Elite paddlers Jas Stevenson and Tui McCaull are urging other wāhine to get stuck into waka ama. (Photo supplied)

Elite paddler Tui McCaull spent her first few months in waka ama in “survival mode”, as a wahine Māori in a male-dominated arena. Here, she tells Siena Yates how the sport taught her to follow in her tūpuna’s footsteps and help other wāhine to do the same.


For me, waka ama isn’t just a sport. Being on the water is a connection to who I am as a wahine Māori.

Our culture is always present when you’re doing waka ama. You’re learning karakia, and practising our reo, haka, waiata, and manaakitanga. That comes through in the way that we naturally do things as Māori at hui or on trips. Or even just in the fact that, if we’re racing, I’m going to do anything I can to make sure I beat you, but as soon as we’re off the water, we’re mates, and I’ll support and manaaki you in any way I can.

Those kinds of concepts are inherent in waka ama because they’re inherent in who we are as Māori. It’s in our DNA. It’s in our nature.

One of the highlights of my waka ama journey was going to Hawaiki Nui, a big three-day, 130-kilometre race in Tahiti. As Māori, as people of the Pacific, we talk a lot about being voyaging people and having a connection with waka and the moana. And being over there, I got the realest possible sense of that.

I only paddled a 30-kilometre section of the race, but even then, I realised: “Wow, this is how our ancestors got around. These are the paths they would’ve taken, the distances they would’ve travelled, and the conditions they would’ve paddled in.”

And when you realise this, waka ama becomes less about who wins the race and more about testing yourself against those elements and being able to go: “I did that. This is what our people used to do — and I did that.”

As wāhine, however, people try to tell us waka ama isn’t for us. The reason I only did 30 kilometres of Hawaiki Nui was because women aren’t actually allowed to do the full race. I can only assume this is because of old views that say women aren’t supposed to paddle. But I know that paddling is strong in my whakapapa.

We have a kōrero here in Whakatōhea about our tupuna Muriwai, and the Mataatua waka first coming to Whakatāne. When they got here, the men tied up the waka by the river and jumped out to go and have a bit of a nohi, to explore. The trouble was, they didn’t tie the waka up properly, so it started drifting out to sea with all the women and children on board.

Muriwai knew that women weren’t supposed to paddle the waka, but to save her people, she created a way around that. She stood and did a karakia. “Kia whakatāne au i ahau,” she said, which means “Make me like a man”, so that she could safely paddle the waka and her people back to shore.

What I take from that is that even if women weren’t traditionally kaihoe, we certainly had the propensity to do it, as well as the ability. And also that we’ll do what it takes to find new solutions, especially when it comes to caring for our whānau, hapū and iwi.

That’s one of the biggest life lessons that waka ama has taught me: that there will always be barriers in front of us, and what matters is how we overcome them.

Tui McCaull on the water. (Photo supplied)

When I first started paddling, I was a lake paddler — and on a lake, the water is flat and heavy, so there’s nothing to do but just grind it out and muscle your way through. But when you’re paddling on the moana or the awa, you can read the water and find currents and energies to help you go faster.

There was a moment last year, when I was paddling up the awa in the dark early one morning, that I realised what a perfect metaphor it is for life. You don’t have to just battle and suffer in the dark. If you pay attention to the taiao, you can feel out the different ebbs and flows in the water and trust them to carry you safely.

There were many barriers when I first started doing waka ama. I didn’t even set out to paddle competitively — I started when I randomly decided to have a go on my daughter’s waka one day. But that first time was all it took to get hooked.

What I really loved about it was that I got a whole hour to myself without anyone going: “Mum, Mum.” Or, because I was a kaiako at the time: “Whaea, Whaea.” Or even “wifey, wifey”. There was none of that. It felt like I could do whatever I wanted, and it was beautiful.

When I eventually decided I wanted to get into it more, a friend suggested I do a regional race so people would want me on their team. I entered a 500-metre sprint for that reason, but I ended up qualifying for the nationals. I thought: “Well, may as well give that a go, too.”

I was thinking that I’d do my heat and that would be the end of it. But then I wound up making it through to the finals. I remember thinking: “Wow, imagine if I’d actually trained properly — how far could I take this?” That was when I started getting coaching from a friend.

When you start getting into the proper training and competing side of waka, you quickly realise how hard it is as a wahine. It can be quite a lonely journey, especially if you’re driven and getting stuck into it.

With social paddling, it’s once or twice a week and it’s a fun environment — and we can allow ourselves that time, because there’s no commitment. But to progress past that point is a lot more demanding. It starts to require things in your household to change to support you. And that’s when I suddenly had all these people in my face, going: “You can’t do that. Isn’t it a bit selfish for you to put your sport before your whānau? You’re a terrible mother.” These were old colleagues and even other women who I thought were my friends.

I battled with that side of things quite a bit when I first started paddling. It wasn’t so much about training everyone else in my household to pitch in, as training myself to let them. Often, our role as wāhine is to be the main caregiver of our whānau, and a lot of us love to do that. So, at first, I tried really hard to do everything myself. But I burned myself out. I spent a lot of that initial time in the sport pretty much in survival mode.

I could’ve just stopped, but I realised that carving out that time and space for myself helped me show up stronger in other areas of my life. Even now, if I’m a bit grumpy, my kids will be like: “Mum, have you been for a paddle lately? Maybe you should.” Because they know what it does for me, and how it helps me show up differently.

That’s something a lot of our wāhine need to realise. We think taking time for ourselves is selfish — but doing that is how we can continue to show up and care for others.

That said, waka ama is still, like most other sports, largely geared toward men. So between that and putting whānau first, we don’t have as many wāhine competing in the sport as we should.

But there are some amazing wāhine role models in paddling, and that helps. When you see a wāhine who works full-time, has kids, does mahi for her community and on her marae, who also achieves her goals in paddling, you start to think: “Oh, maybe I can do that too.” Then you can ask that wahine to show you where to start. And then, down the line, you get to show someone else.

I want to show older wāhine, too, that age doesn’t count us out. Now that I’m in perimenopause, for example, I’m working out new ways to train. And I put in a tono, a request, to trial for the team going to the World Sprints in May, even though the fitness testing includes a 10-kilometre run. I said: “What about us kuia whose knees don’t work?” So, I’ll be swimming instead.

I’ve experienced so much growth from doing waka ama. It has made me a better māmā, wife, daughter, member of my hapū and iwi, and it’s made me better at my job too. I know how empowering waka can be, and I want those things for other wāhine. And I want us to be recognised and celebrated in this sport that is part of who we are.

Waka, paddling, reading the water and the wind, navigating our own paths — all these things are in our whakapapa. In our blood. As wāhine Māori, there’ll probably always be barriers in front of us, but there will always be ways around them too. And following those paths is part of reclaiming who we are.

Tui McCaull (Photo supplied)


Tui McCaull (Ngāi Tūhoe, Whakatōhea) is an elite waka ama paddler, a kaikōkiri with Huia Kaimanawa — Te Akatea, and a wife and a māmā of five. She and her friend and fellow elite paddler Jas Stevenson (Ngāti Kahungungu ki Wairarapa) have launched Āwai Waka Wāhine together, as an online platform and series of in-person workshops, in a bid to encourage and guide more wāhine in the sport of waka ama.

As told to Siena Yates and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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