For nearly three decades, an unfinished kauri va’a hung in a Northland shed, waiting for its creator, the Tahitian master carver Puaniho Tauotaha, to return. He never made it back, but, in 2019, his son was finally able to finish his father’s work. Simone Kaho meets Freddie Tauotaha, who features in Episode 4 of WAKA, a six-part video series which traces the revival of waka building through four teams from across the Pacific.
Freddie Tauotaha wept when he saw his father’s unfinished va’a. The Tahitian master carver was in Whangārei for the Rātā waka symposium, which brought together waka carvers from Aotearoa and the Pacific.
Freddie’s father was Puaniho Tauotaha, a highly respected va’a builder from Tautira in Tahiti. He was a friend of Hekenukumai (Hector) Busby, the Northland kaumātua and bridge-builder who led the revival of traditional Polynesian waka voyaging and navigation in Aotearoa.
The two had met during the historic Voyage of Discovery of 1985-87, when the Hawaiian voyaging wa’a Hōkūle’a retraced the migratory routes of ancient Polynesians — taking in Hawai’i, then Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Aotearoa, Tonga, and American Sāmoa. Both had crewed on different legs of that voyage.
Later, Puaniho visited Hek at his home in Aurere in Doubtless Bay, helping him with the building of Te Aurere.
On his last visit, in 1992, Puaniho started working on a Hawaiian style wa’a carved from kauri. But he left New Zealand before he could finish it — and, despite Hek’s constant badgering to come back and complete it, he never made it back. Puaniho passed away, at just 62, after developing lockjaw from an infection caused by a nail.
And so, the wa’a hung in Hek’s shed for 27 years, waiting, while several generations of birds nested in its hull.
But Hector never gave up wanting to see the waka finished. After Puaniho’s death, he began asking Freddie to come and finish his father’s waka. And when Hector himself died in May 2019, aged 86, his offsider James Eruera decided the time was right to ask Freddie to complete the waka.
James, the man behind the Rātā symposium, had worked alongside Hector for nine years, building waka. He remembers how the two of them would stop to admire Puaniho’s waka.
“Hek and I would marvel at it from time to time. It was a thing of beauty. I’d just stare at it and think: ‘God, was it really done freehand?’”
So he was delighted when Freddie agreed to finish Puaniho’s waka. “I think a big part of it was that Hek had passed away,” says James.
Freddie grew up in Tautira, a small village on the south-east coast of Tahiti, where his father fished, farmed watermelons, and carved va’a. His family were athletes, champion paddlers of the famous Mairenui paddling club of Tautira.
Tautira is famous for more than its skilled va’a carvers and paddlers. The Spanish explorer Domingo de Bonechea landed in 1772, on a mission to introduce Christianity (the Catholic church there is named after him). Robert Louis Stevenson stayed there for two months in 1886 and called it “the garden of the world”. And Captain Cook had stopped there, too.
Tautira was also a favourite calling place for Hōkūle’a. Freddie remembers meeting the original crew members on the Hawaiian waka’s inaugural voyage in 1976 when his family hosted the crew at their house.
Puaniho had made a lasting impression on the crew members, who remembered him as “a man of immense physical and spiritual strength”. Nainoa Thompson, who went on to become the navigator of Hōkūle’a, wrote:
He was very strong, powerful . . . When he coached the canoe paddlers, he hardly said a word. He was an extremely quiet man. Very religious, very disciplined. He was the edge of the old times.”
Freddie’s quiet, too, with a touch of the old-world gentleman about him. He greets people with a kiss on each cheek, offers me a dust mask whenever I enter the workshop, and tells unexpected, whimsical stories. At Rātā, he shows some of the skill and strength his father was known for, when he chainsaws, freehand, a small single-person Tahitian va’a from a tōtara log. He makes it look easy, but it’s not.
Puaniho’s waka is Hawaiian style. Freddie tells me they have round bottoms for balance in the rough Hawaiian waters. Tahitian waka are narrower — “like a bullet,” he says “because the water around Tahiti is pretty calm.” Both usually have an ama, or balancing arm.
Freddie learned to carve at his father’s feet. He’d watch his father work, and when Puaniho paused for a cigarette break, Freddie would pick up whatever tool he’d been using, an adze or an axe, and continue working.
“Sometimes I would shape out a one-man canoe from the leftovers of the breadfruit tree, when he was making a three- or a six-man racing canoe. My dad would watch me work. Sometimes he would fix it or help me, sometimes just watch.”
Freddie liked to hang around his father and all the old-timers when they were working on waka. He found it easier to talk to them than to children his own age — and they liked that he was interested. He wanted to learn from them, and, he said, they would talk to him “not as a little boy, but as a man.”
When he worked in construction, he would always go home and make model canoes. “I never stopped thinking about building canoes, I missed it very much. That was my passion.”
These days, Freddie and his wife Mele live in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Their son Maui crews for Hōkūle’a, and Freddie makes a living as an arborist, which has the advantage of providing him with logs. He’s always looking for a good piece that he can carve a canoe out of.
“I can look at the wood and see parts of the canoe. The shape. Like a vision in my head.”
It’s something he did when he was younger and would accompany his father as he searched for the best logs — Puaniho’s favourite was the breadfruit tree, which could grow large.
But, in Hawai’i, with nowhere to store them, the logs will often stay where they lie.
Freddie would like to teach waka carving, to pass on the knowledge to the next generation, just as it was passed on to him.
“There are not many carvers. If the father passes away, they just let it go. I think the young people want to learn, but we need somewhere to go, where we can store the logs and shape the canoe. This is a way to keep the culture alive.”
WAKA is a six-part online video series produced by Tawera Productions in collaboration with E-Tangata and the New Zealand Herald as part of Tuia 250. It was made with the support of NZ On Air. A version of this story was also published in the Herald.
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