Popular Waka Ama Festival returns after three-year break

By Contributor

Waka crews compete in the Kris Kjeldsen Memorial Race-Te Taiawhio o Ipipiri during the last Bay of Islands Waka Festival, held pre-Covid in March 2019. Photo / Ruth Lawton

By Peter de Graaf, Northland Age, NZME

A waka ama festival on hold for the past three years due to Covid and wild weather is returning to Waitangi on April 1-2.

The Bay of Islands Waka Festival was first held in 2017 with the aim of creating a fun event catering to all levels of paddlers and eventually becoming a must-do on the national waka ama calendar.

It was held for three years, until 2019, then derailed first by a global pandemic and later by a storm.

Organiser Steph Godsiff, of Blah Blah Marketing, said she was “really, really stoked” the event was coming back.

Saturday’s programme, from 9am on Tii Beach, focused on fun rather than competition and included a triangle relay just offshore, sprints for taitamariki (youth), and races of up to 10km in the afternoon.

Sunday’s main event was the more challenging Kris Kjeldsen Memorial Race - Te Taiawhio o Ipipiri, a 24.5km race to Motuarohia Island and back in honour of the man credited with establishing waka ama as a sport in Aotearoa.

Godsiff said the race was important to the waka ama community and helped keep Kjeldsen’s memory alive.

The desire to keep the race going was one of the main drivers behind restarting the festival after a three-year hiatus.

The number of paddlers registered so far was lower than in previous years, due to date changes and a clash with other events, but it would be bigger next year, she said.

Waka line Tii Beach during the 2019 Bay of Islands Waka Festival. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Waka line Tii Beach during the 2019 Bay of Islands Waka Festival. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The US-born Kjeldsen paddled for a waka ama club in California and was involved in the sport in Hawaii before settling in the isolated Far North community of Pawarenga.

The waka ama group he founded there evolved into Ngā Hoe Horo o Pawarenga (“the fast paddles of Pawarenga”) and remains one of the sport’s Northland powerhouses.

Later Kjeldsen moved to the Tutukaka Coast and set up a business making many of the waka in use around New Zealand today.

Kjeldsen also founded the Te Taiawhio o Ipipiri race in the 1990s. It was held annually until about the year 2000 then revived for the inaugural Bay of Islands Waka Festival.