Titouan Puyo riding a wave at IVF World Distance Championships 2023
August 24, 2023
by Betsy Ray

April Zilg and Titouan Puyo medal at Va’a World Champs

Two of your favourite SUP athletes just earned medals at World Championships. Nope, not ISA Worlds or ICF Worlds. They won these medals sitting down.The International Va’a Federation (unfortunately acronymed “IVF”) World Distance Championships just wrapped up in Apia, Samoa. And you already know some of the names on the podium.

April and Titou, along with other top SUP athletes like Danny Ching, can frequently be found training and racing in outrigger canoes. While distinct as a sport, va’a requires similar muscles and skills as SUP. These athletes have leaned into the crossover between the two sports, seemingly to their own benefit and certainly to the benefit of both sports.

A Samoan man half kneels on a beach with outrigger canoes behind him. He wears traditional dress and blows a conch shell.

The opening ceremonies of the 2023 IVF World Distance Championships featured many Samoan traditions, including the blowing of conch shells. If this is feeling unexpectedly familiar, you may be a Moana fan – Moana was largely based on Samoa and Samoan culture (photo: Xavier Keutch / International Va’a Federation)

Va’a Racing

Va’a could be called a “sister” sport to stand-up paddleboarding, though “grandmother” sport might be more accurate. Where SUP claims just a few decades of history, va’a has millennia. Also called outrigger canoeing (Hawaii) or waka ama (Aotearoa New Zealand), va’a comes from Polynesian origins: the ancestors of today’s Pacific Islanders sailed and paddled across the seas in outrigger canoes – think Moana, literally.

With notable exceptions like the Hōkūleʻa, which voyages around the globe, outrigger is now primarily practiced as a canoe racing sport. The fastest teams typically coming from Tahiti, Hawaii, and Aotearoa New Zealand. You’ve probably heard of many of the biggest va’a races already – Molokai, the Gorge, Te Aito, Queen Liliuokalani…

The World Championships held by the International Va’a Federation alternate each year between Sprints and Distance: 2023 was Distance Worlds in Apia, Samoa and 2024 will be World Sprints held in Hilo, Hawaii. Titou and April took part in some of the most exciting races of the week: V1 (single person canoe) and V6 (six person canoe) in the Open age category (under 40).

Titou’s Silver Medal

In Open Men’s V1, Titou raced against the fastest representatives of 22 other nations in a 16km course consisting largely of two laps upwind and downwind on open ocean. Fortunately for Titou, the race organizers decided to proceed with the downwind course despite challenging conditions: “I was really happy the race course went outside the reef, because I’ve done too many SUP races where they keep the course inside for security reasons… So it was good surf. A little bit upwind of course, but upwind is easier in outrigger than SUP.”

Titouan Puyo riding a wave at IVF World Distance Championships 2023

Titouan Puyo catches a wave in V1 on his way to a silver medal at IVF World Distance Championships 2023 (photo: Xavier Keutch / International Va’a Federation)

Coming off the line too hot into a long upwind leg can be risky – racers could end up too tired to make the most of catching waves on the downwind leg. But Titou stuck to his strategy of going hard off the start: “The first upwind was a bit hard for me, like every start I started really hard. I tried to keep the rhythm and stay with them, so I was a bit tired for the first downwind. But I managed to pass some guys, and saw that a bit like in SUP, I was better in the downwind.”

On the second loop, Titou manged to calm down a bit on the upwind while keeping a head of the Brazilian in third place. Manutea Millon, a familiar name for outrigger paddlers, held onto a significant lead in first place – “he was just like on another planet. He’s on another level, he was far away in front.”


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Manutea Millon “on another level” surfing to a gold medal in V1 at IVF Distance World Champs in Samoa


From there, it was just a matter of keeping his position to the finish, where Puyo came second behind Manutea Millon of Aotearoa New Zealand and ahead of Robert Gonçalves of Brazil in 3rd. Although Brazil is newer on the va’a scene compared to the Pacific island nations, the sport has been growing rapidly there in recent years. Robert’s fans dominated the comment box on the race livestream. His bronze medal was a huge finish for Brazil which has just been officially named as the host for the next IVF World Distance Champs in 2025.

Will Reichenstein from the US came 4th – you might know him better as the Will in “Kel and Will” of the Cocktails and Canoes podcast, which is well worth a listen. Their latest two episodes cover race recaps from the winning teams of the Open Men’s and Women’s V6 events in Samoa. Check out the full race results, or rewatch all the races in full on the IVF YouTube channel.

For more about how Titou got into outrigger and how it compares to SUP:

April’s Gold Medal

SUP star athlete and coach April Zilg’s win came in her V6 race where Team USA finished an impressive 3 minutes and 34 seconds ahead of Aotearoa New Zealand in second place. With most of the team being based in California, April made a huge commitment to fly out for trainings with them as often as possible from her home in North Carolina. Sporting the new Stingray from Quickblade, this crew’s win shook up the va’a scene. It’s not the blade that makes the paddler though. This was seriously a superstar team. The winning US women’s crew also included former Olympic Kayaker Krisztina Fazekas-Zur. Although it’s been a few years since she won a gold medal in K4 at the Rio Olympics, the Hungarian-American is as fit as ever. In just a few months, she figured out how to translate her flatwater sprint kayak skills into single-blade, distance ocean racing. Her teammates knew that she would be worth the effort. And in the end, it all paid off. The US women shot off the start and picked up speed so quickly, most of the field simply lost sight of them.

Although the comments section of the race was flooded with questions from outrigger paddlers all over the world asking about the Stingray, it remains to be seen whether the new blade will penetrate the outrigger market beyond California.

Team USA women in V6 with their distinctively-shaped Quickblade Stingray paddles

USA Women on their way to victory at IVF Distance World Championships in Samoa (photo: Xavier Keutch / International Va’a Federation)