downs with paddlers which couldn’t make it into the team. But overall it has been a really good experience”, said Tony Talouli, who took part in the race as the Captain for the only Samoan team, Alotasi Pualele.

As he mentioned right before the race was about to kick off, the winds always are something to be concerned of for the paddlers out on the sea. 

“I have participated here for the last seven years and it has to be said that the Savai’i Crossing can be named as one of the hardest international races.

This particularly applies to the second half of the race, when we have to come back from Savai’i to Upolu. This part of the route is upwind and we have to fight against that all the time on the way back.”

The team from Samoa had set a realistic goal for the races outcome. “I think for our team, finishing the race in five hours would be a good time,” the captain stated, not knowing at that point that his team would break the intended time by approximately 45 minutes. 

For the other two teams, the experience of the Savai’i Crossing was also not a completely new one – at least for most of the paddlers.

“Our association has so far participated numerous times but this year, our club Le Vasa also takes part in the race with some new members, who we wanted to make sure should not miss this experience here in Samoa,” explained team captain Paula Stevenson-McDonald of the Le Malu o le Vasa Outrigger Canoe Club.

According to her, the team had not been spared during the preparations for the challenge. “We spend as much time on the water as we could, simply to get our new members a feeling for what it would be like to spend so many hours on the sea today.”

One of those new members was Vanessa McKenzie, who despite of her first time at the Savai’i Crossing was more than ready to start paddling before the race:” It’s exciting, but I am ready to get out on the water. It is certainly though, but we’re here to do the hard stuff”.

All three teams gave their best and certainly did the hard stuff on the South Pacific, but in the end, the only Samoan team in the race could win the competition, being only about 22 minutes faster than the all-female canoe from American Samoa, which was followed by their mixed team club colleagues with an overall time of about 4 hours and 47 minutes.

With their end results all being placed under the five-hour mark, all three teams could be really proud of their achievement. The next year’s renewal of the Savai’i Crossing will tell if the paddlers can even beat these fast finishing times.

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