Featured Story

Much More than a Boat Race

A crew of 49 oarsmen from LDS Church College Pesega powered the La O Samoa (Samoan Sun) to an impressive 3rd place finish in the fautasi race that marked the beginning of Samoa’s 51st Independence Celebration last month.

In doing so, they united their families, fellow students, teachers, fans, and the entire village of Lepea in cheers and gratitude for this significant accomplishment.

A fautasi is a traditional Samoan longboat, 80-90 feet long, with a crew of up to 50 oarsmen, a drummer and a captain. The race covers five miles of ocean and finishes in the Apia Harbour.

The nearby village of Lepea owns the La O Samoa. At the request of principal Leo Leauanae and teacher Faavae Lepule, they agreed to let the school represent them in the 2013 race. This boat had never before finished in the top three. They would be going up against older and more experienced crews.

Oarsmen were recruited from the student body and from a few recent graduates. Many were players on the school’s successful rugby team.

Most were 14 to 18 years old and new to the sport. The oldest was 19. About 10-12 had rowed last year in a 50/50 crew of Pesega students and Lepea villagers that finished 7th.

Principal Leauanae was joined by the Church’s middle school principal, Mika Lolo, and several other teachers to act as trainers, managers and advisers. Faavae Lepule was made the boat’s captain; it would be his first time to command and steer a fautasi during a race. He soon became known as “Cap.”

The principal and the teachers had a plan. They had more than a boat race in mind.

Training started in March. The young men ran and did sit-ups, push-ups and other exercises each day before school. After school they pushed and pulled on sandbags to build upper-body strength.

Through it all, the students attended class and kept up on their homework. The trainers had each young man make his own wooden oar and metal oarlock. They told them there would be no more being late to class, forgetting to wear shoes or causing trouble in school. Academic performance and citizenship improved.

The village of Lepea and the school had coexisted for years, but had never had much of a relationship. Principal Leauanae wanted to change that. He had the team clean up the village green and an important concrete monument.

He and other trainers visited the village several times during “curfew,” a time when travel is halted and families go inside their homes to hold a devotional. He often stayed on to talk and visit. He tried to familiarize the team with village traditions and customs.

Two weeks before the race the young men, the principal, the captain, training staff and managers moved into a large open-sided pavilion near the school for a “camp.” At that time there were about 75 young men vying for 49 rowing positions. The 50th crew member is a drummer.

They held a devotional each day at 4am, went out for two hours of physical training, then showered, made breakfast, attended school, and trained again. They sang before, during and after. In the evenings they rowed on the ocean.

Each night they held a team meeting and another devotional. They had morning and evening prayers. They held a “family home evening” on Monday nights and went to church together on Sundays.

The young men got stronger, kept up on their school work, bonded with each other and their leaders, and thought more about spiritual things. Discipline improved.

They washed their own clothes. They took turns cutting wood for the cook fire, preparing the meals, washing dishes, cleaning the pavilion, and leading the devotional. Principal Leauanae said, “Before camp, some of them had never washed or folded clothes before. I wanted them to learn how.”

Russell Tauti, one of the few experienced oarsmen, said about the camp: “At first I thought it would be easy, but it was so hard.” He chose Alma 34 (from The Book of Mormon) for his devotional talk, “…because it talks about this life being the time to prepare.”

The night before the race the final crew of 49 was announced. Fagaloia Vaetoe said, “I was nervous about whether I would be chosen.  On Thursday, the day before the race, the principal was given the final list of the boys who would row.  I was so happy to hear my name called.”

To their credit, those who were not chosen stayed on to help the team.

Race day was rainy and windy; it would be a rough day on the water. The team arose at 6am and held their devotional. Some made last minute refinements on their oars. Everyone stretched and warmed up. They dressed in brand new uniforms in the school colours. They had Lepea on the front and La O Samoa on the back.

By 7am the team was kneeling on the village green of Lepea. In front of the entire village they received a traditional ceremony of thanks and encouragement. The team gave the village a cheer and left for the harbour.

At the launching site, they hoisted the heavy boat high above their heads and manoeuvred it into the water. They held a team prayer and sang a favourite hymn of Mormon missionaries in Samoa: “Fitafita O Siona” (Soldiers of Zion). They performed a battle chant and received last minute encouragement from their trainers. The high chief of Lepea, Afioga Vaitagutu Masoe, spoke.

With oars over their shoulders, they walked to the boat between parallel lines of students, teachers and parents. They shook hands, slapped backs and shared a few hugs. Several of those who were not chosen to row vigorously embraced those who were, even wading into the water to do so.

Cap Lepule signalled with his arms and a whistle to get ready and then to go. The starting line was three or four miles away, out of sight around Mulinuu Point. Fans would listen to most of the race over the radio. For those who stayed home, it was broadcast live on television from a chase boat.

The race started at 11:45am. The wind and waves made rowing difficult. One boat nearly swamped. The announcers described a fierce battle for third involving “…the La O Samoa, the boat from Lepea with a crew from LDS Church College Pesega…” and two other boats.

About a half hour later, the lead boat appeared around the point, heading for the finish line with about a mile to go. It was soon followed by a second boat, then the La O Samoa, then the others.

The La O Samoa took third place going away. In the last mile it had been closing in on the second place boat. It was the highest finish ever for the La O Samoa. The school and the village of Lepea were overjoyed.

Some of the boats they beat are well known throughout Samoa. According to one newspaper, the captain of the second boat “…was impressed with the fitness of the La O Samoa crew who she said nearly caught up with them.”

The crowd cheered when the team returned to shore. Teammates hugged each other, parents hugged their sons, and school mates cheered, shook hands and slapped backs. The high chief of Lepea gave a traditional speech of congratulations. Team pictures were taken. The photos show many of the crew holding out three fingers, meaning, “Top three finish!”

An hour later, cheering students lined the street leading to the school’s gym as the team’s bus slowly drove past, led by honking cars and waving banners.

The team sang a victory song followed by a hymn at an impromptu celebration assembly in the gym. Latter-day Saint leader Elder Meliula Fata spoke. A security guard shook hands with every oarsman on the front row.

Later at the village they were greeted by people waving palm tree leaves, a traditional sign of happiness.

Cap Lepule said, “The boys promised to lift up the school’s spirit and lift their performance in academics, to do what their teachers ask, attend school every day, and fulfill their assignments.” He said he saw that happening even before race day.

Reflecting on their shared journey, he said, “When it was over, it was very hard for them to be released [from the experience].”

Principal Leauanae observed, “The people of the village and the school were excited before and after the race. Now the people of the village look after the children. When they see them walking by they call out and say, ‘Hello!’, and, ‘Make sure you go to class.’” Several new students from Lepea have enrolled in the school.

When asked what the best thing was about his experience, Russell Tauti answered, “The great relationships I have with the other members of the team. Before I just knew them at school, but now I know them well. It has been a blessing for me.  It is great preparation for my mission. It prepares me for building good relationships with my companions.” 

He was recently called to serve in the Australia Melbourne Mission.

Fagaloia Vaetoe said, “I was so happy to see my parents visit us at camp and help and support the team. I want to marry in the temple, have a family and follow my parents’ example to be interested in what my children are doing and support them.” He has been called to serve a mission in Papua New Guinea.

The principal and his teachers had a plan for the young men: to learn to wash clothes and cook food; to respect teachers, improve in academics, set an example, and increase spirit for the school; to build a relationship with their neighbours in Lepea; to bond with teammates; to improve physical conditioning; to increase self-discipline, courage, and determination; to improve spirituality.

They had more than a boat race in mind.

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