Zita's simply oarsome

SOMETIMES the best man for the job is a woman. And that certainly applies to Samoan long boat racing where Zita Martel rules the ocean.

The director of inbound tourism operator Polynesian Xplorer and matai (chief) is a human dynamo in business, church and village life but the male-dominated sport is her passion.

"It's an absolute passion - an addiction," she said in the lead-up to the annual Teuila Festival Fautasi Challenge last September.

The fit-looking 50-year-old remains the only woman in the sport - the rose among the thorns - but her record speaks for itself.

"I'm the pain in the side of all the skippers," she said.

And only a fool would take the first and only female long boat captain in Samoa lightly.

The wife and mother of four boys, who is also honorary consul of France for Samoa, came into the sport by accident.

Her church in Siusega village on Upolu Island had built a boat but had no skipper and was floundering.

Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi - chairman of Zita's church and now Samoan Prime Minister - nominated her, she thought, as a joke because it is a traditional sport for men.

Sure, she had rowed while a student in New Zealand's Canterbury University where she met her husband Francois 27 years ago.

She had even tried her hand at outrigger canoeing, windsurfing and sailing in New Zealand and the Caribbean. But this was completely different.

She had never set foot in a long boat but you get the feeling she has never backed away from a challenge. And this was no different.

As skipper, her job is to stand and steer at the stern, with the drummer sitting at the bow at eye level, setting the pace of the oar strokes according to her instructions throughout each race, which is like chess in strategy.

Up to 45 people, including the skipper, drummer and oarsmen can man the 90ft (27m) long boats which generally cover a five-mile (8km) course and can reach up to 12 knots.

Samoa takes its long boat racing seriously, hosting two races a year: The Independence Day race on June 1 and Teuila Festival race each September.

Up to 80 people in each village can train for two to three months in the lead-up to the races before a final crew is selected.

Perhaps Zita's proudest moment came in 2010 in Samoa - a challenge race with a longboat from American Samoa after she and her crew from Don Bosco Technical Centre won there in 2006.

Her timber boat, built in 2002 inside a church hall at a cost of about $A25,000, was up against a state-of-the-art, carbon-fibre boat at a cost of about US$350,000 and boasting sliding seats, pumps, and dagger board.

Despite heavy betting that the sleek American longboat would win the race in the flat waters of Apia's lagoon, Zita's wooden longboat still won against all odds.

The unmistakable bright green and yellow boat - the colours of the segavao bush bird found around her village - was the one to beat at the 2011 Teuila Festival.

As it turned out, Zita was unable to compete as the race clashed with the Pacific Games being held in New Caledonia, where she was competing as a compound archer and came home with one gold and one bronze medal.

For the first time, the Teuila Festival race was to include a turn and in the end, the Digicel Segavao II Don Bosco longboat was put on the rocks at Mulinu'u Peninsula by another longboat and couldn't finish the race. Savaii came from behind in a thrilling finish to win the day from the eight teams competing and the 22,000 tala ($A9300) prizemoney.

But I'm willing to bet that won't be the last anyone hears of Zita Martel: longboat captain extraordinaire.

GOOD TO KNOW

Three airlines fly to Samoa

weekly out of Brisbane and Sydney: Air Pacific, Air New Zealand and Polynesian Blue.

See your travel agent for details.

Up to 80 people in each village can train for up to two months in the lead-up to the races before a final crew is selected

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  polynesian xplorer, samoa, travel, upolu island



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