A week on the water - Air Chathams

A week on the water

FOR MANY YEARS NORFOLK ISLAND WAS A DESTINATION FOR THOSE IN THE KNOW, slightly more intrepid travellers who wanted to avoid the maddening crowds but still soak up the sun, culture and beauty of a Pacific island idyll. In recent years, more and more smart travellers have made Norfolk Island a priority, discovering the charms of this fantastic destination – it’s food, friendly locals and stunning scenery – that is just a hop, skip and a jump from Aotearoa New Zealand.

ONE of those hidden charms comes in the third week of January, when a very different kind of tourist arrives armed not with guidebooks and sunscreen - but with wooden paddles! These are competitors in the Norfolk Ocean Challenge, and they come from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the United States and further afield for what is becoming known as one of the best outrigger regattas around, with three action-packed races spread over a week.


The first Norfolk Ocean Challenge was held in 2015, and John Christian of Pinetree Tours, the island’s largest tour company, has been involved from the get-go. John is a direct descendant of mutineer Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian wife Mauatua on his father’s side, and on his mother’s side of mutineer Mathew Quintal and his wife Tevarua, and he was heavily involved in the founding of the Norfolk Island Wa’a club - Wa’a being the Norfolk word for what we call waka ama.


Given the oceangoing history of the Tahitian and European inhabitants of Norfolk, it’s fair to say that seafaring is in the blood. “Over the years the Islanders have built many different craft on the Island,” says John, “from the Boston whalers they constructed for whaling, to the larger vessels called lighters that were used for unloading freight from visiting ships, and a two-masted ketch built in the 1920’s to enable the exporting of bananas to New Zealand.”

One craft that was no longer being built on the island however was the Wa’a, the versatile outrigger that had been the workhorse of the local community for generations. John was eager to see these beautiful craft back in the water around Norfolk, and decided that something had to be done to make that a reality.

“So together with a group of motivated locals we formed the Norfolk Island Wa’a outrigger Canoe Club,” says John, “fundraising to purchase 12 V6 racing canoes and ten V1s from Tahitian company Varua Va’a. The V1 and V6 designations refer to number of crew, V1 obviously single and V6 being a crew of five paddlers and one steerer. The V refers to it being steered not with a rudder but a paddle.”


“Since it’s inauguration the Challenge has grown steadily in popularity, with competitors now coming from around the world. The premier event is a 26 km V6 marathon circumnavigating Norfolk Island’s stunning coastline, followed a day later by a 14km ocean paddle to Phillip Island and back. The final race is more of a fun day, made up of sprint racing in V1 and V6 Wa’as.”

Wa’a being the Norfolk word for what we call waka ama.


No Challenge is scheduled for 2024, which is a good thing because this is a physically challenging event and it gives you a chance to get in shape for 2025! But remember that you don’t have to be a paddler to get in on the action; the Norfolk Ocean Challenge is something of a photographers dream, as well as a great cultural experience. “Day one of the Challenge sees the blessing of the fleet at Emily Bay, and the morning is spent making lei both for the paddlers and to decorate the canoes,” John says. “Making the leis is really enjoyed by the paddlers – as is the welcoming dinner held that night.”


There is also a mid-week rest day – much needed after the initial two marathon paddles! – and this day sees a popular Island dress up party for competitors.

The highlight for many is the big wrap up of the Challenge – the Saturday night prize giving, which is held in conjunction with a farewell dinner in the form of one of Pinetree Tours’ famous fish fries. This is an Island tradition bringing together locals and visitors to taste the best of the Island’s local produce – seafood, salads, desserts and more – as the sun goes down over the ocean. A fish fry is a Norfolk Island experience not to be missed, and let’s face it – Norfolk Island is an experience not to be missed.

“The Challenge sees the blessing of the fleet at Emily Bay, and the morning is spent making lei both for the paddlers and to decorate the canoes”