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Gillian Tata-Henry, left, Vicki Farr, Verity Thom, Merrin Sutherland, Susan Lean, Jane Broughton and Suegnet Toweel are off to London. Photos: SUPPLIED

Waka ama takes Hauraki wāhine to UK

A group of Hauraki women who compete in the fastest growing sport in New Zealand have achieved a first for their club and have made their district “proud”.
Gillian Tata-Henry, Vicki Farr, Verity Thom, Merrin Sutherland, Susan Lean, Jane Broughton, and Suegnet Toweel are the seven wāhine toa from Hauraki Waka Ama Club set to compete in the 2022 World Sprints Championships in August.
The women will be leaving their hometowns of Turua, Waihī Beach, and Paeroa to jet across to London, and have been busy raising the $35,000 needed to get them there.
Their success has been “surreal”, but for the seven ‘Whaitere Gold’ women – all in their 60s – waka ama has become a clear passion.
“A lot of people thought [the sport] had faded out, but now they’re seeing how much it’s coming back into mainstream,” the club’s travel manager Theaura Murcott-Istead told The Profile.
“A lot of people even say they’ve never seen it in person, and once you explain the different seats and the roles that each seat has, everyone learns it’s way more than just sitting in a boat and paddling.”
According to a Sport New Zealand case study from 2020, waka ama was “on a growth trajectory” and now attracted crowds of up to 10,000 people.
When Nga Kaihoe o Aotearoa (Waka Ama NZ), formed in 1987 and was awarded hosting rights for the 1990 World Sprint Championships, there were no outrigger canoes (waka ama) in the country.
Flash forward to 2019, and the 30th annual sprint championships on Lake Karāpiro attracted more than 1700 teams from 61 clubs.
Hauraki Waka Ama has seen the same kind of tupu (growth). Six years ago, the club was “manageably small” and based in Paeroa. Since its expansion to Waihi Beach – they train at Bowentown – it has attracted more paddlers across all ages.
Merrin Sutherland, one of the club’s longest-standing members with 10 years in the waka, said it was a sport she could participate in that didn’t put too much strain on her body.
“I had a knee replacement in 2010, and couldn’t do my netball and my touch rugby anymore. We had a teacher-only day at the local marae and Larn Wilkinson gave us all a chance to go in the waka… so that’s how I started,” she said.
The other crew members said they were instantly enthralled by “the power” of the boat.
But the growth of the sport all came down to “teamwork”, Vicki Farr said.
“I was always a water baby and kayaked a lot. I was living at Bowentown and I used to go out paddling and I would see these guys going out in the waka, and I thought: that looks like fun,” she said.
“It was the fact that you could do it as a group of people… and being all together is so cool and I totally got hooked.”
Back in May, Hauraki District Council awarded a grant of $1500 to help get the club to London, with Mayor Toby Adams also providing a financial contribution directly from his Mayoral fund.
He said the decision was a “proud” moment for him as Mayor.
The Whaitere Gold crew said they were amazed by the support given to them by the community. While training with accomplished waka ama coach Corinna Gage, they have also been selling raffles to raise the much-needed travel funds.
But because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Gillian and her team initially grappled with: will we go, won’t we go?
“It was a matter of: I don’t know if I’ll be going, and then, when it came down to it, it was: right, we’re in, I’m going,” she said.
The journey to qualify started around 18 months ago, and the voyage saw them podium for the first time at the qualifiers. The team then placed third in nationals.
The IVF Va’a World Sprint Club Championships will be held in London from August 7-August 16. Whaitere Gold will be racing in three different categories: A crew of six racing in the 500m straight and 1000m turns; a crew of 12 racing in the 500m straight (mixed with another club); and a single elite paddler (Gillian Tata-Henry) racing in the 500m straight.
The club is planning on hosting an Open Day in March, 2023.