A TRADITION REIMAGINED
FOR OVER A DECADE, PHOTOGRAPHER JULIEN GIRARDOT HAS BEEN CAPTIVATED BY FRENCH POLYNESIA AND A DREAM OF BRINGING TRADITIONAL SAILING CANOES, OR PIROGUES, BACK TO THE MOTUS
For over a decade photographer Julien Girardot has been captivated by French Polynesia and its traditional outriggers
I arrived in French Polynesia as a cook and photographer on the scientific research yacht Tara, just passing through. But I ended up settling here for a decade; partly because of my passion for sailing pirogues but also because, as a photographer, Tahiti and her islands are a true blessing.
When you think about French Polynesia, you think of traditional multihulls. Before I arrived I read about navigation by the stars, and the ancient history of Polynesians who sailed the Pacific to populate the islands of the Polynesian Triangle. I planned to spend one month in Tuamotu, and told myself that I’d hang out with the locals and sail with them aboard their epic outriggers.
Living on Fakarava, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, I became friends with my neighbour, Ato. One day I asked him: “Ato, where are all the sailing canoes?”
He told me that when engines first arrived in French Polynesia with the ‘popa’a’ (white people) and the nuclear testing programme in the 1960s, the locals were quickly impressed by having so much power with so much ease. No more sails to manage, no more tricky boatbuilding…
The nuclear test programme needed manpower and many Polynesians were hired. They started to earn something new for them: money. Islanders embraced modernity, and the sailing canoes were soon gone.
One day, as we were exploring a motu, I asked Ato: “Shall we build a sailing canoe?” He said yes straight away. After Tara I came back to Fakarava and we launched a non-profit organisation to realise the dream.
Before the adventure really began, we met in Tahiti to try out a canoe belonging to one of Ato’s friends, Tepea, who is passionate about traditional sailing. This type of pirogue existed in great numbers before the arrival of motorboats. Ato took to sailing it like one of his Maohi ancestors, and grabbed the paddle. The wind was strong that afternoon in Arue, on the outskirts of Papeete, and the pirogue had not been used for a long time. Five minutes after this picture, we reached the beach in a panic, the pirogue was sinking. But seeds have been sown...