Monday, August 12, 2013 by Ilaitia Turagabeci
WHEN dawn breaks over the horizon on the tip of the Suva peninsula, they appear like sharks racing just beneath the surface.
It’s only when they draw closer, and in the visibility of day, when the black silhouette of fins become the sails that once graced the waters around Fiji’s coastal shores.
The camakau — small, fast canoes that were used during Fiji’s early days for island hopping, fishing and as scouts ahead of the drua fleets during tribal war days — are making a return from obscurity to where they were pushed by modern-day ocean transporters.
Fibreglass and wooden engine-powered boats replaced the camakau and the bigger drua in the islands in the last century.
While the drua has disappeared, with only a handful of aged people left with their construction know-how, the camakau has survived.
But now high fuel costs that deter inter-island ferry operators from going on uneconomical routes to far-flung islands have left most fibreglass boats along their coastal villages beached idle.
With little fuel, which arrives only when a ship visits the islands, there is little movement. Whatever travel is made between the islands is too costly for villagers.
For the islands in Lau, renown for canoe craftsmanship, the problem may be a blessing in disguise.
The Roko Sau, Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, paramount chief of Totoya, has witnessed a slow return of the camakau.
On a recent trip past Fulaga, he said it was pleasing to see canoes sailing along its coastline.
“The fibre boats are mostly idle on the beach without fuel but the camakau are making it back on Vulaga,” he said.
“It’s very heart-warming to see that our people are realising that what our forefathers used in their days is still very much applicable today. They’re cheap to make, they’re sustainable and they don’t affect our marine environment.
“Unlike engine boats, there is no sound pollution or any other sort of pollution from the camakau.
“Most importantly, the knowledge of camakau technology is revived and recorded for our future generations.”
A big incentive for camakau builders, who have re-emerged with the knowledge passed on down the generations, is the annual Pacific Blue Foundation-organised camakau race, the Veitau Waqa, that will be held on August 23 as part of the Hibiscus Festival celebrations in Suva.
The foundation is working to merge tradition and modern technology in an effort to develop sustainable practices that would benefit both the coral reef ecosystem and the local communities that depend on it.
As the foundation’s director of government and community relations, Mr Cinavilakeba said their main focus was to commemorate and keep Fiji’s seafaring culture alive.
He said ancient Fijian craftsmanship and sailing should never be allowed to disappear like some of the Pacific’s cultures and traditions have.
To preserve our sailing culture, he said it was important to appreciate, practice and pass down knowledge.
The art of camakau sailing, he said, could easily be passed down to the next generation if they are involved.
With the involvement of children in the bakanawa (model-sized canoes up to a metre in length) races at the Veitau Waqa event, he said they would become better acquainted with Fiji’s boating heritage.
Interest shown in this year’s event has been encouraging.
There will be 10 camakau in the race and dozens of bakanawa from around the contry.
Six of the camakau are from the legendary canoe-building island of Fulaga, one from Ogea and three made from wood found on Viti Levu.
Among the hot leaders are sailors of Lau origin who live at Veisari outside Lami and Korova, a settlement at Suva Point that was born in the 1980s after Jimione Paki and his sons arrived on a drua from Moce in the hope of a better life and education.
His grandchildren train on camakau that will feature in the Veitau Waqa, which starts with a march led by the police band from the Flea Market to the Suva foreshore behind the Fiji Development Bank building.
“It’s going to be an exciting day for all who will take part, including spectators.”
As the camakau sailors polish their moves and tighten their craft with magimagi (coconut sinnet), and sometimes nail, they anticipate new ideas in the lead-up to the big day.
Nothing will be left unchecked.
Island pride is at stake.
Thanks to the camakau riders and the bakanawa builders, there is a big buzz in the water.
Just like in the old days, it’ll be an adrenalin rush on August 23.
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