Story by Sonny Ganaden
Photos by Elyse Butler
Yoann Cronsteadt is at his day job delivering diesel drums to the docks at Fa‘a‘ä, near the airport in Papeete, Tahiti. “Come look what we do,” he says, hopping out of the company truck and positioning an old tire behind it. The truck’s driver passes fifty-gallon drums to Yoann, who drops them from the bed to the ground, creating a mushroom cloud of dust. It’s dangerous, physical work; one mistake and Yoann loses a foot.
“Ever been to the Tuamotus?” he asks in broken English to accommodate my bad French. “That’s where these barrels are going. Good life out there— could be just me and my va‘a.” Driving back to the depot we rumble through a back alley, avoiding feral dogs and shirtless men on mopeds. “Hawai‘i is best at surfing,” says Yoann over the reggae music bleating from the radio. “But we’re the best in the va‘a. And some of those Hawaiian guys are old already; they’ll never catch us. We’re too young—et comment dire? —hungry.” He smiles and shows me pictures on his phone of his new bride and two blue-eyed pit bulls. “Mes bébés,” he jokes.
Yoann’s loose and funny, as down to earth as you’d expect a guy who delivers diesel for a living to be. But he’s also one of the best—if not the best—outrigger canoe paddlers in the world. That might not mean much to someone who doesn’t live in Polynesia, but what soccer is to Europe and Latin America, what basketball and football are to the United States, paddling is to Tahiti. And this blue-collar 25-year-old is the star player on the sport’s best team.
For the past seven consecutive years, Shell Va‘a has won the grueling Moloka‘i Hoe, the most established of the long-distance canoe races, which crosses the Kaiwi channel from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu. Five times they’ve won Tahiti’s three-day, 125-kilometer Hawaiki Nui, now considered the sport’s most competitive long-distance race. They just won the second running of the Olamau, a new three-day, hundred-mile race around the northern tip of the Big Island, from Hilo to Kailua-Kona. (Perhaps the only reason they didn’t win the first running is that they didn’t enter.) The only real competition Shell Va‘a faces these days is from other Tahitian teams; not a single team from Hawai‘i has yet to challenge the Tahitians’ dominance.
The day I arrive at Shell Va‘a’s fare va‘a (literally, “canoe house”) in Papeete, Yoann is alone in the weight room attacking a punching bag with roundhouse kicks. He’s a tough and physical paddler but also a master of nuance—one of the best, it’s said, at exploiting “bumps,” swells that when caught allow a canoe to surf. In 2012 Yoann won the most competitive V-1 race in the Pacific, the Super Aito. (V-1s are rudderless, one-man canoes; each stroke must both steer and propel the va‘a, unlike in the ruddered OC-1s preferred in Hawai‘i.) Such an achievement can’t be overstated in the paddling world: Hundreds battle to qualify for one of only a hundred spots in the race. Few non-Tahitians have ever qualified, and none have gotten close to the podium.
On some days Yoann paddles to work, leaving before dawn from his home at Point Venus nearly ten kilometers away. Then he might paddle during his lunch hour. Then after work it’s practice, and then he paddles home again. “If it’s too dark after practice, I just ride my bike back home,” he says. On his days off, Yoann might paddle to his father’s home in Papara—over thirty kilometers—just for fun. “I take breaks, though,” he smiles.