On 17 June, as the last rays of the sun illuminated the scene, a doubled-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe, the 61-foot Hokulea, passed through the reef outside Honolulu, Hawaii. Her escort vessel, the similar 72-foot Hikianalia, followed close behind. It was the beginning of what will be a 36-month, 47,000-mile circumnavigation of the world. A total of 86 ports in 26 countries will be visited. The first leg will end at Tahiti, 2,700 miles away.
Built in 1975, the Hokulea is a faithful replica of the Polynesian sailing vessels used by ancient seafarers who sailed great distances through Oceania (Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia). Her two hulls are constructed from contemporary materials, but the basic designs of hull form, sail rigs, and deck gear are hundreds of years old.
Essentially a catamaran, the Hokulea has no propulsion equipment on board. There are radios to maintain communications with the 16-person crew on board the Hikianalia. This link provides a means to transmit regular news reports to the world about the voyage’s progress.
Built in 2012, the Hikianalia is escort, safety, and medical-support vessel all rolled into one. She has a modest twin-screw electric propulsion system powered by solar cells. This will be useful for towing the Hokulea in and out of ports as well as for recovery should a crew member fall overboard. The Hikianalia also serves as the relay station for radio and image traffic to and from the voyage.
Navigating the Hokulea is an exercise in “seaman’s eye” writ large. As with traditional Polynesian craft, she carries no conventional navigational equipment. All navigation is done by painstaking observation of the skies, the seas, weather patterns, and wildlife when near land. The vessel’s 13-person crew will be voyaging the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
Wayfinding has been a major part of Hawaiian cultural history, yet it was just about extinct, with no one left in Hawaii to teach it. That changed about 40 years ago, when the master teacher “Papa Mau” Piailug, from the Micronesian island of Satawal in the Caroline Islands, agreed to instruct a small group of Hawaiians. One of the last five Micronesian wayfinders, he was at first reluctant but then realized that this knowledge could disappear from Oceania after his death.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed in Hawaii in 1973, and teaching began. One of the first tasks was to construct a sailing canoe that would be an accurate replica of the ancient designs. The Hokulea was launched two years later.
It had been 600 years since the last great Pacific Ocean voyages by sailing canoes. So this was all new for the Hawaiians. Beginning in the mid-1970s, extensive training voyages were done in and among the Hawaiian islands. Ultimately, 12 new captains and 12 new navigators were qualified.
Papa Mau’s last trip was to Tahiti in 1980. It was a “graduation exercise,” and the 2,700-mile trip satisfied him. He had done his job; the wayfinders’ ancient skills had been passed on. He died in July 2010.
Since her launch, the Hokulea has sailed 130,000 miles, voyaging to places as far away as Japan, the U.S. West Coast, and Easter Island. Preparations for the present circumnavigation have taken nearly six years. The goal was to build a corps of qualified canoe sailors and traditional navigators. More than 300 crew members from 16 countries have been trained and will sail various legs of the voyage. For continuity, both canoes will be staffed by a core team of veterans from earlier voyages.
Today, the revival of wayfinding has spread beyond Hawaii to 11 Pacific nations. There are 25 voyaging canoes supported by 21 organizations with a combined membership of 1,000 active voyagers.
In the contemporary world of reliable high-tech navigational systems, it seems anachronistic for a ship to sail any distance using only seaman’s eye. But the ancient peoples of Oceania successfully did this for more than a millennium. So the worldwide trek of the Hokulea is mostly a voyage of rediscovery—rediscovery of a seagoing cultural heritage that was almost lost.
You can follow the journey’s progress at www.Hokulea.com.