May, 2008 Vol. 33 No. 2
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Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies

Polynesian Voyaging Society

Vaka Taumako project

Published May 2008

Hokuleʻa’s Legacy Sails On

After 30 years, voyaging still sparks Hawaiian pride and academic study

by Dale Moana Gilmartin
Hokulea on the water
Hawaiians may have used a wind compass in voyaging. Photo by Naalehu Anthony, Palikū Documentary Films; wind compass graphic used with permission of Vaka Taumako Project.

The Hawaiian renaissance—arguably the most important social development in Hawaiʻi since statehood and the envy of indigenous nations throughout the world—can be traced to the successful completion of the 1976 voyage of Hokuleʻa, the replica of an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe, from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti. "The rebirth of traditional Hawaiian non-instrument navigation has made for a kind of cultural, spiritual and academic rebirth of the Hawaiian people," observes Polynesian Voyaging Society board member and UH Mānoa Professor of Hawaiian Studies Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa. Polynesian-style voyaging is now widely hailed as the most sophisticated and effective long-distance, non-instrument navigation in the history of global seafaring.

That wasn’t always the case. When Ben Finney was a young UH Mānoa graduate student in anthropology in the ’50s, scholars held that the Pacific islands were settled by chance. In 1966 he helped construct the first modern replica of a Polynesian voyaging canoe at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The 40-foot scale model of Kamehameha III’s double-hulled royal canoe, which Mary Kawena Pukui named Nalehia, meaning "the skilled ones," was too small for long distance voyaging, but the experience was instructive. The researchers gathered data on canoe performance to counter the prevailing theory that wind and current accidentally pushed crude Polynesian canoes to new islands.

"The critics were slandering a whole nation," says Finney, "But we didn’t have systematic studies to prove otherwise. All the old navigators of the Polynesian Triangle were gone, the old canoes had rotted away, and no one seemed to know much about them. But we could reconstruct the canoes and test them over a long voyaging route."

Stars and stones

Back in Hawaiʻi to teach at Mānoa, Finney formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society with Hawaiian artist Herb Kane and waterman Tommy Holmes in 1973. To show that the ancient Polynesians could have purposefully settled the Polynesian Triangle, the society constructed Hokuleʻa. The 62-foot replica was the first double-hulled voyaging canoe built in Hawai'i in more than 600 years. It left for Tahiti on May 1, 1976 and, without using instruments, arrived 33 days later in Papeete. The crossing dramatically demonstrated how ancient Polynesians could have used stars and swells to navigate long voyages of exploration and settlement; and it captured the imagination and sparked the pride of people throughout Polynesia.

Lilikala Kameeleihiwa
Voyaging influenced Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa’s views; now the professor of Hawaiian studies serves on the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s board of directors.

Geologist Barry Sinton and archaeologist Barry Rolett track travels through adze samples
Geologist John Sinton and archaeologist Barry Rolett track travels through adze samples

As subsequent voyages by Hokuleʻa and two later canoes reached as far as New Zealand, Rapa Nui and Japan, voyaging research became an interdisciplinary effort. Mānoa oceanographer Dixon Stroup and meteorologists Bernard Kilonsky and Thomas Shroeder documented trips using satellite tracking and on-board observations. More recently, archaeologist Barry Rolett teamed up with geologist John Sinton to study stone adzes unearthed at archeological sites in French Polynesia.

"Hokuleʻa and other Polynesian Voyaging Society voyages showed that intentional long-distance two-way voyages were possible, but they didn’t prove that they actually happened," explains Rolett. For physical evidence, he and Sinton analyzed the specific chemical composition of adzes found at well-dated archaeological sites in the Marquesas, where it is widely believed the first Hawaiians originated. High quality stone adzes were vitally important to a culture that didn’t possess metal implements. Knowing the chemical fingerprints of ancient tools enabled the researchers to identify the volcanic rock the adzes came from and trace their movement along inter-island trade routes in pre-European contact Polynesia.

The exchange pattern of adzes over time indicates that Polynesian long-distance voyaging reached its heyday approximately 800 years before Captain Cook arrived in Hawaiʻi and fell off sharply after 1450. "The results are pretty clear," says Rolett. "The adzes show that there was little inter-island contact in late prehistory but lots of open sea voyaging during earlier periods. The adzes confirm some of the oldest Hawaiian legends regarding long voyages." The work wouldn’t have been possible without the context provided by Hokuleʻa and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, he adds. "This is really their story."

Wayfinding with wind

The story continues to be written as Hawaiian and other Pacific island communities build additional canoes and rediscover more about how ancient voyagers found their way across vast Pacific seas. Hokuleʻa’s first voyage primarily depended on star map navigation. Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug used a traditional navigation system based on a mental star compass with observations of the stars, planets, moon, wind, ocean swells and the flight of navigator birds. He taught Nainoa Thompson, who integrated concepts such as nautical miles and degrees to guide Hokuleʻa throughout Polynesia.

Finney now believes that the ancient Polynesians employed a wind compass rather than one based on stars. "We used to think that the wind compass, which is actually a mental construct of bearings named after key wind directions rather than a physical instrument, had totally died out," he says. Then, in 1993 a colleague, anthropologist Marianne "Mimi" George, met Koloso Kaveia, an elder who could still navigate by the Polynesian wind compass. Kaveia comes from Taumako, a small volcanic island in the southeast Solomons far to the west of Hawaiʻi. It lies outside the Polynesian Triangle, but its inhabitants are of Polynesian descent, language, culture and lifestyle.

In 1994 Kaveia and George founded the Vaka Taumako Project to document this navigation system, rebuild the old canoes and navigate them between the islands using the wind compass. Like the Polynesian Voyaging Society, it is a cultural revival project steered by members of its own culture. Finney, who returned from Taumako early this year, hopes that once the Taumako people are regularly sailing their canoes again, Polynesians can make pilgrimages there to learn the ancestral way of navigating and the Taumako can sail their puke voyaging canoes around Polynesia to demonstrate their highly efficient double crab-claw sails woven from specially grown pandanus leaves.

A new generation

Now emeritus though hardly retired, Finney never lost his vision of Hokuleʻa as a floating classroom—a dream come true in school, community college and university classrooms across the state. Kameʻeleihiwa is among those who have learned onboard and says it changed her life. "For the very first time I understood that knowing our ancestors, and seeking their wisdom, was one of the most important things that I could do, even more important than politics. What good would it be to have an independent Hawaiʻi if we no longer knew our culture?"

She helped develop the Hawaiian astronomy and navigation courses now taught by Associate Professor Carlos Andrade. His first voyage inspired him to return to college at age 43 to learn the Hawaiian language. The one-time subsistence farmer/fisherman who earned a living doing odd jobs is now a college professor with a PhD who envisions carrying the voyaging curriculum into a master’s-level program.

"Glimpsing the history of Pacific Islanders’ settlement has brought me and many other Hawaiians into a stronger appreciation for our collective identity as Oceanic peoples," says Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies Director Jon Osorio. "We can express a different perspective on the world than simply as Americans."

"Everyone who sails Hokuleʻa, whether Hawaiian or not, feels it in their naʻau (inner core)," Kameʻeleihiwa adds. "We Hawaiians are back, we are 400,000 strong, and we will ensure that the knowledge of our ancestors is never lost again."

Comment on this story.

More on Polynesian voyaging in Finney’s books, Hokuleʻa, Voyage of Rediscovery and Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors or at the society’s website; more on the Vaka Taumako project; more on the Kamakakūokalani Center on Hawaiian Studies.

Dale Moana Gilmartin (BA ’89 Mānoa) is a Honolulu freelance writer


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