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Growth of Waka Ama case study

Growth of Waka Ama case study

08 July 2020
Girls celebrate winning a race in a waka

Hauora through culture and inclusiveness

From humble beginnings less than 40 years ago to events that attract more than 3,500 participants today, waka ama is on a growth trajectory in New Zealand.

When Nga Kaihoe o Aotearoa (Waka Ama NZ), formed in 1987 and was awarded hosting rights for the 1990 World Sprint Championships, there were no outrigger canoes (waka ama) in the country.  Thanks to a Hillary Commission grant and some very passionate people, a fleet of canoes were built for the World Championships and distributed around the country.

The initial growth of the sport was founded on passionate individuals who developed strong clubs around the country. Waka Ama NZ helped build on this passion and encouraged clubs to link with schools and local communities to drive awareness and participation of the sport.

The National Waka Ama Sprint Championships have been held annually since 1990 (the first attracting 43 teams from 17 clubs) and representative teams have attended the World Va’a Sprint Championships every two years since 1988, producing world champions in a number of divisions. 

Flash forward, and in 2019 the 30th annual Waka Ama Sprint Championships on Lake Karāpiro attracted a record number of paddlers. More than 1,700 teams from 61 clubs raced for national sprint titles, with crowds of up to 10,000 cheering them on.

Ranging in age from 5-81 years old, the competitors enjoyed six days of racing, all broadcast on Māori TV, and equally importantly, six days of hauora (wellbeing) and immersion in Māori culture.

Participant numbers at the 2019 Waka Ama Secondary School Nationals are also increasing. Jumping 12.5% over two years – from 118 schools in 2017 to 125 in 2019, with more than 1,950 students taking part.

The sport’s strengths and attraction for many of its participants seems to lie in its inclusiveness, accessibility, a firm grounding in Māori and Pacific culture and its focus on hauora (wellbeing).

“Māori culture is deeply embedded into waka ama from the language to the protocols we follow.”
Lara Collins, CEO Waka Ama NZ

A section of the Culture of Waka Ama booklet describes it well, "Unlike many sports, waka ama is steeped in the powerful history and traditions of waka sailing and voyaging throughout the Pacific. Waka ama is, therefore not just a sport but also a vehicle for identity, pride and community. These are reflected in the values and tikanga (practices and protocols, the way we do things) that underpins it”.



Waka ama, or outrigger canoes, is a part of the culture of all Pacific people, and as a sport it is practised throughout the world.

In New Zealand the first official waka ama club, the Mareikura Canoe Club, was founded on the east coast by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell in 1985 after he observed and was inspired by Va’a racing in Tahiti. There are now more than 85 clubs spread from Kaitaia to Invercargill.

From 2013 to 2017 the sport in New Zealand experienced a 34% increase in the number of clubs and a 54% increase in membership overall, and the youth grades (J16 and J19) saw an increase of 124%.

Women account for 53.5% of membership, particularly in the youth grades (J16/J19).

This growth in club membership is underpinned by the sport’s increasing popularity at secondary school level.  In 2002 the inaugural Waka Ama Secondary School Nationals attracted 40 schools; 2019’s champs saw 125 schools competing with more than 1,700 students involved.

In the 2019 Sport NZ Voice of Participant Survey the sport achieved an:

  • Overall satisfaction rate of 72% (cf 61)
  • NPS rate of 57 (cf 40)
  • Value for money feedback of 83% (cf 74)
  • Likelihood to rejoin 90% (cf 82)
  • Waka Ama NZ was also awarded the 'Event Excellence Award' at the 2019 Sport NZ Sport and Recreation Awards for their 2018 Te Wānanga o Aotearoa Waka Ama Sprint Nationals. This award recognises and celebrates best practice event planning and delivery in the sport and recreation sector.

“Waka ama is a small sport with a big vision and we're very proud of our Waka Ama Sprint Nationals. An event that has been taking place for 30 years. There are so many people who do the mahi behind the scenes to make this event a success”.
Waka Ama NZ Facebook post



Culture and Identity

Waka ama is practised and thrives as a sport of Pacific origin throughout the world. In New Zealand the sport has a high percentage of Māori competitors at both secondary and club level, and the opportunity to connect with their culture is an integral factor to many participants’ involvement and connection with the sport.

Waka ama is a major vehicle of Māori cultural identity for participants and supporters. Culture is deeply embedded within the sport – not just on the water but in all that occurs at events, from the language to the protocols followed.

“Waka ama physically connects my family to our local community and spiritually it connects us through the water, all that have paddled before us and everyone who will paddle in the future. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Waka ama participant

As the sport is steeped in the powerful history and traditions of waka sailing and voyaging it is seen as not just a sport, but a vehicle for identity, pride and community – factors that are reflected in the sports values of:

  • Manaakitanga – reciprocity and inclusivity
  • Hauora – wellbeing
  • Whanaungatanga – belonging, identity and collective strength
  • Tu Tanagata – accountability, respect, integrity and passion.

A key objective within Waka Ama NZ’s strategic plan is to uphold and support these values that are integral to the sport. The organisation has also developed a “Culture of Waka Ama”  resource and learning tool to support participants’ understanding of the history and culture of the sport.

Waka Ama NZ has worked hard to understand their participants, including updating its database to capture Iwi and ethnicity. In 2018, the organisation ran an online census to capture information from existing members about what waka ama means to them. This generated an overwhelmingly positive response, with more than 1,000 people proud to share the information and encouraging others to do the same.

“By upholding these values we aim to deliver a culture of sharing, building and maintaining positive relationships with fellow paddlers, adopting a healthy and active lifestyle and treating everyone with respect.” Lara Collins CEO Waka Ama NZ

Before each event, depending on the hau kainga (home people) and their specific tikanga and kawa (process and procedures), there’s either a powhiri at the local marae or a mihi whakatau (informal welcome) at the race venue.

Most event days start with a karakia. This prayer can either acknowledge the body of water to sail on and the wind that is blowing across the water or be used by paddlers to ask for the safety and wellbeing of everyone for that day or during the event.

“I believe waka ama is a gateway to life opportunities. It has been an invaluable part of growth and development for me in my life, spirituality, emotionally, mentally and physically. Fortunate and honoured I feel to be Māori and have a strong innate sense of connectedness to who I am through our tipuna who journeyed on waka, setting this in motion for us today. Always grateful for the experiences waka ama gives and I am always encouraging of whānau to hoe and reap the benefits as I have.

Without writing a novel waka ama is a whole lot of everything complimentary to life on land, that I have much respect for and I believe it has the potential to teach, heal and help people of all walks from an indigenous Māori perspective.” Waka ama participant

Boys celebrate after racing waka to victory

Accessibility and Inclusiveness

The sport’s biggest draw card, at both club and secondary school level, is its accessibility.

Traditional financial barriers to sports are removed, with costs kept to a minimum. Canoes are provided at club and school champs, so all the teams need to do is turn-up and race, also helping to establish a level playing field.

The lower costs play a role in removing barriers for lower decile schools to attend regional and national events. At the 2019 Waka Ama Secondary School Nationals over 50% of schools were decile three or lower.

The sport’s inclusive, welcoming culture and participation-focus also makes it an attractive option for young people of all ages and abilities, particularly young females – a demographic that has seen the biggest increase in participation. An example of the sport’s popularity with young females was at the 2019 Waka Ama Secondary School Nationals where there were 222 more female paddlers than males.

"I love everything about the Nationals, even the rain, the stress and tiredness. Every year there a more and more schools and it's so successful. Beautiful venue, awesome atmosphere."
Waka ama participant

Overall, this increase is seen as purely organic, resulting from the inclusiveness and accessibility of the sport, as no direct initiative has been undertaken to encourage this growth.

The attractiveness of the sport to female students is also something noticed by administrators, and at odds with other team sports.

“I believe the popularity of the sport for teenage girls is due to its inclusiveness, that there is no judgement and there are groups of friends taking part.” Israil Foreman, Kaipara College teacher and waka ama coach

The sport has a strong focus on participation and whānau. There is no automatic knock-out system at secondary school events, meaning teams can compete in a number of races at both heat and championship levels. 

Kaipara College waka ama coach Israil Foreman recalls one student, who didn’t play any sports prior to joining waka ama, whose whole mindset and physical health changed once involved. In Year 13 as head boy, this student spoke of the many benefits of the sport to his life as a whole. Israil attributes this student’s, and others like him, transformation to the fact that the sport doesn’t individualise, instead its supportive culture means students feel comfortable doing physical activity despite size or ability.

“Waka ama is a true team sport. In other sports there are times when you are isolated as a player in some way, shape or form. But as a paddler you're not isolated and you don’t have to be sporty, it really is a team effort.”
Israil Foreman, Kaipara College teacher and waka ama coach


Connection between Clubs and Schools

When Lara Collins was appointed CEO of Waka Ama NZ in 2012 a key focus was to establish growth for the sport amongst secondary schools.

“If you have a good secondary school programme and participation, then you have a good sport.” Lara Collins, CEO Waka Ama NZ

Waka Ama NZ sought to increase school participation numbers by encouraging waka ama clubs to collaborate with their local schools. The sharing of skills, canoes and coaching thanks to these connections has seen a big increase in the number of teenagers involved in the sport at both secondary school and club level. With the school/club link established, students then have a pathway to move into club competition. 

Tracking ethnicity, iwi and the number of students competing at the Waka Ama Secondary School Nationals to see how many go on to join a club within clubs is helping Waka Ama NZ gain a great understanding of their participants.

In 2019, Waka Ama NZ worked with the Rotorua City Council to create a week-long Waka Festival. The first of its kind festival combined the national secondary schools competition with a Kapa Haka Super 6 competition, enabling students to take part in both events.

At a regional level, the organisation continues to work with the six regions and their clubs to ensure there are events on the competition calendar that cater for young paddlers. In 2019, six secondary school regional events were held throughout New Zealand, providing a pathway for schools to compete at a local level before they decide to attend the Nationals.

Tamariki racing in waka

School/club connections at work – Kaipara College and Tu Tangi Ora

Auckland’s Kaipara College is a good example of this connectivity. The school and its local club, Tu Tangi Ora, have worked closely together for many years, establishing a strong base of paddlers.

In 2019 the club had 154 members  the vast majority being secondary school students (when participants join the school team, they automatically become club members). It recently began a primary-aged training programme, with Kaipara College students coaching the young club members (Year 5/6). To help with the transition into paddling at college level, the club also trains intermediate-aged students (Year 7/8).

Kaipara College teacher and waka ama coach Israil Foreman says working with the Tu Tangi Ora club meant they could apply for funding or grants and resources are shared. The Helensville community has also got behind the growing sport with local business sponsorship.

“It’s enabled us to spread the workload. We are bursting at the seams with kids keen to start paddling.” Israil Foreman, Kaipara College teacher and waka ama coach

Club treasurer Jackie Watson says the strong connections between the school and club means there’s a clear pathway for teenage paddlers to transition to adult grades when they finish school. But there have also been many other benefits for the community – including parents of young paddlers getting behind their children and the team as a whole, as well as many joining the club themselves.

“We are a family-orientated sport so we encourage parents to jump in a boat and give it a go, and many go on to compete – helping to grow our adult participation numbers. The family atmosphere is one of the strongest factors in the success of the sport, I believe. We all share the same values and it’s a wonderful and supportive environment.” Jackie Watson, Tu Tangi Ora club Treasure and Manager

Around 40% of Kaipara College’s waka ama paddlers are Māori, with five percent Pacific and the remainder New Zealand European or Asian. Following the sport’s guiding principles; the college works to embed Māori customs and traditions into the sport, including input from students such as writing a college specific haka to be performed at events.

“Māori customs and traditions are integral to the sport and entrenched in waka ama, so they are an integral part of our school’s waka ama culture.” Israil Foreman, Kaipara College teacher and waka ama coach

The Club, whose name means 'Stand and Cry Life', is also strong on emphasising the cultural importance of the sport.

“Cultural identity is very important, and our paddlers all embrace this. When someone wins a medal the rest of the squad will perform a haka acknowledging their achievement. The sport is a way to connect people with their culture – we encourage children who may be a little lost to embrace this. We want to be able to help guide them in the right direction.” Jackie Watson, Tu Tangi Ora club Treasure and Manager

At the 2016 Waka Ama Secondary School Nationals, Kaipara College was selected by the event organisers to receive the prestigious Putu Mihaka Award for displaying 'all the values that this event epitomises':

  • whakawhanaungatanga  (establishing relationships, relating well to others)
  • manaakitanga (kindness, hospitality)
  • awhi (helpfulness, embrace).


Hauora (wellbeing)

Hauora is about health, fitness and wellbeing. Waka ama enables its participants to embrace all these things.

Feedback from administrators and participants illustrates that waka ama isn’t just a sport, it's a lifestyle, with a lot of the sport camaraderie and participant involvement happening off the water.

“I love waka ama, it's my passion. It feeds my soul, keeps me fit and gives me a whānau of like minded people. For me paddling is an absolute joy; it’s hard work, it challenges me, makes me step out of my comfort zone, it keeps me alive and wanting more. I come in off the water with a huge grin on my face. Sometimes I'm heaving for breath, wondering if I'm going to have a heart attack, but what a way to go! I'm happier than I've been in years. There is something about being on the sea, the water that changes my internal chemistry, switches on my ‘happy vibes’.” Waka ama participant

At Kaipara College, Israil often talks to his paddlers’ parents about the importance of hauora within the sport, including the students’ diet and general wellness.

“The sport has so many positive elements in a number of different ways for both the students and their families.” Israil Foreman, Kaipara College teacher and waka ama coach

Below is a prime example of hauora in action, and how waka ama helps to address participants’ spiritual, physical and emotional needs.

“Waka ama is manaakitanga, teaching us that by bringing our personal strengths into one waka we can glide on the water, turn those sharp corners of life and should the waka flip, we can be there for one another to get it upright and everyone back paddling towards our goals and inspirations.” Waka ama participant

Family unity

The nature of the sport, where all the paddlers work as a unit, also allows for inter-generational crews. At club events and Nationals it's not uncommon to see three generations of one family participating in the same event. This inclusive family-orientated aspect of the sport is culturally appealing to both Māori and Pacific.

At this year’s National Waka Ama Sprint Championships, the youngest paddler in the competition was five years old and the oldest was 81.

"Waka ama may be the only sport where grandmothers, grandfathers, mums, dads and their kids can come together to race competitively. That's what makes it so special and unique, it's very competitive but the focus is on fun and whānau too." Lara Collins, CEO Waka Ama NZ

“What I believe waka ama does for me is family unity. This has been my family’s first year in the sport and my daughter paddles with her father. There is no other sport that I know of that brings father and daughter together, bonds them and lets them experience a race together. I just love what this sport has done for my family as I don't paddle but I manage a team and my partner coaches/paddles. We have both fallen in love with what our girl loves, which has brought us closer together.” Waka ama participant


Waka ama’s strengths and attraction stems from its inclusiveness, accessibility, a firm grounding in Māori and Pacific culture and its focus on hauora (wellbeing).

These success factors include:

  • Enthusiasm and passion of key individuals nationwide who helped develop strong clubs around the country.
  • It's a true team sport – anyone can take part no matter what their physicality and its inclusiveness may be a factor in the increasing number of female participants, who make up more than 50% of participants.
  • It's accessible, with costs kept to a minimum and race events don’t operate on a knock-out structure so crews can compete in a number of races at each event.
  • Culture is deeply embedded within the sport – not just on the water, but in all that occurs at events from the language to the protocols followed. Participant feedback shows this connection is an important factor in taking part in the sport.
  • The sport is culturally appealing to Māori and Pacific families due to its intergenerational nature, where family members of all ages can paddle together.
  • Waka Ama NZ has also helped facilitate the sport’s growth by encouraging links with schools and clubs to build participation numbers.

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