Hokule'a nearing the end of its three-year around-the-world expedition
A 62-foot-long canoe is set to arrive June 17 in Honolulu, Hawaii. It will complete the first around-the-world voyage by a traditional Polynesian vessel. The trip began in May 2014, when the boat sailed westward from Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Since then, it has traveled five oceans and visited 19 countries. The boat is named the Hōkūleʻa. The word is Hawaiian for Arcturus, a guiding star for seafarers.
Nainoa Thompson is president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which organized the expedition. He has called vessels like the Hōkūleʻa “the spaceships of our ancestors.” Thompson added, “If you took all of the genius that has allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia.”
Pacific Islanders Were Highly Skilled Navigators
The around-the-world journey was planned in part to celebrate Polynesia’s unique form of traditional navigation. During an era when most Western sailors still feared to leave sight of shore, Pacific Islanders were criss-crossing an oceanic world covering nearly one-quarter of Earth’s surface, according to Wade Davis. He is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and also wrote a book on ancient wayfinding, or navigating.
For years, experts assumed the far-flung islands of the Pacific were settled after being found by sailors who were driven off-course by storms. But native Polynesians have long argued that settlement was the result of journeys of exploration by skilled navigators. Davis says that for centuries, Europeans refused to credit Polynesian achievements. They could not believe that a so-called primitive society was better at navigation than they were, he says.
Thompson was trained in the vanishing Pacific art of “wayfinding” by Mau Piailug of Micronesia. Piailug was one of the last of the traditionally schooled navigators. He died in 2010.
Following Piailug’s instructions, the Hōkūleʻa has been guided without modern aids such as charts, compasses and GPS. Instead, it relies on observation of the position of stars or planets, the direction of waves and the movement of seabirds to set its course. To maintain their sense of direction at night, the Hōkūleʻa navigators had to memorize the courses of more than 200 stars, along with their rising and setting locations on the horizon.
Although ancient in design, the Hōkūleʻa was made in part from modern materials including plywood. It replaced the scarce seasoned Hawaiian koa wood. The craft also has modern sails instead of ones woven from traditional lauhala leaves. The 17-member rotating crew had members who each served month-long stays.
Crew Navigated By Studying Stars And Cloud Patterns
The current trip is the latest of journeys that have taken place since the Hōkūleʻa was launched in 1975. Many Polynesians credit the current interest in long-distance canoe voyages with starting a cultural revival.
In their effort to retrace ancient voyages, the Hōkūleʻa crew learned the habits of land-based seabirds. They could use them to assess their distance from islands. Certain birds fly out further or closer to land. The crew also learned to read cloud patterns, sunset colors and the size of halos around stars to see what they might tell about the weather.
Ancient sailors supposedly had even more specialized methods of reading the environment. Davis says islands in the Pacific create unique wave patterns according to factors like coastal shape. Polynesian navigators of old could know which island they were approaching based on its fingerprint-like show of waves, Davis adds. By feeling the beat of water against their vessels, navigators like Piailug could determine the size and direction of ocean swells, Davis says. It helped them to orient themselves and detect the approach of weather, he explains.
“If science is based on inquiry, observation and exploration, then the ancient Polynesians were supreme ocean scientists,” Thompson says. He adds that navigators did more than just gather objective knowledge. He tells the story of his teacher Piailug, whose grandfather, also a navigator, used to throw young Piailug into the sea. He did this so the boy could “know the waves from the inside.”
“In Mau’s science you are the waves, you are the wind, you are the stars,” Thompson says. He thinks this can lead to “knowing without knowing how you know,” in which navigators can make the right decisions when there are few cues.
The voyages of the Hōkūleʻa over the decades have been followed by islanders throughout the Pacific. Former crew member Sam ‘Ohu Gon works closely with the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. He believes the trips have helped to restore pride in Polynesian culture. “It sparked a realization that the peoples of the Pacific are not separated by the oceans but connected by them,” Gon says.
For example, the teaching of Hawaiian language in public schools was banned. However, largely because of these voyages, which have become a symbol of Hawaiian culture, Gon says, “the language is now being revived and taught.” In 1996, Hawaiian was established as an official state language.
Bringing Attention To Climate Change
Gon says the goals of the Hōkūleʻa voyages include advocating for environmental protection. The latest around-the-world voyage is called “Mālama Honua,” which in Hawaiian means “to care for our island Earth.” It aims to focus attention on the worsening condition of the world’s oceans.
Thompson says he has seen big changes in the sea since he started voyaging in the 1970s. Now when the crew fishes for food, the catch is small. “Ninety percent of the edible fish have already been taken out of the seas,” he says.
Reefs, which feed and protect the residents of small islands, are bleaching yearly in many places. Bleaching happens when water is too warm and a coral reef expels its algae and turns white.
Climate change concerns include the rising sea level as well as salt water getting into freshwater supplies. Hurricanes are spreading as warming causes the tropical zone to expand. There are both rain shortages and floods.
“The Pacific islands have nothing to do with creating climate change but they are the ones who are suffering the most,” Thompson says. But he is hopeful that the looming crisis has sparked an awakening. “It is the Pacific's time,” he says. They found thousands of people there full of caring for the Earth and for the oceans, he says.