Sep 15, 2021

Following up on the female Pacific Voyagers crew – Interview with Iva Vunikura

Okeanos Foundation for the Sea

How did you come to be part of the Te Mana?

Well, when Uto Ni Yalo came to Fiji in 2009, I did not know about it until 2011, until the Te mana voyage. Okeanso was looking for volunteers and announced ion the papers. A very good friend of mind called me and said: Why don’t you apply? She knows I am very strong, I played rugby. So I applied and got through. I was supposed to jump in if one of the crew had to step out, and my chance came unexpectedly soon. One of the girls had to fly back from Tahiti to Fiji to finish her studies, and I was in the lucky position to complete the whole Te Mana voyage and even stayed with Okeanos until 2019. I was in Yap at that time and run out of my Visa, so I decided to go back to Fiji for a while.

Did you have any sailing experience back then?

None! It was my first time to sail. They threw me in… sometimes it is the best that way. Since I was the last volunteer to join in in Fiji, I did not even have much time to get used to it all. There was no time for training. My first trip was from Tahiti to Hawaii. The first days were pretty much the hardest time of my life. I was so seasick, but I did not want to show anyone, I did not want the crew to know. But to be honest, I did not know if I would make it. I even decided to tell the captain to send me back to Fiji once we reached land. But when we reached land, I had overcome the seasickness. I had grown sea-legs after some days and I continued! Now, being out at sea, I feel so peaceful. After some days on land, I need to go back. Even though there are rough days.

What made this voyage so special for you?

We were trying to revive the knowledge about traditional navigation. I felt I was learning so much more about my culture and the environment. So far I had never understood what climate change is, until the voyage started.

What were the most challenging issues for you?

I sometimes struggled being the only female on board, and some men underestimate us women, although not all of the men do. Sometimes it was difficult to deal with the little private space you have on board.

After the Te Mana, working for Okeanso and living in Yap, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu and other places, the language barrier was sometimes an issue. Plus the taboo of women sailing the canoe with men. In Yap, FSM for example we had to obtain permission from the chiefs for me to work. Peia had trained me to be a trainer, and he talked to the chiefs and they accepted with full good heart. In the Pacific, in some places, females are expected to stay at home and in the kitchen. Women have to work at home. I hardly see women working on a boat. But we started to inspire other women who then worked for Okeanos.

Being in Hawaii I loved so much. The canoe is their culture! Here in Fiji, we try to keep it alive since the Te Mana, reaching out to kids and the community.

Do you think the voyage made a difference to the whole community?

Here in Fiji, we are so much used to fast motorboats. We try to teach the community that with the Vaka, we are doing something good for the environment and even for their pocket.

Since the Te Mana, during the last ten years, there has been a change in the perception of environmental issues. The people I worked with came back and shared their knowledge with the individual communities, sharing with them what we had seen and learned. Thanks to the Te Mana, we have got some traditional navigators, so we are trying to work with old knowledge and new technology and teaching others.

Everybody in Fiji today, when you mention Uto Ni Yalo, they know what the Vaka Uto Ni Yalo means to Fiji. For me, Uto Ni Yalo is my Mama canoe, I will always give credit to the first canoe I sailed on, even though it is a Polynesian design, and we have other canoes in Fiji. Still, Uto Ni Yalo taught me so much! It was a very safe going canoe, and thanks to Okeanos I travelled half of the world, meeting so many other people, connecting to them, it was such a blessing to sail with all these dolphins and whales. And I am so grateful that Okeanos gifted the canoe to the people of Fiji.

What have you been doing since the Te Mana

Well, before I joined Okeanos, I sometimes represented Fiji in women’s rugby, I even did power lifting. In the South Pacific Games, I was one of the Fiji athletes in power lifting, and I even won a gold medal!