new caledonia

Finding ze glise

April 17, 2020

One of the top tourist spots near Noumea is the famous Phare Amédée: the Amédée Lighthouse. This lighthouse was first built in Paris in 1861, then dismantled and transported to New Caledonia. It’s one of the tallest lighthouses in the world, and worth visiting because it’s pretty, and there are snakes and turtles. 

This post isn’t about Phare Amedee at all… but the last 10-minutes of our way back from the lighthouse and how it changed our lives. 

We were looking off the back of our catamaran enjoying the ride, when a Polynesian sculpture glided in on a one-man outrigger canoe to surf our wake. He was impressive. Shirtless, of course, with tats, lats, and abs glistening in the sunset and causing a bloody spectacle. Everyone was taking pictures except for me because I like to think myself above that.

After that divine intervention, Nid and I tried to find an in to an outrigger canoe club. In the past, these traditional wooden canoes were part of everyday life in the Pacific. Today, they are crafted out of fiberglass and metal and outrigger paddling has evolved into a pan-Pacific sport. In Māori, we call it waka-ama. In Fiji, vaka. In Hawaii, wa’a. And in New Caledonia, they call it va’a, taken from Reo Tahiti as there are a lot of Tahitian immigrants. It’s extremely popular and New Caledonians are quite good at it. 

But because they’re so competitive, it’s not easy finding a club. No club wants to take you in if you’re not good. And if you can’t speak French oh la la you’re as good as dead weight.

Plus we had no idea where to start. Seeing these paddlers off on the horizon looked so unreachable. Where did they come from? Where were they going? Could we come too?

One day, we were having dinner with our neighbours and Nid discovered that they were part of the va’a society. Not wanting to sound too desperate, Nid cooly manipulated the conversation to get the dets. “Mmm, great salad… -So, this va’a thing you do? Right. Yes, I wouldn’t mind some brie. -And can anyone try it out if they’re interested? Yes, a cup of tea would be lovely. -Oh what’s that? You can ask the club to let me try? Well I guess…” 

We were in!

Well, more like I was in. When Nid found out their paddle sessions were at 5:15 am he nipped that in the bud pretty quick: “Yeeeeah, nah. Thanks though.” 

Me, on the other hand, I jumped at the opportunity. My first morning out on the water was in the middle of New Caledonia’s winter and even though it doesn’t get below 16 degrees in this country, it was bloody freezing. But once I got on that water… just call me Moana. I. Loved. It. And once we found out there were after-work sessions, Nid got hooked as well: you can call him Bro-ana.

The first obstacle to joining the club was making an appointment to get a doctor’s certificate. In New Caledonia, before joining a sports club or participating in a sporting event, one must obtain a doctor’s certificate to verify you’re as fit as you claim to be.

I’d been practising my phrase all morning: “Je voudrais un rendezvous avec le docteur, s’il vous plait.” 

To which the receptionist replied, in perfect English, “Ok, what time is suitable for you?”

Most of the time the doctor will give you a quick once-over, stamp your little form, and send you on your way. My friends have said they’ve been asked to do squats and push-ups to get their certificate – I have never been asked to perform any exercises so I guess I must look jacked.

Once we filled out the forms and paid the fees, we received a key to the clubhouse that didn’t work, and a still unfulfilled promise that we would receive a va’a license. Interestingly, our club seems to be the only club whose avatar is not of the sea – une rousette. A bat. Because, as we all know, bats are excellent swimmers.

This club has not only been physically fulfilling, but it has also given us the opportunity to work on our French language and culture. Our coach is a fount of new vocabulary. A paddle is a rame, a canoe is a pirogue, and, because the boats are 1-person, 3-person, 6-person, and 12-person, I am able to count all the way up to 12. I have learnt many useful phrases such as garde le glise/guard the glide, relache/relax, vite/faster, and Nid, tournez des epaules/Nid, turn your shoulders. I use the last phrase on a frequent basis when Nid is doing a shit job vacuuming. Which is frequently.

We’ve also been able to study the intricacies of la bise – the French cheek-kiss greeting. Every Tuesday morning when I meet the Tuesday lads, I double air-kiss on the cheek from left to right even if I have no idea who this person is. For dudes, they can choose la bise if they really like each other or they can opt for the more platonic handshake. You can only get out of doing la bise if you’re late and it is too unreasonable to bise because everyone is already sitting in the boat. Or if you have a cold sore. Or if you have corona.

After sports, there is a deeply ingrained culture of high-fiving in New Caledonia and a round of group hand-slapping is absolutely mandatory. The correct way to do this is by giving two high-fives with the same hand, usually the right, in quick succession. Some outliers will prefer a high-five and then a fist bump, so you always have to stay on your toes (confusing bastards). Really this is something one will become accustomed to over time and even now I continue to be caught out and leaving people hanging.

I’m not a great paddler but I decided to sign up for a 10km 3-person va’a competition because it sounded like a fun idea. We spent most of our energy paddling off-course and putting ourselves in compromising boat-flipping positions.

We didn’t win, but we didn’t come last either; 6 out of 9 and I got a lot of high-fives and a very satisfying box of Shapes.

Nid’s done a couply races too. Coming 2nd out of 4 in a V3 sprint and 19th out of 19 in a V1 6km open. 

Va’a has been life-changing and we find ourselves asking why we never got into the waka ama life in New Zealand – Oh wait, we know exactly why: it’s too blingin cold. But the awakened Moana inside us will no longer ignore the call of the sea.

We didn’t choose the va’a life, the va’a life chose us.