This spring, two double-hulled canoes, Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia, will set off for what organizers are calling the Moananuiākea Voyage—a 41,000-mile, 42-month circumnavigation of the Pacific. The boats will visit 46 countries and archipelagos that are home to nearly 100 indigenous territories and 345 ports. The goal of the voyage? Education about oceanic and environmental health and the impact both have on the indigenous people of the region.
“Today we find ourselves facing some of the most challenging threats we’ve ever faced. From this global pandemic to burning forests, emptying oceans, melting glaciers, rising seas, and storms that will change both the Earth and humanity,” says Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the group in charge of the Hōkūle‘a project, and a Pwo, or master, navigator. “With the Moananuiākea Voyage, we feel the urgency to seek out and connect a new generation of bold, brilliant and caring leaders around the world who can chart a course for a flourishing future for Hawaii, the Pacific and the Earth.”
This will be the first major voyage for Hōkūle‘a since its 2014 circumnavigation. In addition to exhibiting the canoe in ports around the globe, that circumnavigation provided the opportunity to train a group of navigators that will be with the project for years to come. “Right now we have a lot of young people—18, 19, 20. Then you have our group in their 60s and another group in their 30s. Both men and women. In fact, many of the navigators now are women,” says Bruce Blankenfeld, also a Pwo navigator.
In maintaining and sailing Hōkūle‘a, the group is also playing a vital role in preserving tradition and a respect for the old way of doing things. As Thompson puts it, “What you don’t understand, you won’t protect," a fact that is all the more timely and important given the increasing threat of climate change in the region.
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of Indigenous communities worldwide, even though Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions.” This impact is especially personal for remote Pacific communities, where the ocean is an essential part of their cultural heritage.
Children throughout Oceania, for example, are well versed in the story of Lata, a rich and immersive Polynesian myth that tells of the triumphs and follies of the region's first voyager. Woven into the tale are instructions for how to build and sail canoes, as well as life lessons and cultural mandates. According to the story, all people who tell it are Lata’s descendants.
These days, a garbage patch well over half a million square miles in area would clog Lata’s path. By drawing attention to this kind of industrial impact, the Moananuiākea tour hopes to raise awareness of the specific oceanic impacts of pollution and the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with the Earth—a natural fit for Hōkūle‘a, given cultural justice and preservation, in one form or another, has been built into its DNA from the outset.
“We grew up in Hawaii, our ancestry is Hawaiian,” Blankenfeld says. But that lineage came under attack in the 1890s when a coup overthrew Queen Lili'uokalani, and the island nation was annexed to the United States. “After that,” Blankenfeld says, “there was a push for cultural amnesia, making the Hawaiian culture insignificant. So growing up, there was a yearning, so to speak, to rediscover Hawaiian culture. Then along came Hōkūle‘a.”
In the 1970s, with the threat of cultural extinction looming, artist and historian Herb Kane drew a voyaging canoe like the ones that the first inhabitants of Hawaii arrived on thousands of years earlier. It was not a replica of just any Pacific voyaging canoe, but a distinctly Hawaiian design that set it apart from the canoes of Tahiti or the Marquesas. Hundreds of years had passed since the last double-hulled canoes had been built for voyaging, but Kane’s drawings ultimately became the starting point for Hōkūle‘a and a new generation of Hawaiian canoes.
Organizers also wanted to re-invest in the legacy of the Hawaiian people by sailing the boat over a 5,000-mile course to Tahiti and back. There were obstacles, however. The broken line of ancestral knowledge meant all but two of the original navigational stars were lost, so Nainoa Thompson had to map a new star compass to guide them. There were also no navigators left, so they recruited Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug to help mentor to the project and share his own Micronesian traditions in order to recreate the voyaging traditions of Hawaii.
“Hōkūle‘a allowed us to look at the land of our ancestors and rediscover them, and reconnect with other Pacific Islander groups, like the Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanisian people,” Blankenfeld says. “That was at the heart of it. That still is at the heart of it.”
The voyage was a success, so much so that upon returning not everyone was ready to say goodbye, and a small group took over the continued care of Hōkūle‘a in 1977.
“She wasn’t built from materials that you expect to last for, at this point, 46 years. She was originally built as a project. That was it. But she’s been sailing for 200,000 miles. We’ve taken care of her over the years and kept her going,” says Blankenfeld, who has been volunteering with maintenance since 1977 and in charge of maintenance and dry docks since 1997.
Not surprisingly, maintaining the canoe requires constant attention. Though made from modern materials like plywood and fiberglass, there are no screws, nails, bolts or glue holding Hōkūle‘a together. Instead, over six miles of lashing binds the hulls to the ‘iako, or cross beams, as would’ve been the case on a traditional double-hulled canoe. This can take thousands of hours to complete and must be redone about once per decade.
Of course, the Polynesian Voyaging Society is not the only project trying to replicate the voyaging canoes of old. Some may recall the Te Mana o Te Moana Voyage of 2011-12, funded by Germany’s Okeanos Foundation. Hikianalia, the canoe that will accompany Hōkūle‘a on the Moananuiākea Voyage, was built by Okeanos. In total, the foundation has constructed eight Vaka Moana (ocean voyaging canoes) and a number of Vaka Motus (inter-island canoes). The fleet has collectively sailed over 500,000 miles, carrying both passengers and freight, and taking part in health service, education, disaster relief and research missions throughout the Pacific. Though Okeanos manages the boats, the ultimate goal is to hand the fleet over to various independent, local operators.
This investment into commercially sustainable modern canoes has proved invaluable in helping garner interest in traditional voyaging. However, these commercial endeavors shouldn’t be mistaken for authentic traditional craft. They’re held together with modern adhesives and metal fasteners, after all. Their other drawback is cost, since many require support boats and licensed ships masters. Modern safety measures can also limit a navigator’s ability to manage the boats the old-fashioned way.
Luckily, there remain those Pacific seafarers who continue on according to tradition. For example, Taumako, a small island in the Solomons, is home to one of the few remaining populations with an unbroken line to its voyaging ancestors. In recent years, the community has rallied to learn from the elders and build a Te Puke (the largest form of Vaka o Lata, or “canoe of Lata’s heirs”) with the help of the Vaka Taumako Project. The project aims to train a new generation to build, sail and navigate in an ancestral way, as well as documenting and publishing endangered ancient knowledge.
“Voyaging was suppressed. It was made illegal. When the British came in, they confiscated the canoes,” says Mimi George, Ph.D, principal investigator of the Vaka Taumako Project and director of the Pacific Traditions Society. There was serious danger that voyaging in the Solomon Islands was going the way of Hawaii’s lost traditions. However, the islands in this region are small and unable to sustain their communities without an oceanic trade network, so the Taumako people had little choice but to carry on.
“Their leader, Chief Kaveia, continued voyaging as an outlaw basically,” George says.
In the 1970s, the original Hōkūle‘a crew sent a letter to the Taumako people to ask for their assistance navigating to Tahiti, but the patrol officer in the Solomon Islands had no way of contacting them, and the letter went unanswered. Because Taumako is so remote, to this day modern materials and techniques have been eschewed in favor of the way things have always been done. “Over there, the real wonder and beauty of it is they go into the forest and they get these trees and build these canoes and make the rope to bind it together and weave the sails from traditional materials,” says Blankenfeld. “It’s totally old school.” This means that their Te Puke are much more similar to the ancient way of doing things than Hōkūle‘a or the Okeanos fleet is, giving a true glimpse into the past.
Ultimately, there’s no single best approach to preserving the ways of history’s greatest sailing society. The modern and authentic approaches are necessary compliments, with the former educating and sharing while the latter preserves and protects. Whether on a traditional craft or a reconstruction, the sailors share a common interest in preserving the ocean and their heritage alike. “Voyaging canoes go hand in hand with discovery, going over the horizon, operating with this basic sense of vision and purpose, and figuring out what’s out there,” says Blankenfeld. “It’s part of our lives, it always has been. It’s been part of the lives of all those who’ve lived here over the millenia.”
When Nainoa Thompson asked Mau Piailug to return to Hawaii and teach him everything he knew, Piailug responded, “I can't teach you what I know, you are too old. Send me your babies and I will teach them.” Voyaging requires a sophisticated nature-centric navigational system that takes a lifetime to master. Here’s a taste of what goes into it:
• There are two key points of the day for navigation: sunrise and sunset. The colors in the sky tell you the weather for the next 12 hours. Look at the swells, set the boat and do it all again 12 hours later.
• Follow the birds. Seabirds can be spotted 100 miles from land and will reliably fly away from shore at sunrise, and then return to shore at sunset.
• Know the stars. The star compass used by
Hōkūle‘a is a modern invention, but it’s based on an ancient system. It divides the horizon into 32 “directional houses,” grouped into four quadrants: Ho’olua (the northwest horizon) Ko’olau (the northeast horizon), Malanai (the southeast horizon) and Kona (the southwest horizon).
• Speed and distance are calculated by looking at the water. Find the distance between two points on the hull and measure how long it takes for bubbles or debris in the water to pass between the two. Hōkūle‘a has a system for this in which taking five seconds to pass from one ‘iako to the other is roughly 5 knots.
• Use the sun. That the sun rises in the east and sets in the west is common knowledge, but it’s also not quite accurate. Depending on the hemisphere and time of year, it may be well north or south of true east and west. Navigators align the rising or setting sun with respect to eight marks on the canoe which, when viewed from the navigator’s position at the stern, give 32 bearings to match the 32 segments of the Hawaiian star compass.
Though most indigenous Pacific vessels have similarities, like multiple hulls and ‘iako, there’s plenty of regional diversity as well.
has an LOA of 62ft, a beam of 20 feet and draws 3ft 6in. She’s rated for 12.5 tons, with two hulls and crab-claw sails, all of which is thought to have been typical of the Hawaiian canoes.
By contrast, Micronesian canoes are smaller with an LOA of 36-40ft and drawing 2ft. They also have more of a keel than Hawaiian designs, so there’s better lateral resistance. But what really makes them unique is that they’re "shunting" canoes that don’t tack through the wind the way most boats do. Instead, the hull is symmetrical with no designated bow or stern. An outrigger remains upwind, and the sail is moved to change its orientation to the wind rather than changing the orientation of the entire boat.
Then, there are the Te Puke of the Solomon Islands with their unmistakable crescent sails and hulls so low in the water they’re almost submerged. Sailors sit high above the hull on the Lakauhalava, or crossbeams. These craft also often have a small cabin for shelter and cargo storage.