The 16th annual Vaka Eiva Cook Islands paddling festival starts this weekend in Rarotonga. Hundreds of paddlers from around the world are set to compete, alongside locals, at the island's biggest sporting event.
The opportunity to paddle in an island paradise is attracting athletes from afar.
"Raro is amazing to paddle in. It’s like Powerade, so you can see right through. It’s absolutely beautiful," Natalia Nicholas (Te Arawa, Te Rarawa) says.
It is one of the Cook Island’s biggest events, with crews competing over seven days to find out who has what it takes to win the 2019 titles.
"I felt like I was home, just a very strong connection to this place," Geni Walters (Te Arawa, Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau) says.
Thirty-six teams from NZ, Australia, New Caledonia, Canada, Hawai'i, California and Great Britain are competing, along with local crews.
Talisa Koteka, vice president of the Cook Islands Canoeing Association says, "We want it to be fun, we want to bring paddlers from all corners of the world together. We want to share our culture, our traditions here. We want to show them what our little slice of paradise has to offer."
"Paddling, it’s in our blood," says women’s gold medalist Serena Hunter, from Te Tupu o Te Manava canoeing club. "I do feel a connection to the ocean and I love being out there, whether it’s on my single or six-man. It’s not just a sport."
After a three-year hiatus, organisers are bringing back junior races for the under 12, 14 and 16 years divisions.
"Just to be seen as one person who can hold the boat, and one person who is the toughest one in the boat," Cohen Holly ( Ngākau Toa, Under 14s) says.
Paulo Allsworth (Ngākau Toa, Under 14s) says, "My goal is to win and not drop out of this but keep on going until I reach the top."
Fletcher Melvin, a founding member of Vaka Eiva event, says, "If you want the sport to survive, you’ve got to have junior development, you’ve got to bring juniors through. Some countries do it really well, New Zealand does it really well. We’ve seen it grow in New Zealand sport. We’ve also seen Tahiti grow and they have junior development."
In addition to the junior divisions, there are V6 12KM iron races for U19, open and masters men and women divisions.
The first day of races starts tomorrow.