January 26, 2009 / 1:39 AM / 11 years ago

Ancient Polynesian seafaring renaissance

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Polynesian voyaging canoe will set sail from Hawaii in March and head into the South Pacific, aiming to reach tiny Palmyra Atoll near Kiribati using only an ancient seafaring skill known as “wayfinding.”

An undated handout photograph shows a scale model of an ocean-going Masawa canoe from the Trobriand Islands, part of an exhibition called "Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors" at Sydney's Australian Maritime Museum. REUTERS/Australian National Maritime Museum/Handout

The double hulled canoe, similar to the canoes that sailed across the Pacific thousands of years before European explorers voyaged to the world’s largest ocean, will cover some 2,000 miles in the round trip.

The open ocean trip, using no modern navigational equipment, will be a training exercise for future voyages and is part of a renaissance in Polynesian voyaging that is helping to preserve and spread an ancient seafaring culture.

“We sail because we believe that the voyaging canoes have a role in today’s society ... keeping us connected to who we are today in the 21st century, by clearly knowing who we were and where we come from,” says Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, who has sailed on 24 voyages across the Pacific.

“In the absence of that understanding we have no identity, we have no distinction and to be homogenized into the rest of the world, to me, would be a cultural failure,” Thompson says in a video presentation that is part of the “Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors” exhibition at Sydney’s National Maritime Museum.

Vaka Moana means Ocean Canoe and traces the world’s first blue-water sailors as they set out from Southeast Asia in sailing canoes to explore and settle the islands of the South Pacific.


Using an open ocean navigation called “wayfinding,” based on sea and sky observations, they crossed the vast Pacific some 2,500 years before Portuguese, Spaniards and other western seafarers made their first trans-ocean voyages.

“It was the major final push by humans to the most remote and inaccessible parts of the planet,” New Zealand historian Kerry Howe, an expert on Polynesian voyaging, told Reuters.

“Once the islands of the Pacific were discovered and settled that was the end of terrestrial exploration and settlement on earth. If we want to go further we have to leave the planet.”

By the time Western explorers such as Britain’s Captain James Cook sailed to the Pacific, only a handful of islands had not been settled by these ancient mariners using “wayfinding.”

Wayfinding navigation involved an intricate knowledge of the stars, such as memorizing a 32-point star compass by Micronesian navigators, knowing where stars rose and fell over the horizon, reading ocean swells, cloud formations and bird flight patterns.

Charts were made of sticks that recorded ocean swells and attached sea shells depicted islands, allowing a navigator to judge the distance he had sailed.

Islands were positioned using ancient Polynesian stories and “wayfinding” allowed a navigator to steer his canoe toward an island hundreds of kilometers away.

Once ancient Polynesians discovered new islands, they would sail home in the east-west trade winds and return back in large canoes with people, food and livestock.

“This was a remarkable intellectual feat. We are used to using modern devices, compasses and charts. The wayfinding techniques they used were memorized and handed down,” said Howe.

But by the time Britain’s Cook landed in Tahiti in the 18th century, these voyages of exploration and settlement had ceased, yet Cook said even the smaller inter-island canoes he encountered still outsailed his European ships.

The arrival of Cook and other Western explorers marked the beginning of the demise of Polynesian voyaging. Within years many Polynesian chiefs had abandoned their canoes for European ships, and adopted compasses and paper charts.


By the 20th century, the ancient navigation skills that enabled the Pacific to be explored and settled were virtually lost. Only a handful of “wayfinding” navigators were still alive in the remote Caroline Islands of Micronesia and they feared their skills would die with them.

“None of the young kids wanted to learn how to navigate or go sailing, they wanted to have motorbikes, drink beer and play pool,” explains Ben Finney, co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii.

In 1975, the Polynesian Voyaging Society built the first voyaging canoe in Hawaii for more than 600 years. In 1976, the 62 foot (20 meter) double-hulled “Hokule’a,” using only “wayfinding” navigation, made an historic trip to Tahiti and back.

Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug was brought to Hawaii for the trip and to teach Hawaiians their lost seafaring skills.

“The aim was to not make this a white man’s adventure, but to make it a cultural revival and that has succeeded,” said Finney.

The Hokule’a has since sailed more than 125,000 nautical miles or five times around the world and fueled a renaissance in Polynesian voyaging.

“People sail to experience and celebrate their ancestral achievements as the greatest seafarers in the world,” said Finney in a telephone interview from Hawaii.

Despite the dangers of open ocean sailing and lack of modern technology, there has been only one voyaging death.

Hawaiian big wave surfer Eddie Aikau was lost at sea in 1978 on the second Hokule’a trip, when the canoe capsized and he attempted to paddle a surfboard to a distant island to get help.

An undated handout photograph shows a seven-metre-long (22.9 feet) Tikopian outrigger canoe which is part of an exhibition called "Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors" at Sydney's Australian Maritime Museum. REUTERS/Australian National Maritime Museum/Handout

Aikau’s death has helped inspire a generation of Hawaiians to recapture their lost seafaring heritage, says Finney.

Modern Polynesian voyaging canoes are now the centerpiece of cultural festivals throughout the Pacific. Thousands of young Pacific islanders compete in canoe racing in New Zealand and there are several canoe building projects underway.

“It’s become not just an exercise in relearning the traditional arts, but it’s become a centerpiece of Polynesian nationalism all around the Pacific,” said Howe.

Editing by Megan Goldin

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