APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, April 28, 2010) - I am Vaimasenu’u Zita Tago Sefo Martel - Samoa’s first and only lady fautasi skipper.

[PIR editor’s note: The fautasi is a long boat unique to the Samoas and used in annual Flag Day races in American Samoa. The boat is 89 feet long and has 47 rowers and a helmsman. ]

I started racing some eight years ago having been selected by the parish of St Peter Chanel Catholic Church at Siusega. The objective back in 2002 was to build a fautasi to educate, inspire, restore our navigational skills, re-awaken a love of the ocean and restore the navigational skills among our youth.

The vessel, named Digicel Segavao II after our sponsor and the colorful ‘cheeky’ land bird Segavao has since become a longboat of fierce pride and joy to many throughout the islands of Samoa.

Being the first lady skipper in what was traditionally a man’s sport created much controversy at first. I had to prove myself and my methods to a skeptical audience.

In 2006, we were given the opportunity not just to race for our country but to show that there is room for a woman in this sport.

To the consternation of our opponents in American Samoa, Digicel Segavao II won the American Samoa Flag Day Fautasi Race in 2006 – all based on the mantra "One Beat."

Let me explain: training rowers is not just about optimum fitness; it’s about achieving harmony between rowers in the team and between the team and the sea.

I took on the task of skippering on the condition that each year, I could train afresh a new crew selected from Don Bosco Technical Centre. Fautasi racing is far more than a race between some 43 young men in canoes. It’s all about reviving our rich culture and re-discovering what it means to be Samoan.

As Samoans, we are Polynesians. We are navigators and we all descend from a long bloodline of navigators skilled in the art of way finding. The sea flows through our veins.

I teach my young crew to feel and be at one with the oar, the boat and the ocean. Many years ago when these islands of ours were covered in dense forest, the fautasi connected communities into one.

They were the internet of our parents and ancestors age. Built of wood, they connected land and ocean. We win because we understand this connection; our mantra "One Beat" is about coming together as individuals – rowers, drummer and skipper as one with the vessel and the ocean.

As their Tautai, I teach them that the same "One Beat" means you are at one with the gods of the land, the ocean, the heavens, and skies. "One Beat" means you are at one with your school, your church, your parents, your family, and your country. "One Beat" means you learn to respect and accept the spirits of our ancestors who are always with us and around us in our environment. "One Beat" is being One with all life. Winning fautasi races takes so much more than money and technology. It involves a unique mixture of grit, grace and soul.

When the Digicel Segavao crew was informed that they had been invited to the 2010 American Samoa Flag Day Fautasi Race, the weight of a nation’s expectations became a mammoth challenge for me as skipper, our drummer Isitolo Stanley, and the new crew of students.

The media in American Samoa kindly informed us that nearly a million dollars had been invested by several villages in commissioning three high-tech boats in the hopes they could overcome the humiliation of their loss in 2006 and "kick serious butt". (Note; these aren’t my words; I had to read them in the Samoa News!)

To combat this challenge with a vessel made locally of wood ("moso’oi and fu’afu’a" as described by one speaker), we believed we had to really push "the edge of the envelope."

We had to ensure that hard physical training and disciplined nutrition were supplemented with psychological and spiritual education as we were expecting to compete in a five mile race starting out in deep water against modern, professionally designed boats.

ONE BEAT: Some of the Digicel Segavao Crew.

In the case of a deep ocean race, the strength of the crew together with the skills of the skipper is critical. The strength and fitness of the crew can be wasted on the oceans if the skipper does not know how to plane the boat on the waves, use the currents and swells to her advantage and not nose-dive the bow (taumua) of the fautasi into the waves or drop her stern (taumuli) into a trough and thereby lose momentum.

In the days leading up to the fautasi race, our opponents used various tactics to try to undermine my psyche as the only woman skipper and those of our drummer and young crew.

First came tales about the magnificence of what we saw as "plastic" boats. Then stories were aired that I feared losing in the heat races and had asked for special treatment to avoid them. I was even called a "coward" in the national press.

However, the weeks of camp and bonding, genuine care and love for one another, tough physical training and meditation sessions cemented our rowing motto of "One Beat" that became such a strong force within the team that you could not separate it even if you tried.

The loyalty and commitment of the team to their Skipper, to their drummer, to their school, to one another and to their country is an uplifting and deep emotional journey of young men on the cusp of adulthood.

The next obstacle occurred on the day of the heats. The ocean swells were rough and high that day and the American Samoan boats had a challenge getting into position.

The Digicel Segavao was the only fautasi riding the rough waves beautifully and not drifting. The other four fautasis had drifted from their lanes and were starting to take on water.

As the seas got rougher and rougher, the official’s boats kept coming astern of the Digicel Segavao fautasi and created even bigger waves, forcing our fautasi to crest a wave unnaturally with the bow and stern hanging for a split second in mid-air without water.

That split second on the crest of a wave created a crack a foot long mid-ship from the gunnel down. As skipper, responsible for the safety of my crew, I had no option but to abandon the race.

After telling the boat officials that the Digicel Segavao should not be disqualified for abandoning the race because of the fault and negligence of the official’s boats, we rowed back towards the shores of Aua, followed by the four other fautasis and a sinking Aeto.

As you might imagine, the Captain’s meeting at Samoan Affairs was heated. I made a public and formal request for the race committee to pay for the repair work needed to make Digicel Segavao seaworthy.

One of the officials present at the meeting even managed to suggest that we might not or should not race in the finals if the Digicel Segavao was broken.

Before I explain what happened on April 17th, 2010 let me explain the rules set at an earlier Captain’s meeting on Tuesday 13th.

The rules were:

1) If a boat is not behind the starting line, marked by two red buoys and two tugboats, when the horn is blown it will be automatically disqualified.

2) If a boat drifts from their lane into another lane and does not move back to the specified lane, it will be disqualified.

3) Two flags would be used: the yellow flag to warn skippers that everyone is at the start line and aligned and a green flag and horn will be simultaneously raised and sounded to mark the start of the race.

On the day of the finals, there was one more change to the rules. After the fiasco of the heats, the race officials shortened the length of the race to 2.8 miles – a decision that was designed to aid the lighter high tech boats that perform well under the smooth conditions of the inner harbor.

So finally, the race day was upon us and we were ready.

The ocean swell was rough but less choppy than the day before and we knew that it would be a challenge to beat three high tech boats in the calmer waters of the harbor with only 2.8 miles to create and sustain an advantage.

Like all the other skippers, I also knew that I had to avoid a mishap in the congested harbour entrance where space between vessels would be in short supply and where dangerous collisions and or capsizes could occur.

When the yellow flag went up, Iseula-o-le-Moana from Fagatogo, Aeto from Pago Pago, Fetu Afiafi from Faga’alu, Paepaeulupo’o and Samoana Sharks immediately took off from the start line without waiting for the green flag and the horn.

Matasaua I and Matasaua II from Manu’a and Digicel Segavao from Samoa were the only boats to leave the startline on the horn.

We just assumed that the boats that jumped the gun would have been automatically disqualified by the race committee but it took about 40 long seconds for the committee to sound the horn and raise the green flag and by this time the first lot that jumped the gun were at least 12 boat lengths ahead.

So what could we in the Digicel Segavao do but kick in and give it all we had.

The thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of a fit strong team primed and working as one was exhilarating but I had to focus on keeping the boat planed on the high waves and our cheeky land bird literally soared over them.

From 7th place at the mis-start, we chased and one by one left all the other fautasi behind accept for the high tech carbon fibre Aeto which was in front.

By the time the Digicel Segavao had reached the finish line Aeto was only two boat lengths ahead and her crew already had clearly tired of the 2.8 mile race.

We know that if the rules had been obeyed and adhered to by the race committee, we would have won.

But more importantly, had the race length of 5 miles been maintained, there would have been no contest: traditional Samoan ingenuity combined with the pride and strength of its youth, a meticulous drummer and the skills of a skipper inherited from her ancestors would have won the day.

So we didn’t bring the cup home this time but we brought back so much more: first the friendship and close ties developed with our gracious American Samoa hosts; the moral support of American Samoa’s people who were so generous and loving and the national shame they felt over the decision by the race committee for not disqualifying the runaway fautasis; the concern over the waste of money on million dollar boats that could have been spent giving meaning and purpose to the lives of their youth, and the pride of knowing that we overcame all the obstacles placed in our path and stayed true to our values.

Our young men learned an invaluable lesson - that how you play the game matters more than winning or losing and that in our hearts we were victorious and represented all that is best about our country.

The Prime Minister has extended a fresh challenge to the Aeto to come to Samoa and race the traditional five miles from deep open ocean and finishing in Apia harbour on Samoa’s Independence Day on June 1st.

Aeto of Pago Pago has accepted the challenge (news release 26 April).

Your Digicel Segavao team from Don Bosco Technical Centre (including our principal and teachers), the drummer and Skipper of Digicel Segavao look forward to the honor of representing our home with the same fierce pride, conviction and determination we showed in Pago Pago on April 17th.

Please pray and cheer for us. Your support means everything to us.

Fa’afetai lava le agalelei ma le aga’alofa Samoa.

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