A eulogy by his only surviving sibling, younger sister Tepaeru Whitta, 83, recounted humorous stories of growing up with Papa Tom on Rarotonga. Like the time (as a very young boy) he took four coconuts, tied them up in pairs, slung them under his arms and swam out of Avarua channel into open sea.
He was brought back to shore on a canoe. “He then thought, oh, this is much better and the next time he pinched a canoe and went out again much, much further by himself…our mother had to beg the boss of the Union Steamship Company to send a boat out to tow him back.” Those early feats would have been a good sign of seafaring things to occur in Papa Tom’s life. And it wouldn’t be the last time he would ‘pinch’ a vaka.
There is a memorable time in 1996 when Papa Tom defied authorities, sailed to Aitutaki on vaka Takitumu the ocean-going double-hulled canoe and then ‘swapped’ it for the larger, faster Te Au O Tonga. He ignored official bleats of protest and with his merry crew, sailed off for the South Pacific Festival of Arts in Samoa. That escapade was immortalised in the lively song Who stole my Vaka?
The revival of traditional voyaging in the Pacific using majestic ocean voyaging double-hulled canoes was largely due to Papa Tom. Few could match his skill as a traditional navigator, designer and builder of these great ocean-going canoes. He designed and built three ocean voyaging vaka, Takitumu, Te Au O Tonga and finally, when he was in his eighties, a 24 metre vaka for Te Wananga O Aotearoa. He became an honorary Professor of Polynesian Migration and Culture with Te Wananga O Aotearoa.