Va’a Paddles: The Evolution of Propulsion Strategy

Star Teritahi, 1960

The paddles used to propel va’a—the outrigger canoe indigenous to French Polynesia—were first standardized at the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of formal races and paddling clubs. This design remained the same for much of the century, and the paddles held in Teritahi Starr’s photograph (appendix a) are likely very similar to those first instituted by the paddling clubs. The six men depicted in the photo, dressed in traditional race garb of floral pareu and laurels, show the mix of satisfaction and exhaustion indicative of race winners. The traditional garb implies that a more traditional race had occurred: either an inter-island or ceremonial event (Niva). The paddles they are holding are clearly representative of the peak of sporting technology from that era. The wooden shafts are straight, and the blades—rapa, in Tahitian—are teardrop shaped. The rapa seems to be 30 cms wide, allowing for a stroke count of 30-40 strokes per minute. This traditional strategy seems to come from a long tradition of va’a paddling (West, 233).

Paddle History
Before the standardization of paddle material and shape, the Polynesian canoes had a variety of uses—each requiring a different paddle. The most common paddles had rectangular rapa that measured about 30 cm wide. These fishing paddles were most likely the ones used in the long-standing tradition of lagoon racing. The calm water conditions and limited race length did not precipitate any recorded thought on paddle efficiency. Two other types of paddles at the time include ornately decorated ceremonial paddles and war canoe paddles. The ceremonial paddles were beautiful examples of woodwork and artisan craftsmanship, and likely were never used to propel va’a. War paddles were definitely used to paddle with speed, although their design was meant to serve purposes beyond hydrodynamic efficiency. War paddles were used not only to move the va’a through water, but also as weapons. Paddlers would swing, stab, and defend themselves with their paddles, thus inciting versatile design with pointed tips and broad rapa (Va’a, 29).

Lagoon racing continued to be the main form of racing until the 1880’s when a va’a race was included in the Bastille Day celebrations in Tahiti. This marked the beginning of the popularization of Polynesian racing, and prompted the founding of several outrigger clubs, including the Hawaiian Outrigger Club (West, 234). As inter-island racing continued, several organizations were established to regulate the sport, notably The International Va’a Federation and The Tahitian Va’a Federation. The most famous regional races today include the Moloka’i Hoe and Hawaiki Nui Va’a (Colombel).

Modern Paddle Size
Most advances in paddle technology have been initiated by French Polynesians. Hawaiian racing saw a ban in the 1820s, thus causing a mostly cultural focus when the sport was finally reintroduced approximately fifty years later: the racers were looking to revitalize traditions. Racers of French Polynesia never lost their va’a roots, and have been able to keep an evolving mindset that has grown continually with the sport. When the Ligue des Pirogues was established in 1973, islands’ respective paddling traditions were brought together and changes in strategy were revealed (West 234). The first big change made in paddle design was the shrinking of the paddle from 30 cms to a more wieldy 18-24 cms (Niva). In his first race against the new paddles in 1975, Hawaiian racer Fred Hemmings remarks,

Three Tahitian teams blew off the line in a sprint with a stroke count of what must have been 65-70 strokes/minute. We were sprinting too, our stroke count went from the traditional 42 strokes a minute to what was the incredible pace of about 48-50 strokes per minute...The Tahitians spawned great revelations in canoe paddling. Hawaiian ‘tradition’ was replaced with innovation and new techniques. (West 235)

The new paddles allowed for an easier entrance into the water, a higher stroke count, and a more fluid body motion. It seems that before the paddle evolved, the Tahitian va’a had first evolved into the sleek sport-craft seen in the sport today. These va’a necessitated a smoother motion, and that motion required a smaller paddle. The new paddle’s hydrodynamic size and entry allowed for an increased stroke count, which improved lift in addition to forward propulsion. When all paddlers successfully paddle together, they are able to generate both forward and upward force. The lift produced minimizes friction between the boat and the water and allows for a speed-inducing skimming effect (Niva).

Modern Paddle Shafts
In 1971, American paddler Gene Jensen noticed that by bending the paddle backwards at the neck (where the shaft meets the rapa), he could increase the percentage of paddlers’ power that translated to their propulsion. In the seated paddle stroke, the paddle remains in front of the body for the entirety of its in-water pull phase (appendix b), including the strongest point of the pull— the point at which the blade is closest to the body. With a straight paddle, the rapa is already beyond perpendicular with the water at this point, causing much of the paddler’s energy to be expended inefficiently. Gene Jensen noticed, “They had to dig these enormous holes, and their paddles would really cavitate. They didn’t seem to go as fast as they should.” This prompted his development of the bent paddle (Weis).

By adding a bend to the paddle (appendix c), Jensen could elongate the time that the paddle remained perpendicular to the water. The entry was already more perpendicular, allowing for an easier and more fluid catch. The entirety of the stroke thus became more efficacious. Specifically, the powerful phase of the pull—when the rapa is near the body—could be used to its fullest potential in generating thrust and lift (Arimond).

Shaft design continued to evolve at the turn of the 21st century with the introduction of the s-shaped paddle, also known as the double-bent paddle. This paddle kept Jensen’s original bend, and added an additional bend about ¾ up the shaft, immediately before the upper hand grip (appendix d). The second bend allows the lower hand to remain closer to the body throughout the stroke. With these ergonomics, the paddler can catch the water farther away from his body, have a longer pull, and enjoy more comfort. Today, most Tahitian paddlers use the s-paddle for its comfort; 70 of the longer, more comfortable strokes can achieve in a minute the equivalent of 80-90 strokes of the single bend paddle (Pelou).

When I tried the s-paddle, it was clear that the recovery was significantly easier. It also became easier to dip and dig the lower shoulder, thus allowing for use of the large back muscles while maintaining balance. Power and stability must be in perfect harmony because the delicately balanced single va’a requires strong strokes. It is also possible that the double bend shape assists in the feathering recovery technique used to increase aerodynamics.

Modern Paddle Material
The sturdy and flexible Polynesian Rose and Hibiscus wood paddles weigh about 22 ounces. In 2002, fully carbon paddles were introduced into the va’a market. These paddles weigh a light 11 ounces, and are considerably stiffer than their natural peers (Outrigger Warrior). The trade-offs between the two paddles cater to different paddling techniques and tastes (Pelou).

The carbon paddles are lighter and thus require less energy both to move through the water and to lift in the air. Their stiffer composition results in less slip through the water, guaranteeing greater conversion of energy to thrust. Where wooden paddles might flex and give way to currents, the carbon ones will not. Finally, a carbon paddle might be expected to last 4-10 seasons, while a wooden paddle might have a life expectancy closer to 3-5 (Outrigger Warrior).

The wooden paddles are still seen in racing today. Their heavier weight makes them more suitable for high wind and current conditions, adding a much-needed weight to maneuver through water and endure destabilizing breezes. The flex reduces joint stress, making long races noticeably more comfortable. Currently, wooden paddles are used as training paddles; the heavier weight conditions the paddler to increase stamina for races with a carbon paddle (Joseph). And finally, these paddles cost less. At about half the price ($200 compared to $400) of carbon paddles, wooden technology will resist technological obsolescence longer than carbon technology, which seems to be evolving rapidly. Wood’s durability comes not in its disuse, but in its use. While a carbon paddle can last a longer time, it cannot sustain any cracks. A rock that might merely dent a wooden paddle can crack the entirety of a carbon paddle, rendering it useless (Pelou).

The evolution of va’a racing in the past 50 years has seen changes in rapa size, shaft shape, and even paddle material. Despite changes to the structure of organized competition, va’a racing remains a predominantly team sport requiring unity of strokes and equipment. A paddling team might choose bigger rapa for initial intimidation, or a smaller rapa (and greater stroke count) to disorient their opponents mid-race. They also need to ensure that all of their team strength is maximized to achieve the aforementioned lift—sometimes this is achieved through small rapa use. A va’a team must also cater to the water, wind and endurance conditions of the race. It is clear that all racers and casual paddlers benefit from the strategies offered by the variety of paddles currently available. The evolution of va’a paddles has made the sport both more accessible to the novice and more intricate to the experts.

Sam Koss, Cornell University



Star Teritahi, 1960




“Sam with Paddle,” Sam Koss 2013

Works Cited
Arimond, George. "What Is the Advantage of Bent Shaft Paddles? Piragis Paddles - Your Source for Canoe Paddles." Piragis Northwoods Company, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

Colombel, Gino. "Events." Tahitian Va'a Federation, 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Joseph, Sam. Tahitian Paddler, Personal Interview. 31 Jan. 2013

Niva, Mohono Former Professional Paddler, Personal Interview. 15 Jan. 2013.

"Paddles - Outrigger Warrior." Outrigger Warrior. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

Pelou, Alex .Owner of Viper Va’a. "Research: Va'a Paddle Evolution." E-mail interview 19 Jan. 2013. E-mail.

Starr, Teritahi. L'equipe De Rameurs De Teva Nui. 1960. Photograph. Tahiti. Va'a; La Piroque Polynesienne. Tahiti ed. N.p.: Au Vent Des Iles, n.d. 178-79. Print.

Va'a; La Piroque Polynesienne. Tahiti ed. 29, 87-88, 178-179.

"Viper Va'a - CRB SERIES." Viper Va'a. N.p., 2012. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

Weis, Chuck. "A Conversation with Gene Jensen." Jensen Canoes. Paddler Magazine, Aug. 1993. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

West, Steve. "Significant Events Which Changed Paddling Techniques." Outrigger Canoeing. N.p.: Kanu Culture, n.d. 233+. Issuu. 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

How to cite this page:
Sam Koss. “Va’a Paddles: The Evolution of Propulsion Strategy,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2013. Web. [Date accessed]  <html>