SI Vault
Edited by Steve Wulf
August 24, 1987
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August 24, 1987


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Once upon a time in the island kingdom of Tonga, the people were plump and prided themselves on their many chins. But His Majesty King Taufa 'ahau Tupou IV decided one day that he would have a longboat canoe racing team to challenge those of the neighboring islands. Taufa 'ahau selected and trained Tonga's strongest young men, and he found a boat designer from a land far, far away to build the fastest longboat. When the time at last came to race....

That fairy tale of the south pacific is absolutely true. Last year king Taufa'ahau of Tonga caught the fautasi racing bug. Fautasi boats are carved from the trunks of fau (giant hibiscus) trees, and they contain from 40 to 50 oarsmen and a skipper, who also beats time with a drum. Tonga's neighbors in Western Samoa and American Samoa have long been acknowledged as the masters of fautasi racing, but the king mounted a challenge by putting his team in full-time training for six months and hiring Robert J. Adair of Canada, who built two fautasis to computer specifications and devised a special bailing system.

The Tongans' first test came in April in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and their boat, Tu'i Vava'u, bested eight other canoes. To prove that was no fluke, they beat 11 other fautasis in June in Apia, Western Samoa. By then, a controversy similar to that in the '83 America's Cup had arisen: The losers accused the winners of having superior technology, not superior manpower.

The third big event was held in Tonga on July 4 to coincide with King Taufa'ahau's 69th birthday. Again, Tu'i Vava'u won easily, completing the five-mile race in a record time of 28 minutes, a full 400 meters ahead of the second boat. This time, though, the team from American Samoa challenged the Tongans to a special race—the Samoans would row in Tonga's boat, and the Tongans would row in American Samoa's boat. In a two-mile race the next day, the Tongans still easily won. A similar challenge was issued by the team from Western Samoa, and Tonga won yet again.

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