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Feature

Riding Ancient Waves

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, May/June 1999 | Volume 20, Number 3

A thousand years ago, the Polynesians ventured across the vastness of the Pacific guided only by the waves and stars. They created an empire of ocean at a time when most seafaring Europeans hugged their coastlines and believed that if they strayed too far they would fall off the earth.

How the Polynesians found their way across the ocean was a skill lost for generations. The story of its rediscovery by a new generation of Polynesians is told in Gail Evenari’s documentary, Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey.

The story begins two hundred and thirty years ago when a famous British sea captain met a Polynesian shaman. Captain James Cook was amazed by the Tahitian’s accounts of Polynesian voyages, many in the opposite directions of the prevailing winds. Tupaia told Cook of exploration, discovery, and migration to rival the accounts of Europe’s boldest adventurers, but with a striking difference: The Polynesians staked their claims across the open sea instead of land.

As Cook and his officers learned the Tahitian language, they persuaded Tupaia to describe the long voyages of his people, detailing the far-flung outposts of Polynesian society. In his diary, Cook described this as "by far the most extensive nation upon earth." Tupaia agreed to sail with Cook through much of Polynesian and on to England.

Tupaia’s map, redrawn by Cook and later by other members of the crew, places seventy-five islands in the Polynesians’ ocean realm, with Tahiti at the center. Modern geographers can positively identify about two-thirds of them. The remaining mysteries may not point so much to Tupaia’s ignorance as the Europeans’ misunderstanding of Tahitian words for north and south.

The area described by Tupaia comprises much of what is now Polynesia, a stretch of ocean larger than the continental United States. This roughly triangular area includes Hawai‘i in the north, Easter Island in the east and New Zealand in the southwest. Archaeologists estimate that pioneers sailed from the Caroline Islands near the coast of New Guinea to Samoa in central Polynesia between three and four thousand years ago. From there the seafarers reached all the habitable islands in the Pacific by about a.d. 1000. Easter Island, more than a thousand miles east of its nearest inhabited neighbor, was settled around 300 a.d.

As Polynesians settled the last of the Pacific islands, Basques from Iberia were bringing cod back from the Grand Banks off Canada’s east coast and Vikings had built villages in what is now Newfoundland. But after 1000 a.d., Atlantic crossings virtually ceased for five hundred years while Pacific voyaging continued.

The pattern of settlement across the Pacific resulted in cultures of striking homogeneity despite the intervening miles of ocean. In addition to the same mother tongue, the pioneers took with them many of the same domesticated plants and animals, from bananas and sweet potatoes to pigs and chickens. Time and distance wrought many changes, but similarities of custom and speech remained. When Cook arrived in New Zealand, it was Tupaia who broke the language barrier, using his Tahitian dialect to communicate with the Maoris.

Polynesians knew how to plot a course eastward in their speedy canoes by taking advantage of seasonal interruptions in the prevailing westward trade winds. Tupaia shared his knowledge with the Europeans, as did other Polynesian navigators. But their skills and credibility faded quickly. Tupaia died on the voyage back to England and Cook was killed in Hawaii a few years later.

Soon after, colonial powers prohibited sailing without compass or mechanical instruments in Tahiti and the Marquesas, and European historians rejected the concept of Polynesian settlement as one of deliberate exploration. They insisted instead that pioneers arrived at new islands entirely by accident, blown off course in their inadequate boats. This view prevailed well into the second half of the twentieth century. As European navigation techniques spread, traditional knowledge waned. By the 1970s, Polynesian navigation and canoe-building techniques were almost forgotten.

Evenari tells how the resurgence of interest in native culture in the seventies brought one of the last remaining traditional navigators to Hawai‘i. Mau Piailug is from the Caroline Islands, west of Polynesia in Micronesia. He learned navigation from his grandfather and has spent his life practicing and teaching. He was persuaded by the newly founded Polynesian Voyaging Society to come to Hawai‘i to pass on that knowledge. Voyaging Society founders intended to disprove the Western theory of "accidental" settlement of Polynesia by sailing traditional canoes by traditional methods.

Herb Kane, one of the three founders of the Voyaging Society, explains the cultural importance of traditional voyaging. "Polynesians were the only deep water sailors in the world for at least two thousand years….We felt that by rekindling what was the central object of Polynesia, and putting it to hard use, that this would inspire a general revival of Polynesian culture."

In 1976, the first long-distance voyage in centuries used the old navigation techniques to guide a replica of an ancient voyaging canoe 2,400 miles from Hawai‘i to Tahiti. The canoe arrived at the time and location predicted by Piailug, even though he had never navigated those waters or voyaged that far before. When Hokule‘a sailed into the harbor at Papeete, Tahiti, more than half the island’s population was there to welcome it.

A young Hawaiian who joined the crew for the return journey to Hawai‘i has since played a leading role in the revival of seafaring traditions. Nainoa Thompson became Piailug’s student and the first traditional navigator in his islands for many centuries. In the same canoe that Piailug sailed to Tahiti, Thompson has since navigated most of Polynesia. Evenari helped crew a two-year voyage on Hokule‘a. It began in 1985 and crossed 12,000 miles of ocean to New Zealand, retracing Polynesian settlement routes more than a thousand years old.

Thompson was among the first to suggest building a voyaging canoe using traditional materials and traditional methods. That vision became the Hawai‘iloa, named for the mythical Polynesian navigator credited with discovering and settling the Hawaiian Islands. Intrigued by her experience on Hokule‘a in the mid-eighties, Evenari followed the progress of building the new canoe closely.

The project was beset by difficulties. A search of the Hawaiian islands revealed forests so depleted that there were no koa trees large enough for the sixty-foot hulls. The art of making the woven lauhala sails had almost disappeared, and no one knew how to weave sennit, coconut husk fiber, into roping strong enough for the canoe.

Canvas replaced the lauhala and synthetic rope replaced the sennit, but the quest for the massive trees took the builders farther afield. Drifting logs of such large size had occasionally washed up on Hawaiian shores in the past. Considered gifts from the gods, the logs probably came from the forests of the Pacific coast of North America. It was the American Indians of southeast Alaska who found a solution to the problem of the hulls. They offered the Hawaiians a pair of Sitka spruce trees—each two hundred feet tall and seven feet in diameter—for the new canoe.

Building Hawai‘iloa took two years. Master canoe carver Wright Bowman, Jr., usually worked on logs three feet in diameter. "I’m scared," he admits on film. Bowman managed a rota of up to forty volunteers on the many tasks—cutting, chiseling, sanding, painting. The canoe was launched in July 1993 for sea testing. After modifications to reduce the weight, Hawai‘iloa was relaunched a year later.

For its first long voyage, Hawai‘iloa retraced the ancient settlement routes from Hawai‘i to Tahiti and the Marquesas and back. The return journey brought together six canoes—three from Hawai‘i, including Hokule‘a, two from Rarotonga, and one from New Zealand. Preparations were exhaustive, and each decision required consultation among the crews. A discussion about the merits of escort boats brought out many of the participants’ deepest passions. Some believed that Polynesian navigation would never achieve real legitimacy if the canoes were always trailed by fiberglass speedboats with electronic guidance systems. Thompson, however, did not hesitate. Recalling the crewmember lost at sea on an abortive attempt to sail from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1978, Thompson stated the unequivocal position of the Hawaiians: The safety of the crew is paramount. "We who have the most experience will no way sail without an escort boat….We’ve made mistakes and we’ve paid dearly for them. We are not in a position to make the same ones again."

Thompson and Piailug worked hard planning the voyage and adding to the younger navigators’ store of knowledge about sea and sky. But for the voyage itself, they stepped back to let others prove their skills. On the crew list of Hokule‘a, Thompson was assigned to education and fishing; Piailug had no title at all.

"Letting go was the hardest part for Nainoa," Evenari explains. Both he and Piailug knew that it was crucial for the students to move out of the shadows of their mentors, ensuring that this new generation of seafarers could pass the tradition on to the next.

The effort to prove the reliability of traditional navigation was a success—all six canoes covered the 2,200 miles from the Marquesas in three weeks using only the wind, waves, and stars to guide them. But successful did not mean trouble-free.

Crewmembers struggled to overcome many challenges associated with the maiden trip. Winds blew from the wrong directions, and sometimes there were no winds at all. Cloudy nights hid the navigational stars during parts of the passage. High seas left everyone cold and wet. Filming for Wayfinders had to fit in between watches (four hours on, eight hours off) and other tasks. Despite the difficulties, a comparison of the navigators’ estimated daily positions and satellite readings taken by the escort boats shows that they seldom varied by more than about ten miles.

Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a have been busy since the Marquesas voyage. Later that same summer, both canoes were shipped to Seattle. Hokule‘a sailed south along the coast to San Diego while Hawai‘iloa sailed north to Juneau, paying a visit to the American Indian tribes who donated her hulls. In 1996, the Voyaging Society sponsored a nine-month voyage around the Hawaiian Islands and then began work on its most ambitious voyage yet—to the most remote island of Polynesian settlement, Easter Island.

Known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui, Easter Island lies virtually alone in the eastern Pacific, more than two thousand miles upwind of Hawai‘i. The journey, starting this June, is expected to take about seven months. Because of Easter Island’s isolation, Hokule‘a will have to sail within forty-six miles of it during daylight hours to catch a glimpse of the island's highest point. In preparation for the arduous voyage, the canoe spent eight months in dry dock to strengthen its structure and reduce its weight.

On its return, Hokule‘a will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of its launch with a statewide journey, visiting more than thirty Hawaiian communities. The busy schedule reflects the renewed interest in Polynesian culture, in Hawai‘i and in other parts of Polynesia. According to Evenari, half a dozen new canoes have been built in New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands. Courses on traditional techniques are now taught in schools and universities. New navigators and sailors, both men and women, are learning the traditional skills and are keen to test their knowledge on the open sea. Many will get the opportunity to do just that during the Easter Island trip this summer.