Founding the Polynesian Voyaging Society; Building and Naming Hōkūle‘a

Herb Kawainui Kāne, from Voyagers (Honolulu, Whalesong: 1991)

Was Polynesian exploration and settlement intentional, involving planned voyages? Or, accidental as the result of storm-wrecked canoes drifiting off course or on one-way voyages of exile?

There was no one alive who could answer the questions. For long years scholars had argued whether Polynesian navigators had the ability and the vessels to master the vast Pacific.

The two views overlap insofar as all discoveries are fortuitous, but they differ radically in their estimates of the accuracy of Polynesian navigation and their assessment of the seaworthiness and windward performance of Polynesian canoes.

The argument heated up in the 1950s and 1960s. The "intentional voyages" proponents were accused of being too romantic about Polynesian maritime capabilities, too quick to accept the voyaging legends: and the "accidental drift" theorists were accused of being overly eurocentric, unable to accept the idea that anyone except Europeans could accomplish great feats of exploration, and those only in vessels that fell within the modern definition of 'seaworthy.'

The "accidental drift" theory was shot down by computer simulations of wind patterns and ocean currents which concluded that a drifting canoe had no chance of reaching Hawai'i, Easter Island, and New Zealand from other parts of Polynesia or Micronesia.

The route between Tahiti and Hawaii passes through three ocean currents and requires sailing slightly against the wind both ways. Could the ancient voyaging canoes perform well enough to windward to make round trips? Hōkūle‘a's 1976 round trip voyage proved that they could. And the navigation experiments conducted in 1976 and in subsequent voyages have proved the adequacy of Polynesian navigation.]

I knew now how the old canoes had been built. What if we actually built a full size replica of a canoe incorporating the functional design features most widely distributed throughout Polynesia? Putting such a canoe to an actual test would test as well the accounts of Polynesian navigation. An actual sailing would provide data that might settle this long dispute. Even more intriguing to me was the thought that recreating the central object of the ancient culture and taking it to sea might stimulate the growing interest in a cultural revival.

The idea attracted others. We incorporated as the Polynesian Voyaging Society and recruited members. I drew a preliminary plan for such a canoe, then made a painting. Feeling altogether foolish, I found myself flashing the painting around Honolulu, asking for money. Hundreds of volunteers came forward to contribute time, talent, and substance, and the canoe got built.

We launched it in 1975. Others looked to me with the question – "You got us into this. Now actual sailing could provide data that might how do we sail this sixty foot vessel with weird looking sails and no rudder?" Using what I had learned from sailing catamarans, I found myself as the training skipper. It was not easy. On shakedown cruises throughout the Hawaiian islands, we were literally relearning the past.

It was a wonderfully satisfying experience, but not without nerve-wracking moments. Salling with green hands in an unforgiving vessel was a constant reminder of my old mentor's admonition about sailboats.

Navigated without charts or instruments, this replica of an ancient Eastern Polynesian voyaging canoe made two 5,500 mile round trips between Hawal'i and Tahiti in 1976 and 1980. Another very successful voyage in 1985-87 took it from Hawal'i to Tahiti, Mo'orea, Huahine, Ra'latea, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, then back to Hawai'l by way of the Cook Islands and Tahiti-a round trip of 16,000 miles between the northern and southern points of the Polynesian triangle.

We named the canoe Hōkūle‘a (“star of gladness”), the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, a star which appears to pass directly overhead on the latitude of Hawai'l, and was thereby useful as a navigation star for the ancient voyagers. At every port of call Hokule'a was warmly received by Polynesians as the symbol of their mutuality, and a reminder of the resourcefulness, inventiveness, and courage of their ancestors.

Naming Hōkūle‘a

This happened when the parts of the canoe were close to being completed. One day when I visited the building site, a large shed at Young Bros., one of the guys had chalked 'Da Boat' on the side of one of the hulls. When I asked the reason for the graffiti, they said it was to remind me that it was time to come up with a name.

According to Kenneth Emory, in the old days a name would come to a canoe designer in a dream. Be that as it may, we tossed the question around at the board meeting a few days later. Several names were suggested, mostly compound names, each including several words; none seemed to be what everyone was looking for. Several weeks went by.

One exceptionally clear night I stayed up quite late, star chart in hand, locating and memorizing stars and their relative positions. I think I turned in around midnight. Some time later, I dreamed of stars. My attention was attracted to Arcturus, our Hōkūle‘a. It appeared to grow larger and brighter, so brilliant that I awoke.

It's been a habit for many years to keep a pad and pen on my nightstand. When the body is at rest, the mind half-awake, thoughts range about freely, and ideas form which I've found are sometimes worth noting down. Some painting ideas have come to me that way. I turned on my reading light and wrote 'Hōkūle‘a.'

The next morning, I saw the notation, and immediately recognized it as a fitting name for the canoe. As a zenith star for Hawai'i it would be a star of gladness if it led to landfall. I phoned Paige Kawelo Barber; she thought it appropriate. I tried it on a few others and got a positive response. The name was proposed at the next board meeting and adopted." (e-mail from Herb, 2/20/99).

[Note 4 in Voyagers: On a clear night early in 1975 I spent several hours studying the stars. After retiring, I dreamed of stars. Arcturus suddenly grew brighter, until its intensity forced me awake. Before I went back to sleep I scribbled 'Hōkūle‘a' (Hawaiian for Arcturus) on the notepad on my nightstand. Noticing the note in the morning, it struck me that this would be an appropriate name for the canoe. The name was proposed and received unanimous approval.

Suppose you are sailing north from Tahiti, seeking Hawai‘i without radio or navigation instruments. You will notice that as Arcturus arches from east to west in the night sky the top of its arch, its zenith, becomes higher as you sail northward. You prudently sail somewhat to windward to compensate for the leeward drift of your vessel, and to gain sufficient 'easting' to arrive at Hawai'i's latitude upwind of your destination. When Arcturus passes directly overhead, you are on the same latitude as Hawai'i. You can then turn downwind, keeping the rising sun aft, the setting sun forward, the zenith of Arcturus directly overhead, and you will make landfall at Hawai‘i.

Which is probably why some ancient navigator named that star Hōkūle‘a – “star of gladness.”]

(For a more detailed on how Hōkūle‘a was designed, see Kane’s “In Search of the Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoe.”)

PVS Newsletter / August 1975


Ben Finney

A large double-hulled canoe, a 60 foot long replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging craft, has recently been launched in Hawaii. The organization responsible for its construction is the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a new and unique non-profit community group dedicated to research and education concerning Polynesian voyaging canoes, navigation systems and all the other arts and artifacts that made the first, Polynesian, discovery and settlement of these islands possible. The canoe is now undergoing sea trial * s in Hawaiian waters, and a crew is being trained to sail it to Tahiti and return using only Polynesian navigation methods, eating only Polynesian foods, and relying on as many other-aspects of the Polynesian voyaging tradition as can be reconstructed and duplicated today. The voyage, which will take place in mid-1976, will be an official part of Hawaii's celebration of the United States Bicentennial.

Hokule‘a off Lanai, May 1975 on its initial inter-island voyage from Oahu to Maui. Photo by Tip Davis.

This project is more than an adventure. It represents a well planned experimental approach to one of the most intriguing and disputed questions in Polynesian history: how were the many islands of Polynesia first discovered and settled? This is a question that puzzled Captain James Cook and the other early European visitors to these islands who wondered how the Polynesians, who lacked metal tools, ships, navigation instruments and all the other items that made the European exploration of the Pacific possible, could have spread over such a huge portion of the globe, a vast triangle bounded by Hawaii in the north, tiny Easter Island(off Chili's coast) in the southeast, and the huge islands of New Zealand in the southwest. And it is still a question subject to dispute today among anthropologists, geographers, historians, and others concerned with reconstructing the history and movements of the Polynesian people.

Since 1956 the debate over Polynesian voyaging has been highly polarized. In that year a New Zealand scholar, the late Andrew Sharp, attacked the then dominant view that intentional voyages of exploration and colonization played a major role in Polynesian settlement by declaring that the discovery and settlement of the many islands of Polynesia was an accidental process that occured through a fortuitous series of unintentional drift voyages and randomly directed exile voyages. Sharp maintained that the Polynesians did not have-the means to sail out to distant and unknown islands and, once having discovered them, to retrace their course to their home island and then send out colonizing expeditions on canoes loaded with men and women, domesticated animals and plants, and all the other ingredients necessary to found a new colony.Polynesians could, according to Sharp, carry out planned two-way voyaging between islands separated by up to a few hundred miles, such as between Tahiti and the neighboring Tuamotu atolls, but beyond that range voyaging and any resultant discoveries and settlements could only hav~ been "accidental", not intentional. In Sharp's scheme, distant islands like Hawaii were out of the range of Polynesian voyaging capabilities and could only have been discovered and settled by one or other of two means: either by the chance arrival of a canoe load of people driven by adverse winds from some short voyaging route (as between Tahiti and the Tuamotus); or by the fortuitous arrival of a canoe load of exiles who had been forced to leave their home island because of war, famine, or overpopulation, and who were searching blindly for an uninhabited island on which to settle. Once a canoe load of Polynesians had reached a distant island they were marooned there since according to Sharp, they did not have the means to return to their homeland.

Sharp's argument is based in large part on his negative assessment of Polynesian marine technology. He maintained, for example, that since the Polynesian navigation system relied on non-instrument observations of the stars, winds, sea swells, andotherphenomena it could not possibly be accurate enough to guide a canoe over hundreds, if not thousands of miles of open ocean to a landfall on a small island. Polynesian canoes also came in for severe criticism. Since they lacked keels or centerboards they could make little progress to windward. Since they were held together with vegetable fiber rope instead of metal fasteners they would easily break apart in rough seas. And since they had a low freeboard they were easily swamped. To Sharp these and other technoloqical deficiencies meant that long range and intentional twoway voyaging, involving exploratory probes followed by colonizing expeditions, was out of the question. Polynesia was settled "accientally" and that was that.

Although a dose of Sharp's skepticisim about Polynesian marine capabilities was perhaps a healthy corrective to some extravagant claims that the Polynesians sailed with ease and regularity throughout the Polynesian triangle, and at times, beyond it as far as Antarctica and South America, many students of Polynesian history felt that Sharp had gone too far in denying that the Polynesians had exercised any significant control over their movements. Thay argued that these movements--which archaeologists say occured over the last three or four millenia and trace from Tonga and Samoa (the two candidates for the immediate "homeland" of the Polynesians) to the Marquesas and Tahiti and then to Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand and other islands in the triangle--must have involved some degree of intentional and planned voyaging.

But it soon became apparent from the controversy which followed between Sharp and other partisans of the accidental voyaging thesis, and his critics, that we really had very little precise information on how well Polynesian canoes sailed, on how seaworthy they were on long voyages, on exactly how the Polynesians used stars for navigation and on many other technical points crucial to these questions. Since voyaging canoes were no longer to be seen in Polynesian waters, and traditional navigational skills had all but disappeared, investigators were forced to search for records of canoes and voyaging in old legends, explorers' accounts and other documents. However, the abundant traditions of long distance voyaging in past centuries proved to contain little information of a technical nature and, besides, were subject to criticism because of either their lack of precision, or the possibility that they were in part latter-day fabrications. Furthermore, close examination of the records left by Cook and other early foreign visitors was also generally disappointing since they generally neglected to inquire into and record with precision how well the canoes sailed and handled, and exactly how the Polynesian navigation system worked. Given this lack of information, it is not surprising that discussions about Polynesian voyaging that appeared in books and scholarly journals quickly came to be marked more by polemics than progress in understanding the subject.

In the mid-1960's a number of researchers began looking to experimental methods as the only way in which they could obtain new data that might help clarify the question. In 1965, David Lewis, a New Zealand physician who has since becomean authority on indigenous navigation systems in the Pacific, conducted an innovative experiment in Polynesian navigation by sailing his catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand to test some aspects of the Polynesian star navigation system. While Lewis was sailing in the South Pacific, a group of students and I were building a 40-foot replica of a traditional Hawaiian double-hulled canoe, which was used in 1966 for a series of paddling and sailing tests that gave us our first good data on the sailing characteristics of Polynesian vessels, and on the energy cost of paddling heavy canoes over long distances.

Then, in the late 1960's, Lewis went to sea again--this time to locate Pacific islanders who still practised traditional navigation,and then to have them take him sailing on their canoes or his yacht and demonstrate their skills over voyaging routes. This search led him to the Santa Cruz Islands in Melanesia where descendants of Polynesian immigrants still navigated canoes in the Polynesian manner, and to the Carolines Islands in Micronesia where a navigation system closely related to the Polynesian one was in everyday use. The most dramatic experiment in his research was a 1, 100 nautical mile round-trip voyage made between Puluwat atoll in the Central Carolines and Saipan in the Marianas, which was navigated without instruments by Hipour, a master navigator from Puluwat. While these field experiments were going on, a group of geographers and computer experts from Australia, England a-nd 'the United States were attempting to simulate, with the aid of a computer, the probable voyaging patterns that would result from randomly driftirig canoes on the one hand, and intentionally sailed canoes on the other hand.

The results of these experimental efforts indicated that: 1) it was unlikely that drifting canoes could have been the major means by which Polynesia was settled. The computer simulation study showed, for example, that there was only a slight probability that drifting canoes could have passed through the barrier posed by contrary winds and currents between, on the one hand, Samoa and Tonga in Western Polynesia, and, on the other hand, the Marquesas and Tahiti in Eastern Polynesia and that there was little or no probability that canoes could have drifted to the more distant islands of Hawaii, Easter, and New Zealand: 2) the Polynesian double-hulled canoe was well adapted for deep-sea voyaging Linder sail. Sailing tests conducted in Hawaii with the 40-foot double-hulled canoe indicated, for example, that it sailed well downwind and across the wind, and had a definite (though limited in comparison to a racing yacht) ability to sail to windward 3) the Polynesian navigation system was probably accurate enough for long-distance intentional voyaging, particularly when one considers that most of the putative voyaging routes are between groups of islands, not isolated single islands. A navigator sailing to Hawaii would not, for example, have to depend on pinpoint accuracy in order to hit Oahu or any other single island, but could carry out his mission by hitting any one of the Hawaiian Islands which together form a huge target, especially for the navigator approaching from the south. Taken together, the results of these experiments allow us to hypothesize that while drift voyaging might have accounted for some island discoveries, the main way in which most of the islands of Polynesia were discoveredand settled was through intentionally sailed voyages of exploration. These probably involved both one-way exile voyages as Sharp proposed as well as more truly exploratory voyages in which discovery rather than immediate settlement was the motive. It can further be posited that in some cases voyages of discovery were followed by return voyages to the homeland and then planned and fully navigated voyages of colonization.

A case in point involves Hawaii and its Polynesian neighbors below the equator, the Marquesas, 1,300 nautical miles to the southeast, and the Society islands (more conveniently referred to as "Tahiti", after the main island of the group), some 2,400 nautical miles to the south-southeast. Evidence from archaeological excavations and linguistic analyses, combined with the results of the voyaging experiments outlined above and data on wind, sea, and current conditions prevailing in this part of the Pacific, point to the Marquesas and Tahiti as the most probable jumping---off points for the Polynesian voyagers who reached Hawaii.

Accidental drift voyages to Hawaii are out of the question. A canoe drifting up from either the Marquesas or Tahiti would have been pushed far to the west of Hawaii by the prevailing easterly tradewinds and currents. A canoe must be intentionally sailed to reach Hawaii from the -south. An intentionally sailed voyage from the Marquesas would have been fairly easy as a canoe sailing north or north-northwest from there would be sped along by steady trades blowing at right angles to the canoe, or slightly from behind the canoe, both ideal directions for fast canoe sailing. But the sail back to the Marquesas would have been very difficult, perhaps too difficult for a Polynesian canoe, in that it would have to be forced back against the wind. Modern racing yachts are not easy to sail from Hawaii to the Marquesas and it might have been difficult to sail a Polynesian canoe close enough to the wind to reach, at least directly, the Marquesas. Once Marquesans had arrived in Hawaii it is therefore likely that they stayed there. Indeed, the Marquesas- Hawaii seaway may have been witness to more than a few one-way voyages as early European observers in the Marquesas remarked how readily Marquesans took to their canoes and sailed off in search of new lands.

But, what about two-way voyaging? This could have occured between Tahiti and Hawaii for these islands lie almost on a north-south axis,across which the easterly tradewinds blow. This is an almost ideal situation for two-way voyaging as one need only sail slightly into the wind in order to overcome the tendency for the wind and current to push a craft westwards to be able to make the run either way. One could imagine that a Tahitian canoe, sailing north and slightly into the wind on a deliberate exploratory expedition, might have run across Hawaii, then sailed home to spread the news, thereby initiating a period of two-way contact between the two island groups. There is some traditional evidence for this possibility; Hawaiian chants and legends do tell of a period of two-way voyaging between Hawaii and Tahiti initiated by high ranking voyagers sometime after the original settlement of Hawaii. If this reconstruction- is correct, the Hawaii-Tahiti route may have been an outstanding example of long-distance two-way voyaging inpolynesia. In fact, if canoes did make intentional round trips across the thousands of miles of blue water that separate the two groups, this would have been one of the great voyaging feats of the early world, one that was not surpassed by Europeans until their age of discovery dawned in the late 15th century.

But this model of Polynesian voyaging between the Marquesas, Tahiti, and Hawaii, and the more general research results on which it is based, may be challenged on the basis that more extensive and realistic canoe sailing and navigation experiments must be conducted before we can make general statements about Polynesian voyaging or propose particular models of inter-island voyaging patterns. The canoe sailing experiments conducted in Hawaiian waters with a 40-foot long canoe, the navigation experiments conducted outside Polynesia proper and the computer simulation experiments, may have yielded some valuable information, but there is still a need for the kind of data that might be gathered on long--distance voyages in Polynesia with a large voyaging canoe. The Polynesian Voyaging Society is attempting to meet this challenge by sailing its specially constructed 60-foot long voyaging canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and return, using only Polynesian navigation methods. This project is, therefore, an experimental effort designed to provide new information to be used in refining our ideas about Polynesian voyaging.

The long voyage is not, however, what philosophers of science call a "crucial experiment". That is, a successful voyage to Tahiti and return cannot definitively prove that the ancient Polynesians could have made, or did make, such a voyage; just as a failure to complete the voyage would not prove that the ancient Polynesians never did make, or could never have made such a voyage. The project has been criticized in the press as being "unscientific" precisely because the voyage is not a crucial experiment. This criticism rests on a false impression that all scientific efforts consist of crucial experiments. Truly crucial experiments are rare in science and much scientific work consists of patient research designed to produce new data needed to build and refine hypotheses and models and not necessarily to prove them right or wrong for all eternity. The canoe project is, therefore, an-. experimental research effort not because the outcome will provide positive proof for any theory, but because it will provide otherwise unobtainable data on a range of problems involved in Polynesian voyaging that will allow us to construct a more precise and realistic model of Polynesian discovery and settlement.

Before going into the details of what we hope to learn from the voyage, a word about the canoe and the sailing strategy to be followed is in order. The canoe is a double-hulled vessel. For long distance voyaging the Polynesians favored the double-hulled canoe over the single-hulled outrigger canoe because the two hulls securely lashed together provided much more stability and carrying capacity than the single hull-outrigger combination. The canoe has an overall length of 60 feet, a beam of 15 feet, and each of the two hulls is 3.5 feet wide and five feet deep. Ten crosspieces, each of which is 17 feet long and weighs 185 pounds, and many thousands of feet of % inch line-hold the two hulls firmly but flexibly together. The canoe weighs about five tons and can carry up to 7.5 tons of people, food, water, and supplies. At this load the hulls would draw two feet of water. It has two masts, each with a single Polynesian sprit sail. Large steering paddles and sweeps are used for steering and the crew uses smaller paddles to propel the vessel through calms and for maneuvering close to shore.

The canoe has been designed to represent, as closely as is now possible, the design of the type of canoe that would have been used for long voyages in Eastern Polynesia some 800 or so years ago. The principal design features have been derived from a study of voyaging canoes observed and described (and in some cases faithfully drawn) by the first European visitors to Polynesia, based on the premise that features common to these canoes would represent general Polynesian design features of some antiquity and not recent innovations or local adaptations. For example, the semi V-shape hull (a hull with a V-shaped keel but bulging, rounded sides), which can be seen in contact period voyaging canoes from Tahiti, the Tuamotus, Tonga, and some other islands, was chosen over the less widespread and more specialized full V-and rounded U-shape hulls.

Similarly, the simple Polynesian sprit sail (a triangular sail mounted with the apex downward), as can be seen in most Eastern Polynesian canoes of the contact period, was chosen over the more specialized and historically recent lateen sail of Samoa and Tonga.

In times past, a 60-foot hull would have been made from a huge log, which would have been dug out to form (depending on the diameter of the tree) either a keel piece, or a whole lower portion of the hull, and numerous planks which would have been carefully fitted edge-to-edge and then lashed together and to reinforcing ribs with coconut fiber line to form the gunwales of the hull. We, unfortunately, have neither the logs nor the skills at our disposal to build hulls exactly in this traditional manner. Except for the upper gunwale portions, which are made of fitted and lashed planks, our hulls are made in a modern manner, although in shape and weight they duplicate what we believe to be the basic characteristics of ancient hulls. When it comes to performance, then, our hulls probably closely approximate ancient ones. A great effort has been made, however, to obtain traditional materials for two portions of the canoe where the nature of the materials may greatly affect performance: the line that will be used for the lashings that hold the two hulls together and the rope that will be used for the rigging and the sails. Although at present we are using modern line and sail materials, for the voyage we will use coconut fiber line specially made for us by the men of Nanumea Atoll, and pandanus mat sails specially woven by women of Kapingamarangi Atoll. We have been forced to have these vital components made on these out of the way atolls. (Nanumea is on the western edge of Polynesia and Kapingamarangi is an isolated Polynesian colony located in Micronesia just a few hundred miles north of New Guinea) because only there could we find craftsmen who still have the skill and the time to fabricate high quality materials suitable for the voyaging canoe. The men of Nanumea are particularly delighted and honored to make the essential lashing and rigging line, for the people there have some Hawaiian ancestry, derived from a Hawaiian sailor who settled there in the last century.

Departure for Tahiti is scheduled for April 1976, and the canoe should return by August of that year. Although each leg of the voyage should take somewhere between 25 to 40 days, six months must be allowed for the round trip in order to have enough time available to wait for favorable winds at each departure point, and to refit the canoe in Tahiti. Each leg of the voyage will probably be close to 3,000 nautical miles long, a longer distance than a straight course because our sailing and navigational procedure will require us to follow a curved path.

Since Tahiti lies slightly east of Hawaii, and since the prevailing easterly tradewinds and currents tend to push a vessel westwards as it sails south towards Tahiti, the primary sailing problem is that of making sufficient 11 easting" (progress to the east) so that the canoe reaches the latitude of Tahiti on i ts eastern, windward side. The canoe will wait for a favorable wind, ideally a strong to moderate northeast (as opposed to an east or southeast). tradewind. Upon departure the canoe will sail in a southeast direction, pointing slightly into the wind, in order to make as much easting as possible before the wind switches southeast, as the tradewinds do in the southern hemisphere, and forces the canoe onto a more southerly course.

The star compass formed by rising stars as they break the eastern horizon, and the circumpolar stars like the Southern Cross, will be used to steer by at night. By day, observations of the sun, winds and ocean swell patterns will be used for steering. Although this method of navigation does not require any instruments, it is a task that calls for great skill and constant attention.

The first obstacle we anticipate is that posed by the doldrums, a belt of calms and light, irregular winds usually found between 9 degrees and 5 degrees north of the equator. Here the crew of some 18 persons, many of whom will be experienced outrigger canoe racing paddlers, may be called upon to paddle the canoes for days on end should we encounter a full calm.

Another anticipated obstacle is the Tuamotu Archipelago, a group of atolls south of the equator which forms a screen of jagged coral reefs through which the canoe must pass to reach Tahiti's latitude. Much caution must be exercised here as these islands, which are known on some old charts as the "Dangerous Archipelago", have claimed many a European ship and perhaps not a few carelessly sailed canoes. Because they stand only a few feet above the ocean's surface the Tuamotus cannot be directly seen until a few miles away. On dark nights a vessel can easily be virtually on the crest of a wave ready to break on the reef before the menace of land is detected. Here great skill on the part of the navigators is needed to gain warning time, through observation of the zenith stars that mark the latitude of the atolls, of interruptions made by atolls on ocean swell patterns, of atoll based birds which range only a short distance from land, and of all the other signs of land island navigators know how to read, so that the atolls can be anticipated and a safe course steered around them.

Once past the Tuamotus the next task is to determine when the canoe is on the latitude of Tahiti by observing when one of several possible zenith stars for Tahiti (stars which cross directly overhead Tahiti) is directly overhead the canoe, not a few degrees south (in which case the canoe would still be north of Tahiti), or a few degrees north (in which case the canoe would have run too far south past Tahiti's latitude).Once the canoe is on Tahiti's latitude it will be turned due west and sailed downwind until the island of Tahiti, or any of the other islands of the Society Group is spotted. In case -this sounds too easy, remember that the absolute requirement for success on this last leg is that the canoe must have been on the windward side of Tahiti before turning downwind. We will have no instruments to tell us this; we shall have only the navigator's skill at steering the canoe in just the right direction to put us on the eastern, windward side of Tahiti. If a mistake were made, through, for example, underestimating the amount of set and drift to the west, and the canoe were to reach Tahiti's latitude on the western, leeward side and then were to be turned downwind away from Tahiti, we would be lucky to fetch up in the Cook islands or Samoa or Tonga far to the west.

The same basic strategy will be followed on the return voyage,except that the canoe does not necessarily have to be sailed so close to the wind as Tahiti lies slightly east of Hawaii. If the canoe truly has mana, or spiritual power, it should virtually seek the latitude of Hawaii for the canoe is named Hokule'a (Star of Joy) after the star that marks the latitude of Hawaii when it is at its zenith. Once on . Hawaii's latitude the canoe will be turned downwind until the landfall is made on Hawaii, Maui, or whichever of the islands is first sighted.

What can we learn from this voyage and the testing that precedes it? Research will be concentrated on four main areas: 1),canoe performance, handling, and seaworthiness; 2) noninstrument navigation; 3) diet and physiology; 4) transport of plants and animals. In effect, our research in each of these will constitute a sup-experiment within the total experiment of the voyage.

One of the most important questions we hope to answer is simply, what are the performance characteristics of a large double-hulled voyaging canoe? In particular, we want to know how well it sails to windward, as a reasonable degree of windward sailing ability is needed for intentional two-way voyaging between islands. A research grant from the National Science Foundation is making it possible to conduct the experiments necessary to answer these questions. During sea trials the canoe is being instrumented to measure exactly how fast it sails under different wind and sea conditions, and how close it can sail to the wind. This information will not only constitute. the most precise and comprehensive body of data on Polynesian canoe sailing performance available, it will also have the immediate utility of aiding us to map out our sailing strategy for the voyage and, once on the voyage, to enable the navigators to closely estimate how the canoe is sailing so that they may be able to better plot its progress on the mental map of the route they will carry in their heads. During the voyage, however, no speed, angle measuring, or any other instruments will be carried; it will therefore be impossible for us to make a precise on-board records of our performance. This function will be carried out by the schooner New World that will track the canoe, out of sight, by radar. Their record of course heading and speed, in conjunction with a log we will make of sail and steering configurations and decisions aboard the canoe, will enable us to construct an accurate and continuous record of canoe performance over the entire voyage. (Our tracking vessel will also provide a built-in rescue capability should a medical emerqency occur, or should the canoe founder, break apart, or be smashed on a reef.)

We will also be learning a lot more about Polynesian voyaging canoes than just their gross performance characteristics. How is the canoe best steered: by steering paddles held against the hull, by steering sweeps trailed astern, by varying sail angle, or by what combination of these? How do you change tack easiest; by coming about or jibing? How do you reef mat sprit sails? How much manpower do steering, sail handling, and reefing tasks require? How stable is the canoe? How well does the crosspiece system absorb the stress of differential hull movement? How seakindly are the hulls (do they pound or cut through the swells)? Our sea trials before the voyage, and the voyage itself, will give us realistic data on these and many other questions that relate to the handling characteristics and seaworthiness of Polynesian voyaging craft.

We have a good idea of the principal methods used by traditional Polynesian navigators: 1) non-instrument sighting of stars for night steering and latitude determination; 2) noninstrument sighting of the sun, wind and swell patterns for day steering; 3) observation of how ocean swells are deflected as they bend around or bounce off islands, of flight patterns of island based birds and of all the other phenomena used for detecting proximity to islands before they are directly visible. But, because these methods have largely disappeared from Polynesia, victims of modern progress, we do not have a comprehensive account of how these methods function, and how accurate they are, on long range voyages. The voyage to Tahiti and back will provide an unparalled opportunity to test these methods and see how well they work out over a long distance.

A number of Hawaiian members of the Society are attempting to revive Polynesian navigation skills. On the voyage they will work with navigation researcher David Lewis, who will direct the navigation sub-experiment,'Pius Piailugi, a traditional navigator from Satawal Atoll in thecaroline Islands of Micronesia and a Tahitian navigator (who has yet to be chosen) skilled a guiding copra schooner through the reefs of the Tuamotu Islands. Their participation, and that of Kawainui Kane, will be made possible through fellowships granted by the EastWest Center as part of its program on technical and cultural interchange in the Pacific. Having Piailug on the navigation team will greatly facilitate the revival of traditional Polynesian navigational techniques. Why have a Micronesian navigator assist on a Polynesian voyage? The answer can be found in David Lewis' classic on Pacific navigation, We,the Navigators. Polynesian and Micronesian systems are but variations of a Pacific-wide noninstrument navigation tradition, and while the Polynesian system has largely disappeared from usage, traditional navigation techniques 'are still in daily use on Satawal and some of the other more isolated atolls of Micronesia. In fact, partly as a result of the respect shown by Lewis and other reserachers who have made virtual pilgrimages to these islands to investigate navigational techniques, the navigators of Satawal and neighboring Puluwat island have revived the old voyaging route to Saipan and are now making the 1, 100 mile round-trip voyage in their sleek outrigger canoes. With Piailug, who has had a lifetime of navigation experience and who madethe Saipan voyage in 1974, on the team we will be able to tap into this surviving navigation tradition in order to help revive the kindred arts of Polynesia.

As no charts or instruments of any kind will be carried aboard the canoe, the navigators must learn to recognize hundreds of stars and be able to use selected ones for steering and latitude determination. The novice members of the team will have to learn the stars, memorize a mental map of the sky, and develop star sighting skills virtually from scratch. Even Pialug, with all his knowledge and skill, will have to learn new navigation stars and routes for the voyage into the unfamiliar (to him) skies of the Southern Hemisphei-e. Here the use of the Bishop Museum planetarium as a training simulator will be invaluable, for with it we will be able to study the skies as they will appear during the voyage and to, in effect, simulate the changing star configurations the canoe will encounter as it sails south to Tahiti and then back north to Hawaii by changing the latitude setting of the sky projected onto the planetarium dome. In so doing, we hope to begin to approach the star and navigational knowledge of an ancient Polynesian navigator with a lifetime of sailing experience in Eastern Polynesian waters who, having made at least one trip between Tahiti and Hawaii, was prepared to retrace his route back to Tahiti.

What did the Polynesian seafarers eat on their long voyages? In addition to fresh foods like bananas and sweet potatoes, they carried specially prepared voyaging foods that could keep for months at sea: partially dehydrated and fermented taro poi, a similar preparation made from breadfruit, pandanus flour and dried fish, to name the ones we know most about. Coconuts were also carried and, in addition to providing voyagers with food and oil, they yielded fluid to supplementwater carried in gourd and coconut shell water bottles and fuel (from the husk) for cooking. Voyagers undoubtedly fished along the way and certainly would not have turned their noses up at the tasty flying fish that probably landed from time to time on their canoes. We will try to duplicate this diet as closely as possible, which means that we have to recreate and manufacture considerable quantities of traditional voyaging foods, coconut shell and gourd water bottles, and -traditional, fishing gear down to the bone and shell fish hooks. Kenneth Emory, Ledyard Professor of Anthropology at the Bishop Museum, is endeavoring to ensure that our efforts in this and all other aspects-of the project will be as authentic as possible. He is working with researcher June Gutmanis, physician Frank Tabrah and nutritionist Jean Hankin who have been preparing traditional voyaging foods, assessing their nutritional value and calculating the dietary requirements on the voyage.

Calculation of daily food requirements must be specific to the energy demands of crewing the canoe, which means that we must conduct physiological tests designed to record metabolic rates and water usage for all situations from paddling to just sailing along in a fair wind on the short trips in Hawaiian waters that will precede the long voyage. From data derived from these tests we can develop a close estimate of food and water needed and can then provision the canoe accordingly. These data, combined with a complete record of daily activity patterns for each crew member, of food and water consumption during the voyage, as wellas of physical examinations before & after each leg, should yield a unique body of information which can then be applied to an analysis of the survival problems faced by Polynesian voyagers.

At this point we should be able to put discussions of voyaging survival problems on a fairly firm footing, and we may even be able to comment on more general problems concerninq the evolution of the Polynesian physical type. For example, we would hope to be able to shed some light on the suggestion that the relatively bulky Polynesian physique reflects the selective pressure of voyaging. One can hypothesize that under severe conditions of food scarcity and exposure to the elements (particularly to cold, as the lightly clad crew sailing in brisk tradewinds may tend to lose significant amounts of body heat) big and bulky men and women would be most likely to endure the lack of food and the exposure and thus survive to found a newcolony and reproduce more persons of the like physique.

A related but different survival problem facing the Polynesians stemmed from the lack of a wide range of food sources, particularly vegetable sources, on the virgin islands of Polynesia. These islands generally abounded in protein sources like fish, seabirds, and seabird eggs, but had little in the way of vegetable foods. The Polynesian staples--taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, yams, and other cultivated plants-had to be carried by Polynesian colonists from island to island as did the pig, dog, and chicken --their main non-marine sources of protein. We know that the Polynesians must have taken great care to transport these food sources to new islands, but how exactly was it done? In particular, how did they keep plants like the breadfruit, that are so intolerant of seawater and in need of regular supplies of fresh water, alive on a long sea journey so that it could be replanted on the new island? Under the d'irection of ethnobotanist Douglas Yen of the Bishop Museum, we will carry and try to keep alive a range of Polynesian plants and domesticated animals in order to learn more about these problems. While we do not expect any definitive results, we hope that our experience would deepen our now very limited knowledge of this vital aspect of Polynesian colonization.

As a research endeavor, the canoe project is part of a tradition of experimental archaeology, John Coles' term for reconstructing and testing items of ancient technology in order to learn more about their function and utility. His recent book, Archaeology by Experiment, includes a section on experiments with reconstructed watercraft in which he discusses, along with the 1966 experiments with the 40-foot long Hawaiian canoe, a number of long range experimental voyages such as the 1893 effort to sail a replica Viking boat from Scandanavia to North America and Heyerdahl's 1947 raft expedition from South America to Polynesia. However, while our work with the 60-foot long voyaging canoe in a sense closely resembles that carried out by Heyerdahl and other experimental voyagers who have reconstructed ancient water craft and then sailed them. long distances over some disputed voyaging route, it is fundamentally different from most of these previous endeavors in three main ways.

First, while the projected canoe voyage will be a two-way navigated voyage designed to investigate many aspects of the Polynesian capability for long-range exploration and colonization ventures, most, if not all of the previous long range experimental voyages have been one-way voyages in which the main effort seems to have been to keep the craft afloat and together long enough to be able to sail, often downwind and with the current, until the craft ran down an island or continental shore. Heyerdahl's raft voyage from South America provides an example. His balsa raft sailed and drifted across the Eastern Pacific until it literally crashed upon the reef of Raroia, a Tuamotu atoll that the crew saw in plenty of time, but could not avoid, as they could not sail the raft welienough to maneuver around the island or reach a safe anchorage. There was no thought of a return voyage to South America, as Heyerdahl was really only trying to establish that a balsa raft was capable of sailing from South America to Polynesia. Although this one-way, go-for-broke approach to experimental voyaging, an approach which also characterizes just about every other attempt at long-range experimental voyaging, can produce interesting information, we would hope that our attempt to undertake a traditionally navigated, roundtrip voyage will yield fuller and more significant results.

Second, while our effort will be to retrace a voyaging route which is celebrated in Hawaiian traditional history, and for which there are abundant linguistic and archaeological indications, the efforts of many other long-range experimental voyagers have been directed towards establishing the possibility of a voyaging route for which there is little or no evidence of a solid kind. Heyerdahl's work may again be cited, not to criticize it, but only to emphasize how our projected voyage wilt follow a relatively well documented route. Despite intensive research efforts, no clear-cut archaeological or linguistic evidence of a South America- Pol yn esia link has come to light.In comparison, there are abundant indications from archaeological excavations and linguistic studies that Hawaiian culture branched off. perhapsas early as 500 A.D., from an ancestral Eastern Polynesian culture centered in the Marquesas or Tahiti.

Furthermore, there are a number of Hawaiian oral traditions that tell of a period when there was two-way voyaging between Hawaii and Tahiti. According to onetale, for example, the Hawaiian chief Mo'ikeha left Waipio valley on Hawaii after a devastating flood, and sailed south to Tahiti, the homeland of his ancestors. After a disappointment in love on Tahiti, Mo'ikeha sails back north to re-settle in Hawaii, this time on the island of Kauai. Desirous of seeing. his son that he left in Tahiti, La'a-mai-Kahiki (La'a-from-Tahiti), Mo'ikeha sends his Kauai son Kila to fetch him. After many adventures in Hawaii, La'a decides to return to Tahiti, and takes his departure from Kahoolawe Island, sailing through the famous passage called Ke Ala i Kahiki, or "The Way to Tahiti". Pa'ao, a high priest whose descendants served Kamehameha, figures in another one of these voyaging epics. After sailing from Tahiti to Hawaii, Pa'ao returns to Tahiti to seek a high ranking Tahitian chiefi to bring back to Hawaii to infuse new and sacred blood into the Hawaiian ruling class. After a refusal from one Tahitian chief, Pa'ao persuaded the chief Pili Ka'aiea to return with him to Hawaii where he became ruling chief of the island of Hawaii and established his seat of government in the valley of Waipio.

We need not accept these and other Hawaiian voyaging epics as literal records of actual voyages that have been transmitted orally, without change, over the centuries. We in the Society do, however, believe that these legends chronicle, in substance if not exact details, a period when there was intentional two-way voyaging between these two great centers of ancient Polynesia. Perhaps we are unduly biased here for many of our members are Hawaiians, some of whom count descent from personages named in voyaging epics. They find it difficult to disbelieve their traditional histories and reject the notion that at least some of their ancestors were Tahitian voyagers. They would like to believe that the song of the bard, Kamahualele, which he chanted upon arrival from Tahiti at Hilo Bay aboard Mo'ikeha's canoe, is more than poetry: Behold Hawaii, an island, a people The people of Hawaii, oh, The people of Hawaii Are the offspring of Tahiti.

The third and final point of contrast between the canoe project and most previous long range voyaging experiments relates to the high degree of community participation in the endeavor. From the beginning the canoe project has involved many of Hawaii's citizens, not just a few researchers and canoe or sailing enthusiasts. Nearly a thousand persons have joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society and their contributions of money and labor have been instrumental in constructing the canoe and otherwise getting the project underway. Community organizations like the Hawaii Bicentennial Commission and the Committee for the Preservation and Study fo Hawaiian Language, Art and Culture, as well as many of Hawaii's business firms, have endorsed the project and have given generously with donations in cash or in kind to enable us to finish the canoe and to begin to prepare for the voyage. Hundreds of persons have enrolled in "Polynesian Canoe Workshops" that we have held jointly with the City and County of Honolulu in order to learn more about Polynesian canoes and voyaging and to help, through their contributions and labor build some of the components of the canoe. Finally, for the launching of the canoe, which was purposefully planned as a public event at Kualoa Park on the shores of Kaneohe Bay so that thousands could witness it, expert Hawaiian chanters and canoe paddlers worked together to recreate a traditional Hawaiian canoe launching ceremony such as had not been seen here for a century or more.

A special feature of this community involvement has been the heavy and vital participation by Hawaiians. This contrasts further with many other experimental voyage ventures in which the people whose ancestral voyaging tradition is being investigated have little or nothing to do with the project apart, perhaps, from supplying labor to build the voyaging craft.We believe that it is only appropriate that the Hawaiians, all of whom are descended from Polynesian seafarers who arrived here by canoe, take a leading role in the recreation of their ancestral voyaging tradition. But this is less a matter of favoritism than it is a function of the motivation and skills present in the Hawaiian community. The chance to help realize a voyage that recreates a chapter in their own past has been a powerful incentive for Hawaiian participation, and fortunately, Hawaiians do maintain a high level of interest and skill in canoes and related facets of their culture that can be applied to the project.

Some years ago when the noted Hawaiian artist, Kawainui Kane, was working in Chicago, he began to study the old lithographs and descriptions of traditional Polynesian canoes with the aFm of producing a series of realistic paintings and accurate plans of all major Polynesian canoe types. This initiative led, once he returned to Hawaii and met anthropologist Ben Finney and racing canoe paddler C. Thomas Holmes both of whom shared a similar interest in Polynesian canoes and voyaging, to the foundation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Kane was then able to ap.ply his interest and expertise to designing a voyaging canoe and then supervising its construction. While Kane's leading role in the project is in many ways unique, other highly motivated Hawaiians with needed skills have been prominent participants in the project. For example, apprentice canoe builders Cal Coito and Tom Heen did much of the work of building the canoe, master canoe builder Wright Bowman fabricated the ten massive crosspieces that join the two hulls as well as a number of other crucial parts of the canoe, Sandra Maile has been handling Society affairs in her capacity as executive director, Paige Kawelo Barber and Moku Froiseth have been supervising the effort to build up a supply of dried and preserved voyaging foods for the voyage, Kimo Hugo is taking a prominent role in training prospective crew members, and master chanter Kaupena Wong presided over the all important launching ceremony.

When it comes to crewing the canoe, here we are particularly looking to the Hawaiian men and wonen who are expert racing canoe paddlers. Although the large sailing canoes of old Hawaii have failed to survive the modernization of these islands, outrigger paddling canoes have survived and now canoe racing is one of our major sports. There is an embarrassment of riches here, and the main problem is narrowing down the final choice of crew members from the literally hundreds of skilled and dedicated candidates.

"What will you do with the canoe after the voyage?" is a question we are constantly being asked. Our response is that after returning from Tahiti the canoe will be dedicated to the people of Hawaii for educational purposes. We would hope to turn it into a "floating classroom" to be sailed from island to island throughout Hawaii to give a wide range of people the chance to come aboard and go for a sail so that they might begin to appreciatethe voyaging tradition that made the first migration to these islands possible. How this is to be organized and financed is yet to be decided. We hope, however, that when the time comes we can again count on the high level of community participation that has enabled us to prepare for this voyage into Hawaii's past.

For accounts of the 1976 Voyage to, see Ben Finney’s “1976 Hawai‘i to Tahiti and Back” and Nainoa Thompson’s “Finding a Way: 1974-1980.”


Polynesian Voyaging Society

The charter of incorporation of the Society has granted by the State of Hawaii on September 13, 1973. The incorporators were Ben R. Finney, Herbert Kawainui Kane and Charles Thomas Holmes. The charter states that the purposes of the Society are: 1) to sponsor or conduct, or both, research on the manner in which Polynesian seafarers settled Hawaii and other Pacific Islands by investigating through experimental and other means the canoes, navigation systems and other technical and cultural factors that enabled the Polynesians to undertake successful voyages of discovery and settlement; 2) and to disseminate the resultant research findings by producing or publishing, or both, articles in scientific journals, books, filmsr and other instruments Of COM_ unication in order to inform the the public about Polynesian voyaging, and to make available data that might be useful to scientists and others engaged in maritime endeavors.

Polynesian canoes

The Canoes of Oceania by A.C. Haddon and James Hornell (Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1936) is the standard reference work for Polynesian and other Pacific canoes. Fortunately, this three volume work which has long been out of print is now being reprinted by the Bishop Museum Press and should be available in late 1975. H. Kawainui Kane's portfolio Canoes of Polynesia (Island Heritage, Hon., 1974) provides a naturalistic and invaluable documentation of all major Polynesian canoes. Pacific canoe types are also discussed in Nao, Junk and Vaka: Boats and Culture History, by Edwin Doran Jr. (Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, 1973).

Andrew Sharp

If a medal were ever struck to honor the person who has been most responsible in stimulating research on Polynesian voyaging, it should be awarded, posthumously, to the late Andrew Sharp. Without Sharp's resolute attack on long accepted but unexamined assumptions concerning Polynesian voyaging, it is doubtful that there would have been such a push to get out there.and find out about Polynesian canoes and navigational methods. Sharp first presented his thesis in 1956 in a Memoir of the Polynesian Society entitled Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific. The popularity of the book is attested by the fact that it was reprinted the following year by Penguin Books, and that in 1963 a revised version, entitled Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia, was published (Paul's Book Arcade, Auckland, New Zealand). In 1962 the Journal of the Polynesian Society, the central forum for airing issues in Polynesian research, published a series of articles which discussed Sharp's thesis. These were reprinted in 1963, under the editorship of Jack Golson, as Polynesian Navigation. A Symposium on Andrew Sharp's Theory of Accidental Voyages. (Polynesian Society Memoir No. 34), This Memoir in turn was reprinted in 1973 by A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington. Some of Sharp's many other writings on Polynesian voyaging are cited, along with recent works by others writing on the question, in a bibliography by David Lewis which is appended to the 1973 edition of Polynesian Navigation.

Recent research

David Lewis has reported his various research ventures and also given a comprehensive analysis of navigation in Polynesia and Micronesia in his We, the Navigators (University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1973). Another useful book is East is a Big Bird (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970) in which Thomas Gladwin analyses in detail the navigation system, including its psychological aspects, of Puluwat atoll in the Central Caroline Islands. A more technical but equally significant book is The Settlement of Polynesia by M. Levison, R.G. Ward and J.W. Webb (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1973). This reports the computer simulation experiments of the drift voyaging hypothesis of Polynesian settlement. In "New Perspectives on Polynesian Voyaging" (in G. Highland et al (eds.), Polynesian Culture History Essays in Honor of Kenneth P. Emory pp. 141-166, B.P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 56, Honolulu, 1967), Ben Finney analysed the first research work of the 1960's and applied the findings to problem of the settlement of Hawaii and subsequent contact with Tahiti. A book that brings together and discusses research undertaken up until 1973 is Pacific Voyaging and Naviciation edited by Ben Finney (The Ploynesian Society, Wellington, 1975).

Archaeological and Linguistic Evidence on the Settlement of Hawaii.

Up until a decade or two ago archaeologists and historians generally favored Tahiti as the homeland of the Hawaiians However, archaeological and linguistic research conducted in the late 1950's and early 1960's led Bishop Museum researchers Kenneth P. Emory and Yosihiko H. Sinoto to postulate a two-part settlement from the Marquesas around 750 A.D., and then later, about 1200 A.D., settlement, or at least significant contact, from Tahiti (see Preliminary Report on the Archaeological Investigations in Polynesia, Anthropology Department, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, 1965). This view has been disputed by some young archaeologists like Peter Bellwood ("Dispersal Centres in East Polynesia, with special reference to the Society and Marquesas Islands," in R. Green and M.Kelly (eds.) Oceanic Culture History, Vol. 1, pp. 93-104. Pacific Anthropological Records No. 13) and Ross Cordy ("The Tahitian Migration to Hawaii CA 1100-1300 A.D.: An Argument Against its Occurence," "New Zealand Archaeological Association Newsletter, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 65-76, 1974) who argue that the archaeological record in particular is not sufficiently detailed to allow one to state exact sources and sequences of settlement. However, even if we might agree that the evidence is insufficient to draw a firm route map with arrows and dates, that there is some archaeological and linguistic evidence for links between Hawaii and both the Marquesas and Tahiti seems incontestable.

Hawaiian settlement traditions

There are abundant indications of Hawaii-Tahiti links contained in Hawaiian genealogies, chants and legends recorded in the years after European contact. Some of these can be found in Martha Beckwith's Hawaiian Mythology, (University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1970, Bruce Cartwright's "Some Aliis of the Migratory Period," Bishop Museum Occasional Papers, Vol. 10, No. 7, 1933) and Nathariiel B. Emerson's "The Long Voyages of the Ancient Hawaiians," (Papers of the Hawaiian Historical Society, No. 5, pp. 11-34, 1893). Teuira Henry's classic Ancient Tahiti (Bishop Museum Bulletin 48, Honolulu, 1928) cites Tahitian chants and legends that may indicate some Tahitian acquaintance with Hawaii.

However, it has become popular in the last few decades for scholars to reject traditions of settlement in Polynesia as guides to the history of past- population movements and to consider them primarily as testimony concocted or greatly modified to support some relatively recent theory of settlement or even to rationalize the political ascendency of a group by giving it "respectable" voyaging and settlement credentials. And, there are also those who would hold that settlement legends in Hawaii and some other parts of Polynesia reflect, in garbled form, the intrusion of Spanish navigators in the 16th century, not the arrival of Polynesian seafarers. However, there is good reason to believe that while settlement traditions may not exactly record the past, they can provide clues as to direction, sequence and perhaps even motivation of settlement. For example, Harry Maude, a noted Pacific historian, states that in Pacific Island societies facts conerning migration are apparently remembered long after the details of other events of local history are forgotten ("Pacific History--Past, Present and Future", Journal of Pacific Histor (Vol. 6, pp. 3-24, 1971).


Voyaging and the Revival of Culture and Heritage

Nainoa Thompson

1976, the first voyage to Tahiti: We were facing cultural extinction. There was no navigator from our culture left. The Polynesian Voyaging Society eventually found a traditional navigator to guide Hokule'a – a very special man. Without him, we have to realize that our voyaging would never have taken place. His name is Mau Piailug and he is from a small island called Satawal in Micronesia.

At the arrival into Papeete Harbor, over half the island was there, more than 17,000 people. The canoe came in, touched the beach.

Pape‘ete Harbor, 1976

There was an immediate response of excitement by everybody, including the children. So many children got onto the canoe they sank the stern. We were politely trying to get them off the rigging and everything else, just for the safety of the canoe.

None of us were prepared for that kind of cultural response -- something very important was happening. These people have great traditions and they have great genealogies of canoes and great navigators. What they didn't have was a canoe. And when Hokule'a arrived at the beach, there was a spontaneous renewal, I think, of both the affirmation of what a great heritage we come from, but also a renewal of the spirit of who we are as a people today.

1980: The difference on the voyage in 1980 (to Tahiti and back) was that Hokule‘a was guided by and captained by people from Hawai'i. For our culture to really be alive, we recognized that we had to practice it ourselves. Our navigator, Mau Pialug, took a fundamental step. He became, instead of our navigator, our teacher.

1985-1987: After we got back from Tahiti, we started thinking about what to do and where would it be important to go to? Other parts of Polynesia have great canoe traditions. We wanted to take Hokule'a to these different places and meet these people. And so we started planning for the Voyage of Rediscovery ... rediscovering ourselves. We mapped out a two-year voyage with seven major legs that reflected the other migratory and voyaging routes of ancient Polynesia-Hawai'i down to Tahiti; Tahiti to the Cook Islands; Rarotonga down to Aotearoa; Aotearoa up to Tonga and Samoa; then against the tradewinds from Samoa to the Cook Islands and back to Tahiti-the west-to-east migration route that Thor Heyerdahl said couldn't be done; Tahiti up to the Marquesas; and finally from the Marquesas back to Hawai'i. The entire voyage would cover 16,000 nautical miles.

1992: The Pacific Arts Festival in 1992 was the joining of Pacific island nations every four years to celebrate the visual and performing arts. It was to be held in Rarotonga. The prime minister of this historic island said, "Let's dedicate it to our historic voyaging ancestors," and he asked that each island group bring a model of their canoes to display. And somebody said, "No, we will sail our canoes." And you know Polynesians, how they are! That challenged everybody else. So they decided to build their canoes. They called Hawai'i and asked for assistance and it was a great opportunity for us to pay back – in a small way – the kindness we found all through the South Pacific. They took care of Hokule'a like she was their own. It also gave us the opportunity to move into a new area - education. We recognized the importance of education in the revival of our culture. In the end, seventeen canoes participated.

1995: The voyage in 1995 was not just about Hokule'a , but rather the children of Hokule'a -- Hawai'i Loa; another Hawaiian canoe called Makali'i; and two canoes from Tahiti, two from Rarotonga, and Te Aurere from Aotearoa. We trained navigators for five years. Recognizing that for our culture to be strong, if navigators are an important part of that, then we have to build strength in our numbers.

1999: We have traveled to the last corner of the Polynesian triangle and that achievement is not just ours - it belongs to everyone who has donated a portion of the millions of man hours spent taking care of the canoe over the almost 25 years since her creation.

What began in 1973 as a scientific experiment to build a replica of a traditional voyaging canoe for a one-time sail to Tahiti, became an important catalyst for a generation of cultural renewal and a symbol of the richness of Hawaiian culture and of a seafaring heritage which links together all of the peoples of Polynesia. No one could have imagined that by the end of the century, Hokule'a will have sailed more than 100,000 miles reaching every corner in the Polynesian Triangle

In 1973 there were no Polynesian voyaging canoes; today, there are six with others under construction. In 1973 there was only one deep-sea navigator that PVS knew of; today there are nine, with several more in training, along with 135 experienced deep-sea sailors in Hawai'i alone, ensuring that the Hawaiian people will never again lose their traditions of voyaging and navigation. In the wake of her accomplishments, Hokule'a has helped to renew the pride that Hawaiian people have for their culture and heritage.

On Wayfinding

Nainoa Thompson

The star compass is the basic mental construct for navigation. We have Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars – the place where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean. If you can identify the stars as they rise and set, and if you have memorized where they rise and set, you can find your direction.

The star compass also reads the flight path of birds and the direction of waves. It does everything. It is a mental construct to help you memorize what you need to know to navigate.

You cannot look up at the stars and tell where you are. You only know where you are in this kind of navigation by memorizing where you sailed from. That means constant observation. You have to constantly remember your speed, your direction and time. You don't have a speedometer. You don't have a compass. You don't have a watch. It all has to be done in your head. It is easy-in principle-but it's hard to do.

The memorization process is very difficult. Consider that you have to remember those three things for a month-every time you change course, every time you slow down. This mental construct of the star compass with its Hawaiian names is from Mau. The genius of this construct is that it compacts a lot information and enables you to make decisions based on that information.

How do we tell direction? We use the best clues that we have. We use the sun when it is low down on the horizon. Mau has names for the different widths and the different colors of the sun's path on the water. When the sun is low, the path is narrow, and as the sun rises the path gets wider and wider. When the sun gets too high you cannot tell where it has risen. You have to use other clues.

Sunrise is the most important part of the day. At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean-the character of the sea. You memorize where the wind is coming from. The wind generates the waves. You analyze the character of the waves. When the sun gets too high, you steer by the waves. And then at sunset you repeat the process. The sun goes down-you look at the shape of the waves. Did the wind direction change? Did the swell pattern change? At night we use the stars. We use about 220, memorizing where they come up, where they go down.

When it gets cloudy and you can't use the sun or the stars all you can do is rely on the ocean waves. That's why Mau told me once, "If you can read the ocean you will never be lost." One of the problems is that when the sky gets black at night under heavy clouds you cannot see the waves. You cannot even see the bow of the canoe. This is where traditional navigators like Mau are so skilled. Lying inside the hull of the canoe, he can feel the different wave patterns as they come to the canoe, and from them tell the canoe's direction. I can't do that. I think that's what he started learning when he was a child with his grandfather, when he was placed in tide pools to feel the ocean.

In 1979, when Mau was confident that I could guide the canoe by myself, he said, "Now I am going to go to sleep; you follow this star path." And like an overly eager student, I wanted to try sailing in a different direction to experience what the wave patterns felt like when I changed directions. I thought he wouldn't notice because he was sleeping inside the hull. When morning dawned, he came up and said, "Okay, what course did you sail last night? What star bearing did you hold?" He knew I had changed course. Lying in the hull, he actually knew the course I had steered; he challenged me to tell him in order to make sure that I knew where we had gone.

Tahiti is smaller than Maui and it is a hard target to hit from 2500 miles away. Even hitting a target as large as the Big Island from that distance is outside of the accuracy of our navigation. When we go down to Tahiti, we have a mental image of our course line plotted for the trip. We try to stay on this course and end up in what I call a box. (See the map of the 1980 voyage to Tahiti.) This box is large enough to compensate for any errors in our navigation. In this box there are many islands. All we have to do is to find one of them, and from that island we can find the others. For example, the target when we sail to Tahiti is a box four hundred miles wide, from Manihi in the Tuamotu islands to Maupiti in the leeward Tahitian islands. The first part of the journey to Tahiti is not trying to get to Tahiti but to make sure that we sail into this box and find an island. On different voyages, we have found Matahiva, Tikehau, and Rangiroa-all islands in the box. Since these are coral atolls it is very difficult to tell one from the other, so sometimes we have to land and ask the people what island it is that we've found. From any of these islands, we know Tahiti is only about 170-180 miles away and our navigation system is accurate enough to find it from that distance.

Now consider another navigational problem-finding Hawai'i from Tahiti. The Hawaiian islands are 315 miles wide, from Ni'ihau to Kumukahi on the Big Island, but if you approach them from the southeast they are a narrow target because they are aligned southeast to northwest. The technique we use is to sail up to the latitude of Hawai'i on the east side of the islands, using the stars to tell our latitude. When we determine we are at the mid-latitude of Hawai'i, 20.5 degrees N, we turn west and try to sail into the islands on this side, 240 miles wide-the sight distance from South Point on the Big Island [18.5 degrees N] to the sight distance from Hanalei on Kaua'i [22.5 degrees N]. Again, our navigation system is accurate enough to hit this target. (See the map of the 1980 voyage to Tahiti.)

The Southern Cross is really important to us in determining latitude. It looks like a kite. The top and bottom stars in the kite always point south-Gacrux on top and Acrux on the bottom. If you are traveling in a canoe and going south, these southern stars are going to appear to be moving higher and higher in the sky. If you went down to the South Pole, these stars are going to be way overhead. If you are sailing from Tahiti north to Hawai'i, the Southern Cross gets lower and lower the farther north you go. At the latitude of Hawai'i, the distance from the top star to the bottom star is the same distance from that bottom star to the horizon about 6 degrees. This configuration only occurs at the latitude of Hawai'i.

If you are in Nukuhiva in the Marquesas Islands and looking at the Southern Cross, the distance between the bottom star in the Southern Cross and the horizon is about nine times the distance between the two stars.

Finding atolls, which are very low, is extremely difficult, but there are a lot of clues to the presence of islands. The wave patterns change when an island is near. The behavior of animals in the sea, such as dolphins, will change. Mau can read these clues. The main guide is sea birds. There are two general types of seabirds that Mau taught us about. There are the pelagic seabirds-after the young are hatched and learn to fly, they go to sea and stay there, normally sleeping on the water or in the air and fishing until they become adults; then they come back to land to nest. The 'iwa bird is pelagic and we see it all the way across the ocean. Following these birds will not help you find land. The other type of birds are those that sleep on islands at night and at dawn go out to sea to fish. These land-based birds include the manu o ku (white tern) and noio (brown tern). Noio go about 40 miles out; the manu o ku go about 120 miles out. The Tuamotus are filled with these birds.

A large bird pile near Rangiroa Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Photo by Na‘alehu Anthony

After we sail about 29 days down from Hawai'i and staring seeing these birds, we know the islands are close even though we can't see them. When the manu o ku is fishing, it flutters above the ocean surface, but when the sun starts to go down, it will rise up from the water so it can see farther, and it will head straight back to land. When we see these birds in the day we keep track of them and wait for the sun to get low and watch the bird; the flight path of the bird is the bearing of the island. Then we turn on that bearing, sail as fast as we can, and at sunset we climb the mast to see if we can find the island. And if we can't see it, we heave to until the morning.

On my first voyage in 1980, we saw two birds after the 29th day and I was extremely relieved. At least we were in the ball park. I did everything that I was taught to do and the birds did everything that they were supposed to do. They went up high and they flew away and we sailed in that direction. We couldn't see the island at sunset, so we took the sails down at night and we waited. The next morning we looked for the birds to see what direction they were coming from. In the morning they go back out to the fishing ground, so the direction they are coming from is the direction to the island. We had a great crew of 14 and we made a ring around the canoe before dawn. We waited for the first bird. All hands on deck. Not a single bird. I was in near trauma-my first voyage, in my early twenties. Mau was very calm and didn't say anything. We waited and waited. The canoe was just sitting dead in the water, facing south.

One of the canoe members was in the back of the canoe and a bird flew right over his head. The night before we saw the birds flying south so how could it be that late in the morning with the sun very high, this bird was also flying south? That would suggest that we passed the island during the night and now the island was back to the north. In my panic, I told the crew we should turn the canoe around and go north-to look for the island the bird was coming from. They turned the canoe around-and now we are sailing north, back toward Hawai'i. Now Mau has always said that his greatest honor would not be as a navigator but as a teacher-that he would come with us to make sure that the voyage to Tahiti would be safe, but if he didn't have to tell me anything, the honor as a teacher would be his. But after I started to sail north he came to me and said, "No." It was the first time that he interrupted the trip. He said, "Turn the canoe around and follow the bird." I was really puzzled. I didn't know why. He didn't tell me why, but we turned the canoe around and now we saw other birds flying south. Mau said, "You wait one hour and you will find an island."

After about an hour, Mau, who is about twenty years older than me-my eyes are physically much more powerful than his-got up on the rail of the canoe and said, "The island is right there." We all started looking, and we couldn't see it. Vision is not so much about just looking, but knowing what to look for. It's experience. Mau had seen in the beak of the bird a little fish, and he knew that the birds were nesting, so they had flown out earlier that morning and were taking food back to their young before they fed themselves. He just did not tell me that in our training program.

Not everybody can navigate. We have some great navigators in Hawai'i – Shorty Bertelmann from the Big Island; my brother-in-law, Bruce Blankenfeld from O'ahu; and Chad Baybayan from Maui. We base our projected course line before the voyage on average winds and sea conditions for 24 hours, but these are never average. The majority of navigation is observation and adjusting to the natural environment. The rougher the weather, the more the navigator needs to be awake and the less he can leave the crew on their own. We estimate that our navigators stay up between 21 and 22 hours a day, sleeping in a series of catnaps.

Mau says the mind doesn't need much rest. But the physical body does. When the navigator is on the canoe, the crew does the physical work. When he is tired, he closes your eyes. Mau told me that for him maybe his eyes are closed but inside here, inside his heart, he is always awake.

The navigator sleeps whenever his mind needs to rest. You work until you can't think, basically, then you lie down. I close my eyes and go to sleep. I have no dreams in the beginning. My first dreams are fire. I see reds and oranges. Then I get up when my mind is awake again. I do a series of those catnaps. The main thing is to make sure that your physical body doesn't do any work because then you get sick.

Initially, I depended on geometry and analytic mathematics to help me in my quest to navigate the ancient way. However as my ocean time and my time with Mau have grown, I have internalized this knowledge. I rely less on mathematics and come closer and closer to navigating the way the ancients did.


Predicting Weather: Reading Clouds and Sea States

Nainoa Thompson

During Hokule'a's voyage from Tahiti to Hawai'i in February, 2000, documentor Sam Low photographed clouds and sea states and recorded navigator Nainoa Thompson's readings of them.

Sunrise, February 11, 2000; 6 days out of Tahiti

View from Hokule‘a’s beam--towering cumulus clouds:

"A Navigator always looks for signs of weather at sunset and sunrise," Nainoa says. "Generally, at sunrise and sunset you try to predict the weather for the next 12 hours. Today I see strong evidence in the clouds of a change in the weather from what we have experienced in the last 2 to 3 days. Looking to the east--off the beam of the canoe (this is picture 1) I see various complicated towering high cloud masses, which are the remnants of the squalls that we went through last night. Yesterday and the day before I looked out and saw actual squalls there--today there are no squalls evident. You can't really predict the weather, as Mau taught me, from a single snapshot like this. You have to observe changes over time. In this case, I see a change from seeing squalls off the starboard yesterday to this view today where there are no active squalls. The wind definitely feels stronger today and I can see wind wavelets on the surface of the ocean. The wind is also coming from the normal direction of the SE trades, so I can presume that the trades are reasserting themselves."

View towards the bow of the canoe from roughly dead ahead to 45 degrees off the bow:

"I see a lot of low level cumulus clouds ahead of us in the direction we are moving. There are no indications of any squalls in those clouds so I think I can predict we are approaching an area of clean flowing wind--trades from the SE--which will be steady. That is quite different than the variable winds we have been experiencing. So, for the next 12 hours, I believe that the wind will remain steady from the SE at a fairly constant speed, maybe 10 knots, so we will be able to sail N today."

"Every time I attempt to predict the weather or sail on this canoe I am constantly reminded of how smart our ancestors were. My understanding of nature is feeble compared to theirs. We can have today only a glimpse into their world--into the strength and courage that made them the greatest navigators and explorers on earth. We sail in comfort with foul weather gear to protect us on a canoe partly made of modern materials, with all kinds of safety devices on board. They had none of that. They were attuned intimately to nature in a way that we cannot be. At best, our voyages are just beginning to give us a glimpse into their world."

Feb. 14, 2000; 9 days out of Tahiti

"Mau taught me to call clouds that look like this "the road to the wind." Imagine at the far horizon there is a factory producing the clouds and, like smoke from a haystack, they follow the wind. This road indicates the wind is coming from the horizon. and because the road is straight, the wind is steady. If you see the road curve--it means that the wind direction will change and the way it curves will tell you the new direction. It is interesting to me that meteorologists call this kind of phenomenon "cloud streets', pretty close to Mau's term "Road of the Wind."

Feb. 15, 2000; 10 days out of Tahiti

Nainoa's view of the sea at sunrise, and what he sees in the shape of the clouds:

"The sky where the sun is rising is very clear--I don't see any smoke (which is caused by strong winds stirring salt into the atmosphere)--so I think the winds will be relatively light today.

"Ahead of us, I see two squalls, but there are no squalls beyond them so we should have good weather once we pass through them."

Feb. 20, 2000; 15 days out of Tahiti

Weather Analysis: Normal trade wind clouds and sea state on February 20, 2000. "On the horizon you see what we call zone -based trade wind cumulus clouds. There is little vertical development, meaning no high clouds, and no squalls are visible. These clouds suggest to me a stable weather pattern. The wind is clean and predictable, blowing 20-25 knots. I judge the wind speed by the feel of the wind against my body, also by the fact there are a lot of white caps and wind streaks along the ocean surface, also the size of the swells which are about ten feet high. (On Feb. 20 the wind blew from the NE, forcing us to steer too far to the west; since then the wind has shifted more easterly allowing us to head north.)



Wayfinding: Intellect and Instinct

Nainoa Thompson

The difference between the second voyage [in 1980] and the first one [in 1976] was that on the second voyage, the canoe was guided by, captained by, and crewed by people from Hawai'i. For our culture to really be alive, we recognized that we had to practice it ourselves.

Before we left I was panicking. I had the safety of the entire crew in my hands. There was intense media pressure. I had to appear confident, but inside I was very much afraid. The part of the trip I dreaded the most was the doldrums. I had no confidence that I could get through it. I thought that I could only accurately navigate if I had visual celestial clues and that when I got into the doldrums there would be a hundred percent cloud cover, and I would be blind. And that's what happened.

When we arrived in the doldrums, the sky was black. It was solid rain. The wind was switching around. The wind was blowing at about twenty-five knots, and we were moving fast. That's the worst thing that can happen – you are going fast and you don't know where you're going. The guys steering the canoe were looking for direction and that increased the pressure, especially because it was my first voyage as navigator. I couldn't tell the steersmen where to steer. I was very, very tense. To prevent fatigue, you cannot allow yourself to get physically tense, but I couldn't stop feeling tense.

I was so exhausted that I backed up against the rail to rest. Then something happened that allowed me to understand where the moon was, without seeing it. When I gave up fighting to find the moon with my eyes, I settled down. I suddenly felt this warmth come over me and I knew where the moon was. The sky was so black, I couldn't see the moon, but I could feel where it was.

From the feeling of warmth and the image of the moon came a strong sense of confidence. I knew where to go. I directed the canoe on a new course and then, just for a moment, there was a hole in the clouds and the light of the moon shone through – just where I expected it to be. I can't explain it, but that was one of the most precious moments in all my sailing experience. I realized there was some deep connection I was making, something very deep inside my abilities and my senses that goes beyond the analytical, beyond seeing with my eyes. I cannot explain what this is from a scientific point of view. But it happened. And now I seek out these experiences. I don't always have them. I have to be in the right frame of mind and beyond that, internally, I have to be able to enter into a kind of spiritual realm. I don't want to analyze these experiences too much. I just want to make them happen more often. I don't think there's an explanation for them. There are certain levels of navigation that are realms of the spirit.

Before that happened, I tended to rely on math and science because it was so much easier to explain things that way. I didn't know how to trust my instincts. They were not trained enough to be trusted. Hawaiians call it na'au – your instincts, your feelings, rather than your mind, your intellect.


Star Navigation

Soundings Magazine

By Sam Low

The modern instrument navigator inhabits a world of abstractions. To find his place in the world, he reduces a star's altitude to a number, then consults his astronomical tables, does some math, and plots his position on a chart. He then forgets his navigational tasks until it's time for another peek through his sextant.


But the noninstrument navigator never ceases to regard nature. The world all around offers a continual ‘heads up display' – of stars, swells, and wind. Hokule'a's navigator, Nainoa Thompson constantly senses the direction of his vessel - in the soles of his feet, in the feel of wind on his cheek, in the sound of the rushing wake. He is continually, as he describes it, “in the navigation.”


“Navigation is about understanding and watching nature,” Nainoa once told me, “everything you need to guide you is in the ocean, but you need to be skilled enough to see it. It took many years to learn the ocean's many faces, to sense subtle cues - the slight differences in ocean swells, in the colors of the ocean, the shapes of the clouds and in the winds.”


Imagine an ocean of islands spanning ten million square miles. Now imagine you must navigate that world without charts or instruments - without even a compass - to find a tiny island 2500 miles away. If you fail, you will die. Impossible you say? Not at all. Such voyages were accomplished time and again a thousand years ago by ancient Polynesian seafarers. How they accomplished this feat has been a puzzle since Cook first revealed their watery domain in the late 1700s.


In 1974, Nainoa Thompson, began his quest to understand his ancestors' ancient navigational art by apprenticing to Mau Piailug, one of a handful of traditional navigators from Micronesia . He also spent hundreds of hours studying the sky in nature and in a planetarium atHawaii 's Bishop Museum . Then he navigated Hokule'a – a replica of a Polynesian double hull voyaging canoe – on voyages spanning a quarter century and 100,000 nautical miles. His technique of navigation combines the traditional art of Mau Piailug with a more scientific and ‘western' view of nature. We will never know how the Polynesians actually found their way – but Nainoa's quest provides some clues..


Star Compass


By night, Nainoa steers by a compass defined by twinkling diamonds in the sky. The earth's axis of rotation points almost directly at Polaris – the star that never moves – a beacon of true north used by mariners for centuries. As earth spins, the other stars appear to rise in the eastern sky, arc overhead, and set in the west. Where they rise and where they set define points, or houses, on Nainoa's compass. Regulus, for example, rises at 78 degrees true and sets at 282 degrees true, Gacrux (the top star in the Southern Cross), rises at 147 degrees and sets at 213 degrees. In order to steer his canoe with confidence, Nainoa has memorized the rising and setting points of about 200 stars. He knows the sky so well that a glimpse of only a few twinkling points of light allows him to find his way on cloudy nights.


Pointer Stars the celestial firmament, Nainoa also discovered pairs of stars that cross he meridian together – pointers he calls them – because they always point to either the north or south celestial poles as they arc across the night sky. On the equator, for example, a line drawn between the top and bottom stars in the Southern Cross - Gacrux and Acrux - always point south. So does a line between Mirzam and Canopus in the constellations Canis Major and Carina. In the northern sky, Merak and Dubhe in the cup of the Big Dipper point north, as do Edasich (in the Dragon) and Pherkad (in the Little Dipper.) Corrections must be made as Nainoa sails away from the equator because we live on a round earth and our view of the sky is tangent to it – causing the stars' rising and setting points of stars to vary with latitude. .



During the day, Nainoa steers Hokule'a by the sun and ocean swells. In the Pacific, northeast and southeast trade winds set in motion a steady beat of swells that are relatively easy to detect. Much less obvious are swells stirred by local storms which only a trained navigator can see. At dawn, with the stars still visible, Nainoa orients these swells to his star compass.




At the equator, the visible horizon is parallel to the earth's axis and so Polaris appears to rest on the ocean's surface. At one degree north latitude, Polaris will conveniently rise a single degree above the horizon. What is true for Polaris is true for all the rest. Moving north, every northern star rises and every southern star sinks exactly one degree for each degree of latitude change. Move south and the northern stars sink while the southern stars rise. Unlike Polaris these stars move, however, so their altitude must be measured when they cross the meridian – the highest point in their arc. When observed from the equator, Acrux crosses the meridian at 27 degrees. Move north one degree and Acrux's highest rising is 26 degrees. So if you know the meridian altitude of any star at the equator – simple math allows you to find your latitude anywhere on earth. Each star tells a different story, so Nainoa has memorized the paths of hundreds.


Nainoa uses his hand as an instrument to find a star's altitude. He orients his outstretched thumb to rest on the horizon, then reads altitude against landmarks in his flesh. If a star rises to the height of his second knuckle, for example, he knows its altitude is 15 degrees.


Simultaneous setting


While studying the stars in Hawaii , Nainoa observed Mirzam set below the western horizon, followed by Sirius, Castor and Pollux. But when he traveled to Tahiti , he watched Mirzam and Castor set at the same time, followed by Sirius and Pollux which also set simultaneously. A little research showed that at only 18 degrees south latitude will Mirzam and Castor and Sirius and Pollux set together. A new navigational concept was born – simultaneous setting – another key to latitude. Diligent research revealed many other such star pairs.


Equal Distance - Meridian Pairs the Southern Cross arc to its meridian at the latitude of Hawaii , Nainoa noticed that the distance between the top star (Gacrux) and the bottom star (Acrux) was exactly equal to the distance between Acrux and the horizon. Thinking about this a little more, he realized that whenever an observer sees this equal spacing he will be at 21 degrees north.


What is true for Gacrux and Acrux is true for all the other pointer stars. At 5 degrees south latitude, for example, the distance between Pherkad (in the Little Dipper) and Edasich (in Draco) is the same as the distance between Pherkad and the horizon. Applying this principle to the all the pointer stars, Nainoa had discovered a sure way to find his latitude at many different points on the globe.




Instrument navigators find their longitude by comparing their local time with the time at Greenwich , England . Without a chronometer and sextant, Nainoa finds his longitude as navigators did for millennia – by dead reckoning. many voyages I have watched him as he seems to enter a zone of intense concentration – observing the sea and sky for clues to the course steered and the distance made good. He plots these calculations on a mental map, adjusting his estimated position at sunrise and sunset. So intense is this mental process that he sleeps only a few hours each day in a series of thirty minute catnaps.


His ‘dead reckoning' technique of plotting his position mentally involves western concepts of trigonometry resolved into proportions he has memorized and applies daily. He figures his course made good and calculates this position utilizing a ‘reference course' previously plotted on a chart which he memorized (he uses no charts when actually navigating).


Island Screens


On many voyages, Nainoa aims for a screen of islands such as the Society Island-Tuamotu-Marquesan chain that lies across hundreds of miles of ocean. He then uses signs of land to determine the proximity to landfall – birds, flotsam, the presence and coloration of clouds. These must have been techniques known to ancient Polynesian navigators as well.


The acid test


On one voyage – that to Rapa Nui – his system was tested to the fullest as he aimed Hokule'a to a tiny speck of land alone in an immense sea. A mistake of only one degree in estimating the altitude of a star at its meridian would translate into an error of 60 miles at sea. Rapa Nui is observable from a distance of only 30 miles so Nainoa's navigation had to be spot on to find the island. Yet he did – after 17 days at sea – proof of the concept that a trained noninstrument navigator can be deadly accurate.


A hybrid System


Nainoa's is a hybrid system, our Polynesian ancestors did not divide their world into lines of longitude and latitude, for example, nor did they have charts. Nevertheless, many of the observations he used to find his way must have been available to ancient Polynesians as well. The star compass, which still is used in Micronesia, is one such technique as is Mau's reliance on wind and wave for direction and his use of birds, flotsam and sky coloration. What ties Nainoa's system to the ancient one is a similar painstaking observation of the natural world – seeking clues to location in the night sky and the world around him. Polynesian navigators undoubtedly noticed the shape of the sky changing as they moved across Earth - the rising and setting points of stars, their arc across the sky, the height they rose to, perhaps even relationships such as equal distances and simultaneous setting. How they used these observations we will never know with certainty.


The lesson


The voyages of Hokule'a – and of other recreated Polynesian canoes – have proven the concept that such vessels could have carried colonists across thousands of ocean miles and that you do not need instruments to find your way across trackless space.


The lesson for those of us confined today within four walls and the concepts of math and science, is an appreciation for another way of seeing the world. While we may never know if Nainoa's way was used by our ancestors, we can marvel at what can be achieved if one just systematically observes the world all around us. It is this technique of patient observation that must have been similar across time and geography – allowing the Polynesians to settle ten million square miles of Earth's surface.


And finally, like all who settle into a sure confidence in their abilities, Nainoa was able to achieve a state of oneness with the world around him that allowed him to become an artist trusting in his trained instinct.


“When everything is going right,” Nainoa once explained to me. “I get into a zone, a special place in which all of my relations with the canoe, the natural world and the crew are integrated. You have to be in that special place to navigate well. When you are in the zone, you feel ahead of the game. You find yourself naturally thinking about what will happen next and you are acting in the future, not reacting to things in the past. You have the star patterns in mind and you seem to know where you are even when the sky is cloudy and you can't see the stars. You begin to anticipate the weather. It's an awesome feeling but it's hard to describe. It is like being inside the navigation, participating from the inside.”


Wayfinding: Modern Methods and Techniques of Non-Instrument Navigation, Based on Pacific Traditions

(Compiled by Dennis Kawaharada, from the teaching of Nainoa Thompson and other Sources)

Before the invention of the compass, sextant and clocks, or more recently, the satellite-dependant Global Positioning System (GPS), Pacific Islanders navigated open-ocean voyages without instruments, using instead their observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea.

In the 20th century, this method was still practiced in some areas of Micronesia, although the traditional knowledge and techniques are in danger of being lost because of modernization and Westernization of the island cultures. revival of the art and science of wayfinding is underway among the Pacific islands, led by Nainoa Thompson, the first modern-day Polynesian to learn and use wayfinding for long-distance, open-ocean voyaging. Nainoa studied wayfinding underMau Piailug, a master navigator from the island of Satawal in Micronesia. He also studied the movement and positioning of celestial bodies with Will Kyselka at the Bishop Museum planetarium in Honolulu, and oceanography and meteorology at the University of Hawai‘i.

Mau navigated the first voyage of the Hokule'a to Tahiti in 1976; Thompson served as wayfinder on voyages of Hokule‘a in 1980 and 1985-87. In 1992, he began training new navigators from Hawai'i and other Pacific islands to perpetuate the tradition.

A voyage undertaken using modern wayfinding has three components:

1. Designing a course strategy, which includes a reference course for reaching the vicinity of one's destination, hopefully upwind, so that the canoe can sail downwind to the destination rather than having to tack into the wind to get there. (Tacking involves sailing back and forth as closely as possible into the wind to make progress against the wind; it’s very arduous and time-consuming, something to be avoided if at all possible, particularly at the end of a long, difficult voyage.)

2. During the voyage, holding as closely as possible to the reference course while keeping track of (1) distance and direction traveled; (2) one's position north and south and east and west of the reference course and (3) the distance and direction to the destination.

3. Finding land after entering the vicinity of the destination, called a target screen or “the box.”

Bibliography – Wayfinding and Astronomy

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Makemson, Maud W. "Hawaiian Astronomical Concepts. Part I and Part II" American Anthropologist, 1938.

Makemson, Maud W. The Morning Star Rises. New Haven: Yale University Press 1941.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert. Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: UH Press, 1971.

Thompson, Nainoa. Lectures, Notes, and Conversations. 1991-1998.

Related Websites (Astronomy)

Stellarium (Online Planetarium):

Sky charts and planetary/sun/moon info:

NASA Eclipse Website:


Traditional Tahitian Navigation

Andia Y Varela

The following account of traditional Tahitian navigation is from the journal of Andia Y Varela, who visited in Tahiti in 1774. The acount was published in The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries of Spain during the Years 1772-6 (3 vols.), B.G. Corney (ed.), London: Hakluyt Society, 1913-1919, Vol. II, 284-287). are many sailing-masters among the people, the term for whom is in their language fatere [faatere; Hawaiian: ho'okele]. They are competent to make long voyages like that from Otahiti [Tahiti] to Oriayatea [Ra‘iatea], which counts forty or fifty leag ues [one league equals 30 nautical miles, so 120-150 miles], and others farther afield. One of them named Puhoro came to Lima on this occasion in the frigate; and from him and others I was able to find out the method by which they navigate on the high sea s. They have no mariner's compass, but divide the horizon into sixteen parts, taking for the cardinal points those at which the sun rises and sets. Their names, with the corresponding ones in our own language, are as follows:

[Footnote in Corney's Text: "About half the terms here quoted are recognizable, allowing for differences in the spelling of some. Maoae, faarua, arueroa, toerau are correct; apiti is haapiti; maray is maraai, erahenua is arafenua, and tuauru may be uru. They are the names of winds, according to the direction from which they blow, and their force. But the directions given in this list do not all quite accord with the names. There are slight variants in the different manuscripts, but none of moment."]

When setting out from port the helmsman reckons with the horizon. Thus partitioned counting from E, or the point where the sun rises; he knows the direction in which his destination bears: he sees, also, whether he has the wind aft, or on one or other bea m, or on the quarter, or is close-hauled: he knows, further, whether there is a following sea, a head sea, a beam sea, or if it is on the bow or the quarter. He proceeds out of port with a knowledge of these [conditions], heads his vessel according to his calculation, and aided by the signs the sea and wind afford him, does his best to keep steadily on his course. This task becomes more difficult if the day be cloudy, because of having no mark to count from for dividing out the horizon. Should the night b e cloudy as well, they regulate their course by the same signs; and, since the wind is apt to vary in direction more than the swell does, they have their pennants, made of feathers and palmetto bark, to watch its changes by and trim sail, always taking th eir cue for a knowledge of the course from the indication the sea affords them. When the night is a clear one they steer by the stars; and this is the easiest navigation for them because, there being many stars not only do they note by them the bearings o n which the several islands with which they are in touch lie, but also the harbours in them, so that they make straight for the entrance by following the rhumb of the particular star that rises or sets over it; and they hit it off with as much precision a s the most expert navigator of civilized nations could achieve.

They distinguish the planets from the fixed stars, by their movements; and give them separate names. To the stars they make use of in going from one island to another, they attach the name of the island, so that the one which serves for sailing from Otahiti to Oriayatea has those same names, and the same occurs with those that serve them for making the harbours in those islands.

What took me most in two Indians whom I carried from Otahiti to Oriayatea was that every evening or night, they told me, or prognosticated, the weather we should experience on the following day, as to wind, calms, rainfall, sunshine, sea, and other points , about which they never turned out to be wrong: a foreknowledge worthy to be envied, for, in spite of all that our navigators and cosmographers have observed and written about the subject, they have not mastered this accomplishment.


Hawaiians as Navigators and Seamen

Samuel Wilder King

[From the 34th Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society, 1925, 11-14] was reading recently an article that advanced the proposition that the man who first made use of a rude paddle to propel a crude raft was essentially a greater inventor than the many who later developed the rowing boat to its present mechanical excellen ce. So, in other fields the first germ of an idea was the most important, the big step forward, the later improvements following as a matter of course, inevitable as midday after morning. Our complicated modern civilization gives us immense knowledge, the use of all the stored experience of thousands of years of people of many races; but the big new ideas are still few and far between. It is doubtful if we excel our ancestors in intellect, however much we may be their superiors in knowledge. Judged on their grasp of the fundamentals, the ancient Hawaiians had a splendid foundation in seamanship and navigation. Remote and isolated as they were, and had been for years, what they knew was either part of the scanty heritage brought with them from their ancient home in the west and treasured through all the thousands of miles of eastward migrations, and generations of residence on the fair isles of Polynesia, or was of their own devising. Perhaps some unrecorded Galileo or Lord Kelvin added a mite or two to their original store of knowledge. At any rate we know that the Hawaiians could not benefit from the discoveries and improvements being made in the European world, that the narrow limitations of their islands confined their progress in countles s ways, and that the lack of writing made it extremely difficult to standardize their knowledge and keep it clear of error.
When the Haole first came to Hawaii it was a source of wonder to them how the Hawaiians got here. Further acquaintance with the mele (songs) of old voyages increased the wonder. Finally it was borne upon them that the Hawaiians, like their kin throughout Polynesia, were great seamen, with a clear knowledge of the prevailing winds, the moods of the sea, and the signs and portents that foretold the weather. In their canoes, the greatest of which were frail craft compared with the vessels of Cook or Vancouve r, they traveled the seas of Hawai'i daringly, braving the currents and tempestuous waves of the island channels, and making far trips beyond the horizon. With mat sails and paddles they accomplished voyages upon which we moderns would hesitate to venture . With neither compass nor chart, sextant nor chronometer, but with mind filled with the ancient lore, handed down through the generations, the lore of wind and sea and sky, they set out, and counted not the mischance of failing to make a landfall.

A priestly astrologer, the kilo hoku would give the more important of the prospective trips a good clearance, or hold the boat for a better day; and mixed with his rites there were always the realties of keen weather observing. Of course the pig must be b aked, the 'awa chewed and mixed, the gods propitiated with offerings and prayers, and then the heavens and sea scanned for portents. If the rainbow stood arched in the wrong quarter, if the clouds were flying in scattered fragments, the wind and sea from the wrong direction, the sailing was delayed. But if the indications were fair the astrologer completed the prognosis with an inspired dream, and the voyage was well begun.

The canoe captain, the ho'okele then took command. He knew the different waves with their specific names, equivalent to our own cross sea, following sea, head sea, etc.; and the winds of many kinds, each with its name and peculiar characteristic; and he k new his boat, and how it should be handled under every condition, even to righting it if overturned. To make the desired landfall the ho'okele first located the North Star, in Hawaiian, Hokupa'a, or fixed star, and kept it on the proper bearing; and then selected from the heavens the steering star, the star from among many that would carry him safely to his port. If the little star near Na Hiku (The Seven, or The Dipper) was seen to wink frequently, or if other signs were present, a storm was approaching, and he steered for a safe haven.

In this manner the Polynesians populated every habitable rock and coral island in an area of ocean greater than a continent. There is no record of those who failed; but of those who achieved a new landfall, and carried the news back to their kinfolk, we h ave some record, fragmentary it is true, because the Polynesians lacked the art of writing. From what we have we can piece together epic poems of great journeys, sagas of our Pacific Vikings less known perhaps than those of their Norsemen brothers of the sea, but of equal daring and romance, a tribute to the virility and courage of that ancient Polynesian race.

Our modern astrologer is the weather bureau, and our modern ho'okele has many aids in his struggle with the elements, but the principles of taking a vessel from port to port are much the same, based on good seamanship and navigation.

For the long trips, the great voyages to the far off islands of the South Pacific, the navigator knew his astronomy, Ka 'oihana kilokilo, and his geography, kukulu o kahiki, and became he ho'okele-moana, a deep-water sailor. His chart might be the circula r base of a gourd, lines burnt in to show the meridian of Hawaii, and the tropics. From Hokupa'a, the North Star, to Newe, the Southern Cross, was the Hawaiian Greenwich; the northern tropic was Kealanui Polohiwa a Kane, the black shining highway of the s un; the southern tropic was Kealanui ka piko o Wakea, the highway to the middle of the earth. The east was Keala'ula a Kane, the red track of the sun; and the west was Kealanui ma'awe'ula a Kanaloa, the wide red track of Kanaloa. In the celestial sphere s o bounded moved the stars, na hoku pa'a o ka 'aina, among them the navigational stars (na hoku ho'okele); and the planets, na hoku hele (moving stars). Beyond were strange stars, na hoku o ka lewa. Of the planets the Hawaiians knew five: Mars as Hoku 'ula , the Red Star; Venus as Hoku loa, the Great Star; Jupiter as Ka'awela, the Brilliant One; Mercury as Ukali, the [Sun] Follower; and Saturn as Makulu. Of the stars a great many were listed in the old instructions and mele (songs), many not identified toda y. Besides the North Star and the Southern Cross, Altair, Vega, Sirius, Orion, the Pleiades, the Dipper, Castor and Pollux, and others were known and studied.

With this stock of knowledge, the Hawaiians used a calendar based on the moon, knew and corrected its error by reference to the stars, named each month, and each night of the month by the characteristics of the moon, and judged the hour closely by the sta rs at night, or the sun by day. Thus equipped many brave chieftains of the olden times made the great voyage to Tahiti and back. How they provided sufficient food and water, how they survived storms and calms and submerged reefs and lee shores, is but bri efly known from the chants that have come down to us. What captains failed and died unsung will never be known. But we do know of many who succeeded, and brought back new chiefs and priests to Hawai'i, new customs and ideas, dances and drums, plants and d resses, and started ferment in HawaiÔi nei that did not end until Kamehameha the Great ruled supreme over the eight islands.

Of Hawai'i specifically, such names as Pa'ao, Kaulu-a-Kalana, Paumakua, and the famous old sea-going family headed by Mo'ikeha and including his foster son La'a, named La'a-maikahiki, the son Kila, and the grandson Kaha'i, have come down to us as great vo yagers of a later period, when Hawai'i and the southerly islands revived the old bond, and exchanged ideas and peoples, after several centuries had been allowed to elapse since the original settlers had come north to "Green-backed Hawai'i" as they called it.

The exploits of these Hawaiian Vikings surpass in daring and danger that of the Norsemen. Among those who go down to the sea in ships, the ancient Hawaiians hold a high and honorable place; and the seamen's bent and flavor holds with their children today.

Founding the Polynesian Voyaging Society; Building and Naming Hōkūle‘a

Herb Kawainui Kāne, from Voyagers (Honolulu, Whalesong: 1991)

Was Polynesian exploration and settlement intentional, involving planned voyages? Or, accidental as the result of storm-wrecked canoes drifiting off course or on one-way voyages of exile?

There was no one alive who could answer the questions. For long years scholars had argued whether Polynesian navigators had the ability and the vessels to master the vast Pacific.

The two views overlap insofar as all discoveries are fortuitous, but they differ radically in their estimates of the accuracy of Polynesian navigation and their assessment of the seaworthiness and windward performance of Polynesian canoes.

The argument heated up in the 1950s and 1960s. The "intentional voyages" proponents were accused of being too romantic about Polynesian maritime capabilities, too quick to accept the voyaging legends: and the "accidental drift" theorists were accused of being overly eurocentric, unable to accept the idea that anyone except Europeans could accomplish great feats of exploration, and those only in vessels that fell within the modern definition of 'seaworthy.'

The "accidental drift" theory was shot down by computer simulations of wind patterns and ocean currents which concluded that a drifting canoe had no chance of reaching Hawai'i, Easter Island, and New Zealand from other parts of Polynesia or Micronesia.

The route between Tahiti and Hawaii passes through three ocean currents and requires sailing slightly against the wind both ways. Could the ancient voyaging canoes perform well enough to windward to make round trips? Hōkūle‘a's 1976 round trip voyage proved that they could. And the navigation experiments conducted in 1976 and in subsequent voyages have proved the adequacy of Polynesian navigation.]

I knew now how the old canoes had been built. What if we actually built a full size replica of a canoe incorporating the functional design features most widely distributed throughout Polynesia? Putting such a canoe to an actual test would test as well the accounts of Polynesian navigation. An actual sailing would provide data that might settle this long dispute. Even more intriguing to me was the thought that recreating the central object of the ancient culture and taking it to sea might stimulate the growing interest in a cultural revival.

The idea attracted others. We incorporated as the Polynesian Voyaging Society and recruited members. I drew a preliminary plan for such a canoe, then made a painting. Feeling altogether foolish, I found myself flashing the painting around Honolulu, asking for money. Hundreds of volunteers came forward to contribute time, talent, and substance, and the canoe got built.

We launched it in 1975. Others looked to me with the question – "You got us into this. Now actual sailing could provide data that might how do we sail this sixty foot vessel with weird looking sails and no rudder?" Using what I had learned from sailing catamarans, I found myself as the training skipper. It was not easy. On shakedown cruises throughout the Hawaiian islands, we were literally relearning the past.

It was a wonderfully satisfying experience, but not without nerve-wracking moments. Salling with green hands in an unforgiving vessel was a constant reminder of my old mentor's admonition about sailboats.

Navigated without charts or instruments, this replica of an ancient Eastern Polynesian voyaging canoe made two 5,500 mile round trips between Hawal'i and Tahiti in 1976 and 1980. Another very successful voyage in 1985-87 took it from Hawal'i to Tahiti, Mo'orea, Huahine, Ra'latea, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, then back to Hawai'l by way of the Cook Islands and Tahiti-a round trip of 16,000 miles between the northern and southern points of the Polynesian triangle.

We named the canoe Hōkūle‘a (“star of gladness”), the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, a star which appears to pass directly overhead on the latitude of Hawai'l, and was thereby useful as a navigation star for the ancient voyagers. At every port of call Hokule'a was warmly received by Polynesians as the symbol of their mutuality, and a reminder of the resourcefulness, inventiveness, and courage of their ancestors.

Naming Hōkūle‘a

This happened when the parts of the canoe were close to being completed. One day when I visited the building site, a large shed at Young Bros., one of the guys had chalked 'Da Boat' on the side of one of the hulls. When I asked the reason for the graffiti, they said it was to remind me that it was time to come up with a name.

According to Kenneth Emory, in the old days a name would come to a canoe designer in a dream. Be that as it may, we tossed the question around at the board meeting a few days later. Several names were suggested, mostly compound names, each including several words; none seemed to be what everyone was looking for. Several weeks went by.

One exceptionally clear night I stayed up quite late, star chart in hand, locating and memorizing stars and their relative positions. I think I turned in around midnight. Some time later, I dreamed of stars. My attention was attracted to Arcturus, our Hōkūle‘a. It appeared to grow larger and brighter, so brilliant that I awoke.

It's been a habit for many years to keep a pad and pen on my nightstand. When the body is at rest, the mind half-awake, thoughts range about freely, and ideas form which I've found are sometimes worth noting down. Some painting ideas have come to me that way. I turned on my reading light and wrote 'Hōkūle‘a.'

The next morning, I saw the notation, and immediately recognized it as a fitting name for the canoe. As a zenith star for Hawai'i it would be a star of gladness if it led to landfall. I phoned Paige Kawelo Barber; she thought it appropriate. I tried it on a few others and got a positive response. The name was proposed at the next board meeting and adopted." (e-mail from Herb, 2/20/99).

[Note 4 in Voyagers: On a clear night early in 1975 I spent several hours studying the stars. After retiring, I dreamed of stars. Arcturus suddenly grew brighter, until its intensity forced me awake. Before I went back to sleep I scribbled 'Hōkūle‘a' (Hawaiian for Arcturus) on the notepad on my nightstand. Noticing the note in the morning, it struck me that this would be an appropriate name for the canoe. The name was proposed and received unanimous approval.

Suppose you are sailing north from Tahiti, seeking Hawai‘i without radio or navigation instruments. You will notice that as Arcturus arches from east to west in the night sky the top of its arch, its zenith, becomes higher as you sail northward. You prudently sail somewhat to windward to compensate for the leeward drift of your vessel, and to gain sufficient 'easting' to arrive at Hawai'i's latitude upwind of your destination. When Arcturus passes directly overhead, you are on the same latitude as Hawai'i. You can then turn downwind, keeping the rising sun aft, the setting sun forward, the zenith of Arcturus directly overhead, and you will make landfall at Hawai‘i.

Which is probably why some ancient navigator named that star Hōkūle‘a – “star of gladness.”]

(For a more detailed on how Hōkūle‘a was designed, see Kane’s “In Search of the Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoe.”)

Ships with Souls

Herb Kawainui Kāne

(From from Polynesian Seafaring Heritage, Honolulu: PVS and Kamehameha Schools, 1980, edited by Cecilia Kapua Lindo and Nancy Alpert Mower.)

A tree for a new canoe, by Herb Kane

The building of a canoe was a religious event, marked by prayers, ceremonies, and feasts. On the last night of the moon before construction began, Tahitian craftsmen "put their adzes to sleep" in a sacred place and implored Tāne, god of the land, to charge them with his power. Next morning, the men "awakened" their adzes by dipping them in the sea and work proceeded.

Since trees were the children of Tāne, the workers invoked the god's permission before felling them. Wielding a stone adz, prime tool of a people without metals, a woodsman made concave cuts around a tree trunk, then chopped away the wood between the cuts (1).

With songs and chants, the entire community turned out to haul the great logs to the canoe yard. There the adz fairly flew, as an artisan hewed a keel or carved a dugout (2). When blades grew brittle with heat, craftsmen cooled their adzes by plunging them into the moist trunks of banana trees, then sharpened them on blocks of sandstone.

Green logs were heated on a fire until they split (3). With wedges and maul, a workman chiseled off planks for a sailing canoe's hull and deck, then adzed them to shape.

Children brought strips of pandanus leaves to the women, who plaited them into sails with a texture almost as fine as cotton. Gossiping old men rolled coconut-husk fibers into string on their thighs, then braided it into a cord called sennit.

The builders lashed hull planks together with the sennit, again invoking the assistance of Tāne: "'This sennit of thine, O Tāne, make it hold, make it hold."

Bibliography: Traditional Canoe-Building

Buck, Peter (Te Rangi Hiroa). Vikings of the Pacific. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959. (Originally published in 1938 by J.B. Lippincott Co.)

Dodd, Edward. Polynesian Seafaring. New York: Dodd Mead, 1972.

Fornander, Abraham. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore, Vol. 4, 5, and 6. Honolulu: Bishop Musuem, 1916-1919.

Haddon, Alfred, and James Hornell. Canoes of Oceania. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1936-1938.

Hiroa, Te Rangi (Peter Buck). Arts and Crafts of Hawaii, Section VI Canoes. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1964.)

Holmes, Tommy. The Hawaiian Canoe. Honolulu: Editions Limited, 1981.

'I'i, John Papa. "Canoes" in Nupepa Kuokoa, March 26, 1870.

Kalokuokamaile, Z.P. K. "Canoe Making and Descriptions" in Nupepa Kuokoa, October 26, 1922-February 15, 1923. A translation by Mary Kawena Pukui is available in the Bishop Museum Archives.

Kamakau, Samuel M. Works of the People of Old. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1976, 118-122.

Kane, Herb Kawainui. Voyagers. Bellevue, WA: Whalesong, 1991.

Lindo, Cecilia Kapua and Nancy Alpert Mower, ed. Polynesian Seafaring Heritage. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools, 1980.

Malo, David. Hawaiian Antiquities. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1951, 126-132.


In Search of the Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoe (1998)

Herb Kawainui Kāne

Polynesia began with the voyaging canoe. More than three thousand years ago, the uninhabited islands of Samoa and Tonga were discovered by an ancient people. With them were plants, animals, and a language with origins in Southeast Asia; and along the way they had become a seafaring people. Arriving in probably a few small groups, and living in isolation for centuries, they evolved distinctive physical and cultural traits. Samoa and Tonga became the cradle of Polynesia, and the center of what is now Western Polynesia.

More than two thousand years ago, Polynesians exploring eastward, during times when winds shifted away from the prevailing easterlies, discovered the Tahitian and Marquesas Islands. From these "centers of diffusion" explorers reached outward as far as Hawai'i to the north, Easter Island to the east, and New Zealand to the southwest. Before European open ocean exploration began, Eastern Polynesia had been explored and settled.

Canoe Design Evolution

Because the exploration and settlement of Eastern Polynesia originated from the same centers, the design of the canoes must have been much the same throughout. But that design disappeared. Ships are as mortal as their makers. Except for fragments of ancient canoes excavated on New Zealand and pieces of a large canoe recently unearthed from a bog on Huahine, there is no hard evidence.1 Except for a petroglyph on Easter Island, and passing references in the old legends, there is no descriptive record.

The Easter Island canoe petroglyph found at Orongo and Herb's rendition of what the original canoe may have looked like.

Over the following centuries, this "archaic" form evolved into designs which became "classical" to each island group-specialized to meet the challenges of local winds and seas and timber resources. When Europeans arrived, they found pronounced differences in canoe designs from one island group to another.

One such design change was witnessed by Europeans. Schouten in 1619 saw only the tongiaki double canoe in Tongan waters. When the Cook expedition arrived in 1773, the drawings of double canoes by the artist Hodges depicted a transition from the tongiaki to the swift kalia--a borrowing of the Micronesian "double-ender" concept. When Cook visited again five years later, the artist Webber's drawings suggest that he saw only the new kalia.2

Design Strategy for Hokule'a3

What were the design features of the ancient double-hulled voyaging canoes (vaka taurua)? Applying the "age-distribution" method, we assume that similarities in hull shape, sail shape, and construction techniques which were widely distributed when Europeans arrived must have been carried outward from the centers of cultural diffusion during ancient eras of exploration and settlement, and may be accepted as features of the ancient canoes. By limiting the design of a voyaging canoe to these features, a performance-accurate replication of the ancient canoe is possible. Such features formed the design vocabulary of the replica Hokule'a. Drawings for Hokule'a

Kenneth Emory and I went through all designs of canoes recorded in early drawings and in other evidence and sifted out those features of hull design and sail plan which by their wide distribution may be taken to be most ancient. These I applied to the conceptual design. From my own experience with the Pacific swell and in consultation with more experienced sailors, I arrived at a waterline length of 55 to 60 feet as one that could handle the swells yet recover easily in the troughs, and Emory found that this could be taken as an average for the length of canoes used in the 18th and 19th centuries for long distance voyaging in the Tuamotus and Tahitian islands. Canoes of far greater length would put great stress on the lashings. The double-ended ndrua of Fiji and kalia of Tonga were of greater length, but these carried a smaller hull to windward involving less stress on lashings than two hulls of equal length, and were generally used on shorter voyages, which means during periods of predictable weather. (Click here for a photo of "Takitumu," a modern reconstruction of a Cook Islands kalia.)

Some classical Hawaiian features were included which did not affect performance, such as the styling of the bow and stern pieces (manu) and the arched cross-beams (not really ancient, invented by Kanuha several centuries ago).


Kino (Hull): Hulls were carved from logs wherever timber of sufficient size was found. The depth of a hull might be increased by adding one or two courses of boards (strakes) fitted and lashed above the hull's upper edges (gunwales). On atolls where large timber was not available for dugout hulls, the use of gunwale strakes was transformed into a method of building entire hulls "plank-built" over a dugout keel piece, with ribs and thwarts inserted to strengthen the planking.

All hull and sail design features must be compromises. Where paddling was the primary power mode with sail as auxiliary power, round-bottomed hulls were favored for their maneuverability; but where sailing was the primary purpose, hulls were deeper or had a greater amount of "V" shape along the keel for better tracking through the water. Such hulls are less maneuverable but offer lateral resistance to the water, reducing leeway (the sideways skidding of a boat hull away from the wind when sailing against or across the wind). Because the great distances covered by some ancient voyages could not have been accomplished by paddling, we may assume that the voyaging canoes were primarily sailing machines, with paddling being auxiliary. These were not the flat-sided "V" hulls of modern catamarans, but a rounded "V" by which the maximum floatation capacity could be carved from the natural shape of a log. A rounded "V" hull, with the sides swelling outward in convex curvature, is also stronger than a flat-sided "V" hull because it adds the strength of an arch against the impact of waves.

Where hulls were of unequal length, the smaller hull was carried on the left, and called the ama-the same term for the float outrigged from the left side of single-hull "outrigger" canoes. The one exception is the island of Tubuai in the Australs, where the ama is carried on the right; but today no canoe maker on Tubuai can explain why.

Below the waterline the curvature of all Polynesian hulls is convex, both in length and in section, with no cavities. Longitudinal curves below the waterline are smooth-flowing from bow to stern, creating a gentle entry at the bow and an equally gentle departure at the stern-features necessary for a "soft" ride and maximum hull speed. In these curves there are no abrupt breaks-no "chisel" bows to snag the water and make steering difficult, no abrupt departure at the stern which creates turbulence. For best speed the hull curves are faired out as much as possible (canoe builders knew how to use a flexible fairing strip to check their hull curves), with no hollows or flat areas to cause turbulence.

The volume of Polynesian hulls aft of the midsection is slightly greater than the volume forward of the midsection. This extra floatation aft offsets the tendency of canoes to "squat" at the stern when under a hard press of sail.

Because double canoes are held together by rope lashings, the hulls must be assembled closer together than the hulls of modern catamarans. This narrows the space through which water must pass between the hulls. To avoid excessive turbulence between the hulls, the greater volume aft of the midsection should be obtained by greater hull depth, rather than increasing hull width.

Pe'a (Sails): My first preliminary drawing for Hokule'a (1973) featured triangular sails carried with the peak of the triangle downward and mounted on straight spars, a design which by its simplicity and wide distribution seemed to be the most ancient form. This sail plan was modified later in 1975 and again in 1976 with a curved boom to more closely resemble the Hawaiian sails at the time of European contact. However, experiments in 1991 and subsequent voyages have demonstrated that the simple triangular sail carried on straight spars is no less efficient; moreover, it is easier to furl and handle on deck when the rig is dropped to ride out bad weather.

Sails were of pandanus matting except in New Zealand, where pandanus could not be naturalized and flax was substituted. Sails were cut from long rolls of matting seldom more than 18" wide, double plaited of strips 3/16" to 3/8" wide in a twill pattern, changing to a check pattern along the edges for strength.

The sail was built up by overlapping the edges of these strips and sewing them with a running stitch. The outer edges of the sail were hemmed over a rope. A line was fastened with a running hitch at intervals along the outer edges. This line was then tied to the spars with a spiral lashing or with many short lengths of line.

Curved booms, if desired, could be scarfed up from shorter poles to achieve the desired overall curvature and length. The long scarf joints were strengthed with splints and seized up with small line. Spars could also be strengthened at those places where sheets and stays were attached by seizing splints to them.

For a large voyaging canoe having no labor-saving winches, two sails are easier to handle than one large sail. The foresail should be the larger. By distributing the effort over two sails, the moment of capsize is lowered, imparting greater stability to a vessel which, being held together by lashings, is necessarily narrower than a modern multi-hull. If the vessel appears to be overpowered while sailing off the wind, sail area can be quickly reduced by dropping the aftersail.

'Iako (Connecting Cross-beams): A true replication of an ancient canoe should have crossbeams shaped from straight poles-the method most widely distributed. The arched crossbeam is a feature of the classical Hawaiian double canoe, invented only four centuries ago by the designer Kanuha in the time of Keawe.4

In a quartering sea the hulls of a double canoe will work against each other. By inter-connecting the crossbeams with diagonal bracings of strong rope, this motion can be restrained, adding very little weight to the vessel.

While most cross-beams were lashed to the gunwales, the connection of the two hulls could be strengthened by two or more lower crossbeams let through the hulls, as seen in the drawing of a beached Tahitian double hulled sailing canoe by Webber, with Cook.5

The flashing speed of modern catamarans results from their wide beam and rigidity of construction, made possible by steel fastenings. The vaka taurua is a slower sailer. Assembled with cordage, it lacks the rigidity of modern multihulls, and the hulls must be closer together to reduce stress on the cross-beams. Assembly by lashings seems to offer one advantage. As noted on the replica Hokule'a, the cross-beam lashings absorb much of the shock of waves that beat against the hulls, a pounding that is transmitted throughout a modern vessel.

Pola (Decking): Decking may be of light planks if these are supported by a webbing stretched between the crossbeams. Lighter planking means less weight. Deck planks should be spaced with gaps through which heaping waves can rise. Without such gaps to relieve wave pressure, strong surges can break the decking. In this compromise, it's better to be safe than dry.

Planks can be added over certain areas of the windward hull on long tacks, even out to the ends of the crossbeams, where they will deflect the splash of waves, and serve as hiking boards for the crew during gusts of wind.

Mast steps: Wind pressure on the sail drives the mast downward. Such pressure should not be borne by only one crossbeam. The masts may be stepped upon strong longitudinal beams (kua), each distributing the downward thrust over a least three crossbeams. Once the optimum center of effort is found by experimentally moving the masts forward or aft over these steps, additional crossbeams may be added under those points.

Manu (Bow and Stern pieces): As I discovered while sailing Hokule'a, end pieces have a practical function. Eastern Polynesian end pieces typically rise higher at the stern than at the bow. The sternpiece appears to break a following wave crest that might otherwise board the canoe. When the canoe surfs on a following wave, plunging forward, the bowpiece, in a burst of spray, helps prevent the bow from "boneyarding" into the back of the wave ahead.

As expressed in the carving of end pieces, symbolism associated with birds or bird-man (manaia) forms was widely distributed. The term manu for the abstract shape of the classical Hawaiian end piece suggests that the archaic form may have represented birds. A pre-classical Maori bowpiece unearthed on New Zealand has a long neck and the head of a bird-man figure. European drawings of some Marquesan canoes, and old Marquesan canoe models, have bird-like shapes when viewed in profile, with the head at the bow, the gunwale strakes resembling wings, and the stern-piece appearing as the tail. Feathers were widely used as pennants flown from the end of a spar (Tahiti, Hawaiçi), or black feathers hung from the stern piece (New Zealand); as bunches of feathers at the stern (Marquesas); and as feathers worked into the gunwale lashings (New Zealand, Marquesas).

Hale (Deck Shelter, pronounced "ha-lay"): This may be a construction of light poles and purlins covered by thatching and/or tightly plaited matting. The shelter should be easily moved. On long reaches or tacks it should be positioned over the windward hull.

Sailing the Vaka Taurua

Steering: The idea of steering a sixty-foot multihull without a rudder has intrigued conventional yachtsmen on their first sails aboard Hokule'a. On a downwind course the steering paddle is handled in the manner of a rudder, and long sweeps were used on some Polynesian canoes. On any other tack, however, the steering paddle is held against the lee side of the hull near the stern. The pressure of the water against the blade helps hold it fast, and very little effort is required to hold a heavy steering paddle in place. A slight twisting pressure to hold the leading edge of the blade firmly against the hull prevents the flow of water from getting under the blade and kicking it away. For this reason, steering paddles were often carved flat on the side held against the hull, and concave on the other.6

At a canoe's first sea trials, the masts should be experimentally shifted forward or aft until the center of effort is balanced with a slight weather helm, so that when the paddle is raised, decreasing its lateral resistance to the water at the stern, the stern will fall off the wind, turning the vessel into the wind. When the paddle is lowered, creating more lateral resistance at the stern than exists at the bow, the canoe will turn off the wind.

The Polynesian paddle creates less drag than the modern rudder, and is put in the water only when needed.

Steering with the Sails: On long reaches, steering paddles may not be needed at all; the canoe can be rigged to steer itself by sails alone. The aftersail is eased out slightly more than the foresail. As the canoe rounds up into the wind, the aftersail luffs and loses power. Pressure on the foresail now causes the vessel to turn off the wind a few degrees. The aftersail is again presented to the wind; it fills, and the vessel begins another slight turn to windward. Sawing slightly into the wind and off the wind, the canoe will steer itself on a close reach for hours.

Tacking: In light or moderate winds the double canoe will come about (turn into and through the eye of the wind) without stalling if the crew backs the foresail, harnessing the wind to push the bows over. In a strong breeze, however, it's difficult to come about without sailing. Then it is better to jibe (make the turn with the wind astern) by luffing the aftersail until the foresail powers the vessel well off the wind, then close-hauling both sails as the stern passes through the eye of the wind. Here, the blades of the steering paddles are held at full depth to grip the stern in the water. A double hulled vessel is slow to turn because its two hulls give it twice the waterline length of a sailboat of the same length.

Shortening the Sails: Sails and booms were brailed up to the mast while temporarily not in use.

In the path of a dangerous squall, the prudent act would be to release stays and drop spars and sails, lowering the center of capsize as much as possible. The canoe is brought into the wind, and the forestay (a running line) is eased out, lowering the mast aft. The shrouds will hold the mast in fore-and-aft alignment with the canoe as it comes down.

Lacing between sections of sail matting might be quickly removed to shorten sail.

Storm sails may be simple, small, strongly made sails lashed to short straight spars with stays and shrouds already attached. Rolled up and stored away, these can be raised to power a canoe in moderate gales.

Leeboards: The use of leeboards to diminish leeway and help a vessel without a keel go to windward was a Chinese invention which never got to Polynesia, but the same effect was accomplished, when required, by a row of men holding paddles against the lee side of a hull. This takes practice, but it can add ten degrees to a canoe's windward performance.

Storm Survival: An approaching storm meant getting down sails and spars, even jettisoning the deck shelter if necessary to reduce windage, and laying out a sea anchor on a very long line. Strong baskets are said to have been used in Hawai'i.

If necessary, the next step would be to deliberately swamp the canoe, a technique that modern minds find incomprehensible, but which is still commonly practiced in Micronesia. Wooden hulls provide sufficient floatation so that the crew can ride within the hulls with their heads and shoulders above water.

Being mostly under water, the canoe will not be buffeted about. Most important for navigation, it will not skate downwind, but will hold position fairly well.

After the storm has passed, the hulls can be bailed out and the voyage resumed. It's helpful to have additional positive flotation to raise the gunwales with enough freeboard to facilitate the bailing. On the old canoes, coconuts served as positive floatation as well as providing food and drink. These, and other cargo, were held down in the bottoms of the hulls under netting. Today, any inflatable devices secured under netting can be inflated to give the hulls more freeboard. Rigid foam or empty containers packed under the bow and stern covers will also add floatation.


1. "The main evidence that we have of what the voyaging canoes were like came from an island called Huahine, which is about 110 miles west of Tahiti. In an area called Maeva, a hotel called the Bali Hai was being built and when they were digging up the ground, they found some canoe bailers. They called Dr. Sinoto from the Bishop Museum and he went down and conducted an excavation. He thinks that six hundred to a thousand years ago there was a canoe under construction here and the work place was hit by a tsunami which buried the canoe under mud and sand and preserved it by cutting off the oxygen that causes wood to rot.

"Sinoto unearthed planks of the canoe with coconut fiber (aha) still holding them together. There was a knot in the plank and what the builders did was to put wood in from behind and lashed the two pieces of wood together to make a sandwich. Dr. Sinoto guesses that this canoe was 72 feet long, ten feet longer than Hokule'a" (Nainoa Thompson, Speech at Kamehameha Schools, April 1998).

2. [Haddon & Hornell explain, "The principal features wherein the tongiaki differed from the kalia were: (1) in the approximate equality of the two hulls; (2) in sailing, the same ends were always directed forward and in consequence the manipulation of the sail was entirely different; (3) the mast was much shorter and had a forked head in which the yard rested, with the tack of the sail confined by ropes between the prows and not stepped at the fore end of one hull; (4) the presence of an outrigger balance spar; (5) the deck platform was relatively larger and extended considerably farther aft than in the kalia; (6) the deck shelter was a tunnel-shaped hut without a platform above the roof. (Canoes of Oceania, Bishop Museum, 1936, reprinted 1975, 271-272).] (Click here for a photo of "Takitumu," a modern reconstruction of a Cook Island kalia.)

3. Kane lists the following people as important contributors to the design and building of Hokule'a:

Kenneth Emory: consultation on ancient design features.
Herb Kawainui Kane: conceptual design and establishing design parameters in a general drawing.
Rudy Choy: consultation and advice on hull design.
Vince Bartelone: the hull-lines drawing
Kim Thompson: the lines drawings for the end pieces (manu)
Warren Seaman: lofting the hulls and laying up sections and stringers on the strongbacks.
Curt Ashford and Malcolm Waldron: chief shipwrights.
Jim Ebersold, Calvin Coito, and others: boat carpenters.
Wright Bowman, Sr. and Wright Bowman, Jr.: crossbeam construction.
Keola Sequeira: carver of the koa mast heads (he donated the koa).
Bob Fortier: protective fiber-glassing of the wooden hulls.

Kane recalls: "These were most of the hands-on guys. Additionally there were part-time carpenters and a host of volunteers. Most of the board members donated some time. Publisher Carl Lindquist brought his family down to help with the disagreeable task of poisoning the interiors of the hulls to prevent rot. Kawika Kapahulehua facilitated air transportation for materials and supplies. Slim's Power Tools donated the use of power tools. Many merchants helped procure supplies and materials at cost. Dillingham Corporation donated the use of the building premises. I don't remember the name of the trucking company that gave us a price break to haul the completed parts over the island to Kualoa Park (how I obtained that launching site from mayor Frank Fasi after the State gave me the run around for months on San Souci beach is another story). The U.S. Marines at Kane'ohe brought equipment to lift and set the hulls in perfect position for the lashing up, which was done over five weekends by many volunteers.

4. Malo, David. Hawaiian Antiquities. Honolulu: Bishop Museum. 130.

5. Beaglehole, The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, Cambridge, 1967, Pl. 25-b.

6. "In the earliest days of Hokule'a, when she was going through sea trials, the steering mechanism was like the kind we use on a six man canoe but the problem was that a six-man canoe weighs 600 pounds and Hokule'a weighs-fully loaded-about 24,000 pounds and guys who were trying to steer her were getting knocked out, ending up in the hospital, and it wasn't working and I was looking at that thing and saying, 'Oh, man, it is really going to be a long trip.' And so some of the beach boys said, 'We are not going to do it this way anymore. We have got to come up with a steering sweep.' And so they designed a steering sweep that would work-from their experience at Waikîkî-and it solved the steering problem. And the steering sweep that they pulled out of that swamp in Huahine [see note 1]-it was discovered after the beach boys figured out how to design a sweep for Hokule'a-and this sweep [excataed in Huahine] is very similar in design and only two feet shorter than the ones we use to steer Hokule'a" (Nainoa Thompson, Speech at Kamehameha Schools, April 1998).


Evolution of the Hawaiian Canoe (1998)

Herb Kawainui Kāne

Changes in the primary power mode of the larger canoes of the Hawaiian Islands from sail to paddling, followed by a return to sail.

Ancient Polynesian sail; Hawaiian specialization; fore-and-aft sprits: adopted after 1790

The Ancient Sailing Canoes

During the exploration of Polynesia, canoes venturing outward from the same center must have been of the same design. Because of the great distances, these must have been sailing canoes, with paddling as auxiliary power used only for brief periods-to launch or land canoes, or keep off a dangerous lee shore. Even with a sufficient number of paddlers working in shifts, the amount of food and water required to sustain energy for paddling for two or three thousand miles would have exceeded the carrying capacity of the canoe. Throughout Eastern Polynesia, the same basic design probably persisted throughout the era of long distance two-way voyaging. Later, ships being as mortal as their makers, this earlier "generic" design vanished as designs evolved which became specialized to each island group.

Using the "age-distribution" method, those hull and sail design features found to be most widely distributed throughout "Eastern" or "Marginal" Polynesia when Europeans arrived (including Hawai'i, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and New Zealand) may be taken to be most ancient because they must have been carried outward from the same center of cultural diffusion.

Hulls were deep enough to track well while sailing across the wind or on a close reach into the wind. The round-sided V hulls of Tuamotuan and Tahitian pahi as well as the presence of a rounded V in a drawing of the hull section at the main crossboom of an early 19th century Hawaiian double-hulled sailing canoe are evidence that the windward efficiency of this shape, providing lateral resistance to the water while under sail, was well known to ancient builders. The superior structural strength of compound curves was well known-the weakness of simple curves and flat surfaces was avoided (flat surfaces passing through water also create "drag"), and all curvature below the waterline was convex .

The most widely distributed and presumably most ancient sail was a triangle made up of strips of fine matting sewn together and mounted to two spars, one serving as a mast; the other, as a boom, usually more slender and either straight or slightly curved. This survived in the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Cook Islands, and New Zealand, either as an equilateral triangle or one cut narrower with the apex downward.

Voyaging between Hawai'i and the South Pacific appears to have ceased several centuries before European arrival. No explanation is found in the traditions, but several may be imagined. The appropriation and development of lands much larger than any they had known in the South Pacific demanded the full attention of ruling chiefs, leaving little time for voyaging. Those who visited their southern homelands may have discovered that political events had made them less than welcome. Moreover, in the murky world of chiefly intrigue which S.M. Kamakau described so well, a ruling chief who went on a long voyage always risked returning to find his lands and wives usurped by another.

Specialization in Hawai'i

As long distance voyaging declined, the need shifted from voyaging canoes to large canoes for chiefly visits and warfare within the Hawaiian Islands, resulting in changes in canoe design. For these short coastal and inter-island trips, paddling replaced sailing as the dominant power mode. Never certain when hospitality might turn sour, chiefs prudently traveled with bodyguards. On a visit to another chiefdom, they might prepare his food to avoid poisoning. Their numbers were a silent announcement of his status. At a signal, they could launch a raid, fight a skirmish, or conduct a guarded retreat to the canoe landing.

And for a chief eager to make a quick getaway regardless of wind conditions, his bodyguards could also be put to work as paddlers. No longer need he wait for a favorable wind, or beat upwind to a destination on long tacks (a voyaging canoe could not sail to upwind as well as a modern yacht equipped with keel and headsails). Paddling provided great freedom of mobility, the ability to move canoes in any direction despite calms or adverse winds. The shift from sailing to a combination of paddling and downwind sailing caused a change in hull design from hulls with sufficient V-shape and depth for tracking against the wind to shallower hulls, round-bottomed aft of the mid-section, which were more maneuverable under paddles or when sailing downwind. Sails, no longer needed for working upwind, evolved to a full-bellied shape, specialized for sailing with the wind.

18th century drawings depict a line (a boom lift) extending from the end of the boom to the top of the mast, which bent the boom to a curve, creating a deep pocket in the sail useful for running downwind. Bending the boom close to the mast created a sagging of the sail which enhanced the "crab claw" appearance; however the sail matting was not cut to a true crab claw shape as it was in Polynesian outliers in the Solomon Islands, but sewn up from strips of matting plaited to a desired curve. One drawing by Webber shows that when the boom lift was released, or eased out, the pocket was reduced sufficiently for the sail to function on a broad reach.

Engineer and canoe expert Ted Ralston has suggested that the deep curve in this sail is a safety feature, creating an opening which, as in the true crab claw of the Solomons, vents upwards, spilling excessive thrust. This shape also reduces the sail area toward the ends of the spars, which reduces the load the ends of the spars must carry.

There are several other distinctive features of the classical Hawaiian canoe. The manu, elliptical expansions at the tips of the bow and stern end pieces, may have anciently been carved as symbols or representations of birds or spirit images (manu may mean bird or person), but this form has, like a Brancusi sculpture, been reduced to its simplest abstraction. Usually considered ornamental, the writer has observed, while running downwind in the double canoe Nalehia under a strong press of sail in large swells, that the manu are not without function. the manu ihu (forward) seem to keep the bows from driving too easily into the back of a swell. A disastrous "boneyarding" is avoided, and the air space within the hollow formed by the end piece and the hull pops it to the surface. At the stern, the manu hope help split the face of a following wave that might otherwise board the canoe and swamp it. Another unique feature of the Hawaiian double canoe was the invention of the curved crossboom, arched in the center to hold the center deck higher above the water.

It's been argued by Tommy Holmes (The Hawaiian Canoe, p. 71) and others that the absence of ornament on Hawaiian canoes (by comparison with South Pacific canoes) may be attributed to the rough Hawaiian waters, an environment in which no carving or inlay that might weaken or burden the canoe could be tolerated. Be that as it may, accounts of Maori canoes in the rough waters off New Zealand, riding "like ducks" under sail or paddles, leave no doubt about their seaworthiness and structural integrity despite the elaborate carving of their end pieces and gunwales. Quite possibly, esthetics in Hawai'i simply took a different turn, inspired by some long forgotten designer who saw clean, flowing simple lines as the most beautiful as well as functional. Form follows function, but, as architects and automobile designers know very well, form is also shaped by esthetics.

Perhaps the only distinctive feature of Hawaiian canoes that may be considered non-functional (depending on how you think about ancestral spirits) is the slight projection of the hull from under the manu at the stern, called the momoa. One version of an ancient saga tells us that as a canoe was embarking on a voyage to Hawai'i, a spirit announced his desire to go along. Informed by the chief that there was no room, the spirit leaped from shore to a small projection which he noticed at the stern, and rode there. That projection has become traditional in Hawaiian canoes, some say as a place where an invisible but benevolent ancestral spirit ('aumakua) can ride.

These were the canoes of Hawaiian chiefs who met Cook and the early European traders in the late 18th century. Europeans marveled at the workmanship accomplished with simple tools of stone and bone. Chiefs were not above showing off; when the Cook expedition arrived off Maui in 1778, King Kahekili came out in a canoe in which all aboard were dressed in feather capes, and "singing."

Paddlers of a chief's canoe were not a scratch crew, but highly trained. As Vancouver came to anchor at Kealakekua Bay, Kona, in 1793, Kamehameha came out to formally greet him with eleven large canoes "...with great order. The largest canoe being in the angular point, was rowed by eighteen paddles on each side." The king wore "...the most elegant feathered cloak I had yet seen, composed principally of beautiful, bright yellow feathers... On his head he wore a very handsome helmet, and made altogether a very magnificent appearance. His canoe was advanced a little forward in the procession, to the actions of which the other ten strictly attended, keeping the most exact and regular time with their paddles, and inclining to the right or left agreeably to the directions of the king, who conducted the whole business with a degree of adroitness and uniformity, that manifested a knowledge of such movements and maneuvre far beyond what could reasonably have been expected. In this manner he paraded around the vessels, with a slow and solemn motion. ... He now ordered the ten canoes to draw up in a line under our stern, whilst, with the utmost exertions of his paddlers, he rowed up along the starboard side of the ship; and though the canoe was going at a very great rate, she was in an instant stopped, with that part of the canoe where his majesty was standing immediately opposite the gangway."

The Return to Sail Power

In the early 1790s the watch aboard a foreign ship sailing off O'ahu saw a vessel approaching which, by the cut of its sails, appeared to be European; but as it drew near and passed by it was seen to be a Hawaiian canoe with sails cut to European shape. This was the fore-and-aft spritsail.

It was a simple modification, changing the ancient triangular sail to a four-sided shape. The former boom was now a slender sprit stretching diagonally upward from the base of the mast to support the peak of the sail. Also from the base of the mast the foot of the sail ran horizontally aft to the clew (bottom trailing edge) where the sheet (controlling line) connected to it. In larger canoes the foot was laced to a boom. This rig quickly became the standard for most Hawaiian sailing canoes. Enduring well into the 20th century, it became an authentic Hawaiian canoe tradition.

On some of the largest double canoes a sail of about the same shape was used, not with a sprit, but gaff-rigged, the head (top of the sail) laced to a spar which was raised or lowered by halyards, and the entire foot of the sail laced to a boom.

Once again, sail had become the primary power mode, and again, canoes evolved to meet new demands. Kamehameha's drive to bring all the islands under the rule of Hawai'i Island required much more than the hit and run raids of earlier disputes. Keeping armies in the field required great numbers of huge canoes, not only for invasion but also for keeping the army supplied, which meant canoes capable of returning to Hawai'i Island, sailed (not paddled) short-handed and against the prevailing wind, for supplies and reinforcements. The peleleu class war canoes were invented for the purpose. These were sailing vessels with deep hulls, some armed with swivel guns, carrying fore-and-aft sail rigs, either as spritsails or gaff-rigged and capable of sailing upwind.

Another dimension presented itself when Vancouver had his carpenters lay up a schooner, Brittannia, at Kealakekua Bay, South Kona, as a parting gift to Kamehameha in 1794. Kamehameha apprenticed his canoemakers to the work, they learned quickly, completed the ship themselves under John Young's guidance, and set about building more. By 1802, visitor John Turnbull could write that Kamehameha "owned twenty vessels ranging in size from twenty five to seventy tons" (Turnbull, 1813).

Beyond Kamehameha's needs there were other changes that brought Hawaiians back to sail as their primary power mode. Under Kamehameha's laws erasing old boundaries and prohibiting oppression, murder, and theft, Hawaiians could travel in safety. Chiefs who went visiting no longer required bodyguards who could double as paddlers. Moreover, where once a chief could whistle up any number of strong paddlers who were eager for adventure, if only to check out the girls on another island, the impact of introduced diseases was now devastating the population. The worst was yet to come, but the population was already in free fall.

Before Europeans arrived, the exchange of goods and services had been confined to a complicated system of reciprocal gifting. After the concept of trade for profit was introduced and unification had erased barriers to travel, an expanding market economy and a suddenly mobile population presented new demands for the movement of products and passengers. Although schooners and sloops carried most of the traffic, much coastal and inter-island shipping during the 19th century was also handled by sailing canoes. During the 1843 siege of the government by British Lord George Paulet, Kamehameha III was whisked by canoe from Maui to Waikiki and back in order to sign protest letters to the U.S. and Britain. In 1856, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that Hawaiians were still using sailing canoes for inter-island travel.


Founding the Polynesian Voyaging Society; Building Hōkūle‘a

Ben Finney

From “Voyaging into Polynesia’s Past” in From Sea to Space (Palmerston North: Massey University, 1992)

The Founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Since European explorers first chanced upon the islands of Polynesia and their handsome inhabitants in the 16th century, the issue of how these islands were discovered and settled has been one of the most fascinating puzzles of prehistory. Early navigators from Spain, Holland and England were largely mystified how stone age people could have found their way to these mid-ocean islands. These mariners from another world had only recently developed the technology to cross the oceans, yet on island after island they found people already living there-people who lacked ships, the compass or any of the other devices so vital to European oceanic expansion.

A number of these puzzled seafarers refused to recognize the possibility that the ancestors of the people they found living on the islands could themselves have sailed so far into the Pacific, and instead sought to explain their presence by other means. Consider, for example, the first sustained encounter between Polynesians and Europeans which occurred in 1595 when ships of Mendana's second expedition into the Pacific chanced upon the Polynesian archipelago they called Las Marquesas de Mendonca, now commonlyknown as simply "The Marquesas." The expedition's navigator, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, was not at all impressed by the sailing canoes of the Marquesans or their claims that they could navigate far out of sight of land. Because they had no ships or navigational instruments, he judged that they lacked the "skill or the possibility of sailing to distant parts." In fact, Quiros seized upon this apparent dilemma of the presence of a people in the middle of the Pacific without the means to have sailed that far into the ocean, to support his own search for a rich "Southern Continent," the Terra Australis that many European cosmographers of that day thought must lie in the Southern Hemisphere. These islanders, he proposed, had been able to employ their primitive canoes and rudimentary ways of navigating to sail to the Marquesas from a continent lying not far to the south, or from a chain of closely-spaced islands located there, which stretched all the way to Asia and had provided the stepping-stones that enabled these primitive seafarers to expand so far into the Pacific.1

On Easter Sunday in 1722, the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen happened across a lonely island in the eastern Pacific he named Paaschen Eilandt (Easter Island), but which the islanders now call Rapa Nui. Roggeveen was even more hard-pressed than Quiros had been to explain this human presence in the middle of the ocean. Whereas the Marquesans had large, double-hull sailing canoes, because of the deforestation of their island the Rapa Nui people had only miserable little outrigger canoes pieced together from scraps of native timber and driftwood. In his journal, Roggeveen records his struggle to comprehend how these people lacking the means for ocean voyaging came to be on the island. First, he asked himself whether the Spanish might have brought them, only to reject that notion because of the apparent lack of any Spanish influence on the island. He then considered that the islanders might be direct "descendants of Adam" who had "bred there naturally from generation to generation," but finally decided that "the ability of human understanding is powerless to comprehend" how these people ever reached their island.2

The common element in these and other such speculations as to the origins of the people European explorers kept finding on the mid-Pacific islands they chanced upon was the assumption that the slim canoes of the islanders, and whatever means they had of navigating without instruments, were simply not up to the task of exploring the Pacific and colonizing the many islands found there. It therefore seemed logical that the solution to the puzzle of how these islands had originally been settled must lie elsewhere than in the seemingly primitive nautical technology and abilities of the islanders themselves.

Such ethnocentric thinking was common during the first age of European exploration when explorers were seeking to develop new routes to the riches of Asia, or new lands for exploitation such as the hypothesized Southern Continent. They were little interested in the people they met along the way, much less in giving them any credit for great maritime achievements. This attitude began to change with the coming into the Pacific of Captain James Cook. His three voyages inaugurated the extension to the Pacific of Europe's second Age of Exploration, the era when, according to the historian Ferdinand Braudel, European maritime nations began sending out expeditions "to obtain new information about geography, the natural world, and the mores of different peoples," as well as for geopolitical and commercial advantage. In fact, Cook was not only the first Pacific explorer to make a concerted effort to understand the people he encountered, but he was also the first to consider seriously how their ancestors might have actively explored and settled this island world.3

During his three voyages Cook criss-crossed the Pacific, touching on the extreme points of the Polynesian triangle, Hawai'i, Rapa Nui and Aorearoa, and many of the islands within. Because of the similarity of language and custom among the inhabitants of all these islands, he recognized the islanders to be members of the same great "nation," the first realization of the existence of the great cultural province we now call Polynesia. Although Cook did not survive the third voyage to return to England where he might have found time to write at length on his ideas about these islanders, in the journal of his first voyage-that made to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun-he sketched a theory that has formed the basis for thinking about Polynesian origins ever since.

Cook actually learned some Tahitian, and used his rudimentary linguistic skills to inquire into Tahitian nautical matters. His primary informant was Tupa'ia, a learned Tahitian who told Cook how they sailed their canoes and navigated by reference to the stars, moon and sun, and gave him sailing directions to islands as far away as the Marquesas to the northwest, the Australs to the South and at least as far west as Såmoa, Fiji and Rotuma. Cook was apparently impressed enough with the practical seamanship and navigational skills of the Tahitians, and their wide geographical knowledge, to propose what had been unthinkable to Quiros, Roggeveen and other early European explorers: that the ancestors of these islanders could have sailed into the Pacific on their own, discovering and settling the many islands on which he found their descendants.

Cook thought the islanders (whom he called "Indians" or "South Sea Islanders," for the term "Polynesian" had yet to be applied specifically to them) had worked their way eastward across the Pacific in their canoes, which he calls "proes" from the Malay prahu, or "Pahee's" from the Tahitian pahi:4

In these Proes or Pahee's as they call them from all accounts we can learn, these people sail in those seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night. When this comes to be prov'd we Shall be no longer at a loss to know how the Islands lying in those Seas came to be people'd, for if the inhabitants of Uleitea [Ra'iatea] have been at islands laying 2 or 300 Leagues to the westward of them it cannot be doubted but that the inhabitants of those western Islands may have been at others as far to westward of them and so we may trace them from Island to Island quite to the East Indias.

Cook saw only one obstacle to accepting the linguistic evidence, supplied to him by his chief scientist Joseph Banks, pointing to the "East Indias," or roughly the archipelago of Indonesia, as the starting point for this migration: the route would have taken canoes eastward in the face of the trade winds that blow from the east-southeast. He evidently had doubts about the ability of the islanders' canoes to sail directly into the trade winds, and quizzed Tupa'ia accordingly. The Tahitian, whom he called "Tupia," had a ready answer that supplied Cook with the information he needed to complete the picture:5

Tupia tells us that during the Months of Novr Decembr& January Westerly Winds with rain prevail & as the inhabitants of the Islands know very well how to make proper use of the winds there will no difficulty arise in Trading or sailing from Island to Islands even tho' they lay in an East & West direction.

So, with his seaman's eye and eminently good sense, Cook proposed that the islanders came from the west, originally from the East Indies where related languages were spoken, and that they employed their sailing canoes, non-instrument navigational ability, and skill at utilizing westerly wind shifts to work their way eastward, from island to island, against the direction of the prevailing trade winds.

Cook's remarks and the reasoning behind them formed the basis for what might be called the orthodox view of intentional Polynesian settlement from the Asian side of the Pacific that was to be further developed in the decades that followed by a succession of navigators, scientists and other scholars. For example, in 1828 the French navigator Dumont d'Urville precisely drew the cultural and geographic boundaries of Polynesia and gave the region that name. Horatio Hale, the linguist aboard the U.S.S. Exploring Expedition that cruised the Pacific between 1839-1842, systematically traced linguistic relationships within Polynesia and from there to island Southeast Asia, as well as confirmed how westerly wind shifts can be used to sail from west to east to and across Polynesia. Abraham Fornander of Hawai'i, New Zealander S. Percy Smith and other amateur scholars working in the latter half of the 18th century and the first decades of this one collected and analyzed the voyaging traditions of the Polynesians to trace their migrations within Polynesia and to there from the western side of the ocean.6

Not all those who pondered how the islands of the Pacific came to be settled accepted this orthodoxy, however. Prominent among dissenting theories were those proposed by Joaquin Martinez de Zuniga, a Spanish priest stationed in the Phillipines, and John Lang, a Presbyterian minister living in Australia.

In 1803 Martinez de Zuniga published a history of the Philippines in which he asserted that the people of Polynesia and many other Pacific Islands, including the Philippines, spoke languages closely related to those of South America, and that because the steady easterly trade winds of the tropical Pacific would have prevented canoes from sailing eastward, the Pacific Islanders must have come from the Americas, blown by the trade winds from island to island west across the Pacific. Lang, writing later in the 19th century, shared Martinez de Zuniga's idea that people were forced by the wind across Pacific, but reversed the direction of migration. Noting that the easterly trade winds were seasonally interrupted by monsoon winds from the west "which often blow in heavy gales," Lang proposed that Polynesia and other Pacific Islands had been settled by a long series of maritime misadventures when hapless voyagers had been blown eastward by violent westerly winds.7

Although they differed in direction of settlement, Martinez de Zuniga and Lang shared a dim view of islanders' nautical abilities, and, hence, the belief that the islands of the Pacific could only have been settled by voyagers pushed out into the ocean by the winds, be they steady trades or westerly gales. Their theories did not gain wide credence, however, and were submerged beneath a broad consensus that Polynesian canoes, navigational methods and seamanship had been well adapted to the exploration of the Pacific and the settlement of far-flung islands, and that the ancestral Polynesians had intentionally set out from the western edge of the Pacific to explore the ocean and settle the islands they found there. Although within this orthodoxy there were conflicting opinions as to whether the ancestral Polynesians had sailed through Melanesia or Micronesia to reach the mid-Pacific, and other details of the migration, this consensus was not seriously challenged until the middle of this century when a Norwegian adventurer and a New Zealand historian burst into the then quiet waters of Polynesian scholarship to revive the heresies of Martinez de Zuniga and Lang.

One day in 1947 a raft crashed upon the reef of Raro'ia Atoll in the Tuamotus after drifting and sailing before wind and current for 101 days after leaving Peru. The expedition's leader, Thor Heyerdahl, was out to demonstrate how South American Indians could have settled Polynesia by raft. Although Heyerdahl made much of supposed linguistic and other cultural parallels between the American Indians and the Polynesians, the linchpin of his theory was the same as that of Martinez de Zuniga: Heyerdahl asserted that the "permanent tradewinds and forceful companion currents of the enormous Southern Hemisphere" would have prevented canoe voyagers from settling Polynesia directly from the west, while promoting colonization from the Americas by voyagers pushed westward by wind and current.8

A decade later, Andrew Sharp, a New Zealand civil servant turned historian, published a bombastically polemical book called Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific, in which, while accepting the orthodox view that settlement had been from the west, he resurrected Lang's theory that the islands of Polynesia had been settled accidentally by hapless canoe voyagers driven randomly across the sea by stormy westerly winds. The Polynesians could not have intentionally explored and settled the Pacific, claimed Sharp, because their canoes were not seaworthy and weatherly enough, and their navigation system not accurate enough, to have enabled them to set out on long, navigated voyages of exploration and colonization. Instead, said Sharp, Polynesia had been settled over a long period of time by the survivors of maritime accidents. He proposed that canoes were periodically lost at sea when, while sailing along the coast of an island or between closely-spaced islands, they were blown out of sight of land by storms, or simply went off course because of cloudy weather or navigational incompetence. Wherever one of these lost canoes, or others containing people forced to flee their home islands because of war, famine or overpopulation, were randomly pushed by wind and current onto the shore of an uninhabited island a new Polynesian colony would result. This accidental process, multiplied many times over, and nothing more, said Sharp, accounted for the immense oceanic dispersion of the Polynesian nation.9

Although Heyerdahl gained wide popular support for his theory of "American Indians in the Pacific," because his ideas contradicted the linguistic and cultural evidence of an ultimate Southeast Asian origin of the Polynesians, professional prehistorians thought little of them. Nonetheless, despite scholarly protestations, it soon became apparent that Heyerdahl had pointed out a major weakness in orthodox thinking about Polynesian settlement. Relationships evident in language and cultural traits that pointed to a Polynesian derivation from the west, were not matched by island-by-island archaeological excavations demonstrating that the ancestors of the Polynesians had in fact migrated eastward into the mid-Pacific.

Accordingly, archaeologists directed their efforts toward discovering the migration trail to Polynesia, as well as to unravelling the sequence and timing of settlement within Polynesia. The results have supported a derivation of the Polynesians from the western side of the Pacific, not their migration from the Americas as Heyerdahl claimed.

Through a distinctively decorated pottery called Lapita, and associated artifacts, archaeologists have been able to trace the migration of the immediate ancestors of the Polynesians from the Bismarck Archipelago off the northeast coast of New Guinea across Melanesia to the oceanic archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga and Såmoa where they arrived around 1500 B.C. These mid-Pacific islands, and not any distant continental shore, have emerged as the long-sought homeland of the Polynesians, for excavations show that it was in this oceanic setting that ancestral Polynesian culture evolved from its Lapita roots.10

From this homeland region, now called West Polynesia, the trail of artifacts leads to the archipelagos of central East Polynesia-the Cooks, Societies, Australs, Tuamotus and Marquesas, and then from there to the distant islands of Hawai'i, Rapa Nui and Aotearoa. In all the hundreds of excavations conducted throughout Polynesia, no prehistoric pottery or other ancient artifacts that can be directly traced to either North or South America have been uncovered. Although the pre-European cultivation by Polynesians of the sweet potato, a plant of South American origin, indicates that there must have been some communication between the Americas and Polynesia, the archaeological record demonstrates that Polynesians are descended from seafarers who moved eastward across the Pacific from the western edge of the ocean.11

In contrast to the immediate and widespread opposition to Heyerdahl's thesis, Sharp's accidental settlement hypothesis found a degree of acceptance among many historians, cultural anthropologists and prehistorians. Not only was it congruent with orthodox thinking that migration into the Pacific had been from west to east, but it appealed to those scholars who, like the European explorers cited earlier, could not comprehend how people who had only slim canoes, and who lacked the compass and other navigational instruments, could have intentionally explored and settled Polynesia. Furthermore, they saw it as a welcome correction to overblown and ill-founded accounts of Polynesian seafaring and migration, one that offered a simple explanation of Polynesian settlement based on random processes rather than a complicated one based upon seafaring feats that were difficult to imagine.12

Sharp's thesis had a special appeal to some prehistorians who were then introducing modern archaeological methods into Polynesia. They had just come from archaeological centers in Europe and the United States where the focus on migrations that had long dominated the study of prehistory was being replaced by one centered on internal processes of adaptation and change within each cultural or social unit investigated. By embracing the idea of accidental settlement, pre-historians could rid themselves of scenarios-developed largely from oral traditions-involving long voyages of exploration, colonization, and subsequent two-way communication, and of all the complications these would bring to their efforts to comprehend the development of individual island cultures. Instead, they had only to assume initial settlement of an island or archipelago by the random arrival of a canoe, and then, in the centuries that followed, cultural development in isolation from all but the nearest of neighboring islands, perhaps broken only occasionally by the landing of another drifting canoe from a distant island.13

Building Hōkūle‘a

Not everyone, however, embraced Sharp's accidental settlement thesis, particularly the negative assessment of seafaring capabilities upon which it was based. The Polynesians, Sharp claimed, could not possibly have intentionally set out to explore and settle their island realm because their canoes were too flimsy and unseaworthy, their navigation methods too imprecise and their seamanship skills too rudimentary for the task. Unfortunately, however ethnocentric and ill-informed Sharp's assessment may have seemed to those who took exception to it, efforts to refute Sharp foundered on the lack of exact information about the seaworthiness and windward ability the Polynesians canoes, the accuracy of their navigation system, and the quality of their seamanship. The great canoes and their navigators had long since disappeared from Polynesian waters, and the descriptions of canoes and navigation in the explorer's journals were too imprecise and contradictory to settle the question definitively. Without the necessary information, the debate between Sharp and his supporters on the one hand, and champions of the idea that the Polynesians and their ancestors had played an active, seafaring role in the discovery and settlement of their island world, quickly reached an impasse marked more by polemics than insight.14

Initiatives developed to breakout of this stalemate included efforts by nautically-minded investigators to study canoe navigation in the central Caroline Islands of Micronesia, the only place in the Pacific where traditional techniques were still being widely used to guide canoes from island to island, and a massive computer simulation study designed to test whether the pattern of winds and current prevailing in the Pacific would have been conducive to the settlement of the islands by drifting canoes. By detailing how it was possible to navigate without instruments, and how unlikely it was that the movement from West to East Polynesia and from there to Hawai'i, Rapa Nui and Aotearoa could have been accomplished by drifting canoes, these studies went a long way toward undermining Sharp's thesis. Nonetheless, however enlightening was the ability of Micronesian navigators to guide their canoes across the relatively short inter-island gaps of Micronesia, and the statistical unlikelihood that canoes could have drifted over the major inter-archipelago gaps of Polynesia, these studies did not supply the missing information on how canoes could have been intentionally sailed over the long seaways of Polynesia.15

Since the ancient voyaging canoes and their navigators had disappeared from Polynesian waters, the obvious course was to experiment, to recreate the voyaging canoes and ways of navigating without instruments and then try them out at sea. In other words, the situation called for a nautical application of experimental archaeology, that branch of prehistory concerned with the reconstruction and testing of ancient artifacts and techniques. This experimental effort got underway in the mid-1960s, when David Lewis navigated his catamaran from Tahiti to New Zealand without instruments, and when my students and I built a replica of a 40-foot long Hawaiian double-canoe which we used in a series of instrumented trials that showed that such a craft sailed well downwind and across the wind, and could be tacked slowly to windward.16

On the basis of these experiments, I proposed that it would be feasible to sail a reconstructed voyaging canoe over the legendary route from Hawai'i to Tahiti and return, and to navigate all the way by traditional methods. Hawai'i and Tahiti are separated by some 2,250 nautical miles of open ocean, yet Sharp had claimed that it had been impossible for Polynesians to make intentionally navigated round-trip voyages between islands separated by more than 300 nautical miles. To complete such a crossing in a reconstructed voyaging canoe would therefore challenge a key tenet of Sharp's theory.17

In 1973 a group of us from Hawai'i started the Polynesian Voyaging Society to raise funds and then build a large canoe for the Tahiti voyage. The design and construction of a craft that would represent a voyaging canoe of many centuries ago posed a number of problems, for we could not start with an archaeologically-excavated specimen, and then copy it using all the tools and materials of the original builders-as is recommended for experimental archaeology projects. Aside from a few bits of canoes recovered from swamp sites and burial caves, we had no archaeological specimens to guide us, certainly nothing like the virtually complete craft that our colleagues in the Mediterranean and northern European waters have recovered and in some cases copied. Unlike ancient Mediterranean sailing vessels, unballasted Polynesian canoes do not sink. Nor had the Polynesians been so obliging to future archaeologists as had the Vikings, who buried their chiefs in their long boats. However, we did have abundant drawings and descriptions of Polynesian canoes in use during the European contact period, and we used these to develop a "common denominator" design to represent an archaic voyaging canoe ancestral to these local types.

We would have preferred to build our canoe using stone adzes, miles and miles of coconut fiber sennit line, and other features of traditional craftsmanship. But, beyond lashing some components of the canoe with sennit made for us on remote atolls where the old men still knew how to manufacture this cordage, and making an experimental sail out of strips of pandanus matting woven specially for us on the Polynesian Outlier of Kapingamarangi, we did not attempt to build the canoe with traditional materials and methods, for we knew that to try and recreate ancient tools and lost arts would have interminably delayed our project. Instead, we used some modern tools and materials, fabricating our hulls, for example, out of frames covered with layers of plywood strips, and then lashing the hulls, decking and other structures together mostly with modern line. However, we constantly strove to make our canoe in shape and weight a "performance accurate" replica of a traditional voyaging craft that would tell us much about how ancient canoes sailed. For example, despite numerous suggestions that we should widen the stance of the hulls to enable the canoe to carry more sail, add keel fins to the hulls to enhance their ability to resist leeway, and adopt a modern sail rig for greater speed, we stuck to traditional precedents of a narrow separation between hulls, a semi-rounded hull shape and the inverted-triangle sprit sail so that our canoe would sail no better than her ancient predecessors.

We assembled the components of our canoe-two hulls each 62 feet in length, eight crossbeams, decking, rails and two masts-at Kualoa on the north shore of O'ahu Island. The completed canoe was launched in 1975 and christened Hokule'a, Hawaiian for Arcturus, the bright star which passes directly over the island of Hawai'i. Although sea trials were not without mishaps, when properly sailed and maintained the craft proved to be stable and seakindly. Driven by two Polynesian sprit sails, and steered by long steering oars, Hokule'a could make 10 knots or more sailing on a broad reach before strong trades. Her speed of course dropped off when sailing to windward, but trials showed that in sailing full and by against brisk trades she could easily make at least 4 or 5 knots, an adequate windward performance, we felt, for the long voyage to Tahiti.

While we might have fallen somewhat short of the ideals of experimental archaeology in the construction of our canoe, we intended to follow a much more rigorous experimental protocol on our voyage than had been carried out on previous ocean crossings made in reconstructed craft, such as Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage from Peru to the Tuamotus Archipelago aboard the raft Kon-Tiki, and Magnusson's 1893 voyage from Norway to North America in a reconstruction of a Viking longship. Both these crossings had been one-way only, and had been navigated with magnetic compass, charts and other modern aids. In contrast, we intended to make a round-trip voyage between Hawai'i and Tahiti, replicating the two-way voyages celebrated in Hawaiian legend, and, furthermore, we planned to navigate by traditional, non-instrument methods.18

References Cited

1.    Quiros 1904, 2:152; Quiros in Kelly 1966, 2:309.
2. Roggeveen 1970: 101,153-4.
3. Braudel in Goetzmann 1986:1.
4. Cook 1955:154.
5. Cook 1955:154, ftn. 2.
6. Dumont d'Urville 1830, Vol. 2:611-630; Hale 1846.
7. Martinez de Zuniga 1803:16-9; Lang 1834,1877.
8. Heyerdahl 1950; 1953; 1978:332.
9. Sharp 1956.
10. Green 1967, 1979; Kirch and Hunt 1988.
11. Bellwood 1987; Kirch 1986; Yen 1974.
12. Golson 1963.
13. Adams et al.; Golson and Gathercole 1962.
14. Golson 1963; Finney 1967.
15. Gladwin 1970; Lewis 1972; Levison et al. 1973.
16. Lewis 1966; Finney 1967.
17. Finney 1967.
18. Finney 1977, 1979a, 1979b.

Launching Hōkūle‘a

Kenneth P. Emory

[Note: On March 8, 1975, below the peak of Kanehoalani ("Kane, Heavenly Companion") and the broad cliffs of Mo'o Kapu o Haloa ("Sacred Section of Haloa") at the north end of Kane'ohe Bay, Hōkūle'a slid down a coconut log ramp and floated calmly at sea. The site in Kualoa Regional Park in windward O'ahu, at the border of the ahupua'a of Kualoa and Hakipu'u, was chosen for the launching because of its importance to the voyaging traditions of Hawai'i. Kualoa was the home of the voyaging chief La'amaikahiki ("Sacred One from Tahiti"), and Hakipu'u was the home of the voyaging chief Kaha'i, perhaps La'amaikahiki's grandson.1 See below for a video of the launching.]

After the feather pennant and wooden image were secured to the canoe, the canoe on its lona (blocks), decorated with maile, 'ie'ie and Tahitian ti, was ready for the launching.

During the blowing of the conch shells, Herb Kane, Ben Finney and Kenneth Emory mounted the pola (deck); the steersmen, paddlers and Sam Ka'ai seated themselves on the beach between the imu and the canoe. The captain was Herb Kawainui Kane; the kahuna was Ka'upena Wong, assisted by Kalena Silva and Keli'i Tau'a, and kahu Kaupu.

Ka'upena Wong, Kalena Silva, Keli'i Tau'a and kahu Kaupu walked in the direction of the canoe. Kahu Kaupu stopped the group and offered a prayer to the Almighty.

The four continued their walk; Kalena and Keli'i took their positions at the imu and kahu stood in the shade of some trees. Ka'upena, coconut shell filled with seawater in hand, performed the pi kai (sprinkling of the seawater to purify) the canoe and paddlers as he uttered the words: "E kia'i, e alaka'i, e ho'ona'auao, e ho'olanakila, a pae ka wa'a i ke kula me ka lanakila." ("Guide, keep safely (the canoe) until the shore is reached safely.")

Ka'upena drank from the coconut shell before pouring the remaining seawater into the ocean.

Kalena and Keli'i proceeded to open the imu. Taking the cooked food from the imu, Kalena prepared a food offering-pieces of the pig's snout, tail and four feet, a piece of meat, one of the fishes, a banana-and placed them on a coconut-leaf platter covered with a section of banana leaf and 'awa leaves. The platter of food was given to Ka'upena.

Kalena and Keli'i now served the paddlers. After all were served Ka'upena and Kalena walked to the canoe; Ka'upena mounted the pola and received the food offering from Kalena. On the pola Ka'upena faced Herb, Ben and Kenneth. Herb said:

Eia ka wa'a i kalai ia; e kapa'ia ha'inoa 'o Hokule'a. Ke ui aku nei na alaka'i o ka po, na alaka'i o ke ao, na alaka'i o luna, na alaka'i o lalo.
("This is the canoe which has been built; its name is to be Hokule'a. Ask our gods of po and of ao, from above, from below to bless it.")

Ka'upena, food offering in hands, chanted [This chant can be found in an article written by Kalokuokamaile called Kala'i Wa'a ana a Me Kona Mau Ano, published in the Nupepa Kuokoa from Oct. 26-1922-Feb. 15, 1923. The chant is in the February 8, 1923 issue.]:

1. Mokuhali'i, Kupa'aike'e, Lea
2. Eia ka pua'a,
3. He uku, he makana, he 'alana,
4. He mohai ia 'oukou.
5. Ua pa'a ka wa'a (Hokule'a) (he kaulua)
6. A e ho'olanaia aku ana i ke kai
7. O kona 'aina ia e huli ai i ka loa'a ame ka waiwai.
8. E nana pono loa 'oukou
9. E maka'ala i na puko'a, na pu'upohaku o kahi laupapa
10. Na nalu, na 'ale o ka moana.
11. Ho'oholo no 'oukou i ka wa'a ma kahi hohonu o ke kai,
12. I hele ai ka wa'a a nalukai,
13. A 'apulu, a ulu ka limu pakaiea, a kaniko'oko'o.
14. 'amama, ua noa.

1. O Mokuhali'i, Kupa'aike'e, Lea,
2. Here is pork,
3. A payment, a gift, an offering,
4. A sacrifice to you.
5. The canoe (Hokule'a) is finished (a double-hulled canoe),
6. Ready to be launched onto the sea,
7. Its home where it will seek gain and wealth;
8. Watch over it carefully
9. Be alert for coral beds and stone outcroppings of the reefs,
10. For the waves and the swells of the ocean.
11. Guide the canoe over the depths of the sea,
12. Let the canoe ride over the waves of the sea,
13. Till it is worn out, overgrown with limu, and aged.
14. The kapu is lifted, it is removed.

After the chant, Ka'upena left the pola and joined Kalena, Keli'i and paddlers at the imu. All ate the food prepared for them. In addition the paddlers drank coconut water. The eating pau Kalena and Keli'i collected the remains from the imu and platters and placed them into a coconut-leaf basket. They weighted the basket with a few imu rocks and tied it up with cord. Kalena and Keli'i carried the basket to Ka'upena who had mounted the pola. Ka'upena placed the food remains in the ti-thatched shelter on the pola. From the pola he shouted to the paddlers: "E ho'omakaukau!" ("Make ready!")

Herb ma, Ka'upena, Kalena, Keli'i, and paddlers took their positions to launch the canoe. Master of Ceremonies Moroni Medeiros invited all males in the audience to help pull the ropes for the launching of Hokule'a. With a signal from Herb, Ka'upena called out: "E alu like!" ("Let's all work together!")

Ka'upena began the hauling chant and was to be joined by the paddlers, encouraged by Kalena and Keli'i:

Kiauau, kiauau (Haul, haul)
Hukiauau, hukiauau (Pull on, pull on)
Koauau, koauau (Draw on, draw on)
Ho'omalo he kaula (Keep the rope taut)
Moku a he kaula (Keep the rope in position)

Hokule'a, anxious to be in her new home, was in the water seconds after Ka'upena chanted the first "Kiauau."

With Hokule'a majestically occupying her place in the water and receiving pats and shouts of joy from her admirers, Herb ma, and the paddlers scrambled aboard the handsome canoe. In the din of excitement, with Hokule'a's swift entry into the water, Ka'upena, Kalena and Keli'i waited, then walked down the beach to the water's edge. Here Ka'upena began to chant a couple of times but decided to stop because of the activity on and surrounding the canoe. Ka'upena, Kalena and Keli'i, ti stalks in hand, mounted the pola. Herb gave instructions to take the canoe out. As Hokule'a moved gracefully out to sea, Ka'upena sat down and chanted [From Malo, 129. The meaning of "kuwa," which appears in the first six lines is uncertain. Emerson, the translator and annotator of Malo, suggests "uplifter," from "ku" ("upright") and "wa" ("space"). See his note 14 on page 134.]:

1. O kuwa o ka lani,
2. O kuwa o ka honua,
3. O kuwa o ka mauna,
4. O kuwa o ka moana,
5. O kuwa o ka po,
6. O kuwa o ke ao,
7. O Malualani ke kuwa,
8. O Maluahopu ke kuwa,
9. Aia no ia ko'i la ke kuwa.
10. Ka wa'a nei o ha luahine makua.
11. Ka luahine! 'O wai?
12. Ka luahine o Papa,
13. Wahine a Wakea.
14. Nana i kuwa,
15. Nana i hainu,
16. Nana i hele,
17. Nana i a'e
Nana i ho'onoanoa.
19. Noa ke kuwa o ha wa'a o Wakea.
20. O ka wa'a nei o ha luahine rnakua.
21. Ka luahine! 'O wai?
22. Ka luahine o Lea,
23. Wahine a Mokuhali'i.
24. Nana i kuwa,
25. Nana i hainu,
26. Nana i hele,
27. Nana i a'e
Nana i ho'onoanoa.
29. Noa ke kuwa o ka wa'a o Mokuhali'i.
30. Hinu helele'i aku,
31. Hinu helele'i mai.
32. He miki 'oe Kane;
33. He miki 'oe Kanaloa.
34. O Kanaloa hea 'oe?
35. O Kanaloa inu 'awa.
36. Mai Kahiki ka 'awa,
37. Mai 'Upolu ka 'awa
38. Mai Wawau ka 'awa.
39. E hano 'awa hua
40. E hano 'awa pauaka;
41. Halapa i ke akua i la'au wai la!
42. 'amama, ua noa.
43. Lele wale aku la.

1. Uplifter of the heavens,
2. Uplifter of the earth,
3. Uplifter of the mountains,
4. Uplifter of the ocean,
5. Who hast appointed the night,
6. Appointed the day,
7. Malualani is the kuwa
8. And Maluahopu,
9. That ax also is a kuwa.
10. This is the ax of our venerable ancestral dame.
11. Venerable dame! What dame?
12. Dame Papa,
13. The wife of Wakea.
14. She set apart and consecrated,
15. She turned the tree about,
16. She impelled it,
17. She guided it,
18. She lifted the kapu from it.
19. Gone is the kapu from the canoe of Wakea.
20. The canoe this of our ancestral dame.
21. Ancestral dame! What dame?
22. Dame Lea,
23. Wife of Mokuhali'i
She initiated,
25. She pointed the canoe,
26. She started it,
27. She guided it;
28. She lifted the kapu from it.
29. Lifted was the kapu from the canoe of Mokuhali'i.
30. Fat dripping here,
31. Fat dripping there.
32. Active art thou Kane;
33. Active art thou Kanaloa.
34. What Kanaloa art thou?
35. Kanaloa the 'awa drinker.
36. 'Awa from Tahiti,
37. 'Awa from 'Upolu,
38. 'Awa from Wawau,
39. Bottle up the frothy 'awa,
40. Bottle up the well-strained 'awa.
41. Praise be to the God in the highest heaven!
42. The kapu is lifted, removed.
43. It flies away.

During the trip out Hokule'a appeared to welcome all aboard by responding to Herb, the steersmen, paddlers. The feeling was good.

After it was some distance from shore, Herb directed that Hokule'a be turned around. He reminded everyone that when the food remains were given to the sea, no one should turn to look back. Kalena and Keli'i threw the basket overboard and the crew began to paddle Hokule'a back to shore. Ka'upena, Kalena and Keli'i moved up front and sat down. Together Ka'upena and Kimo Hugho worked out the rhythmic pattern for the next chant. About halfway in, Ka'upena began the chant; and he was joined by Kalena, Keli'i, the Kamehameha School chanter-paddlers, and Kimo ma:

Ia wa'a nui / That large canoe
Ia wa'a kioloa / That long canoe
Ia wa 'a peleleu / That broad canoe
A lele mamala / Let chips fly
A manu a uka / The bird of the upland
A manu a kai / The bird of the lowland
'I'iwi polena / The red Hawaiian honeycreeper
A kau ka hoku / The stars hang above
A kau i ka malama / The daylight arrives
A pae i kula / Land ashore
'amama, ua noa / 'amama, the kapu is lifted

This chant was accompanied by the striking of the paddles against the sides of the canoe. Instructions for the chant rhythm were as follows: "The stroke is slow. The paddle is struck a little in front of the paddler on the return of the paddle. The timing is thus: Ia wa'a (thump) nui (thump), ia wa'a (thump) kioloa (thump), ia wa'a (thump) peleleu (thump)."

As Hokule'a neared the shore Ka'upena called for the chanting, to end with: "A pae i kula!" ("Land ashore!")

Ka'upena left the pola and announced to all: "'amama, ua noa!" ("The prayer is said, the kapu is over!")

Then he turned to Hokule'a and asked: "Pehea ka wa'a, pono anei?" ("How is the canoe, is it good?")

All aboard answered: "'Ae, maika'i loa ka wa'a Hokule'a!" ("Yes, the canoe Hokule'a is indeed very good!")

Ka'upena turned to kahu Kaupu, who had walked down to greet Hokule'a and her crew, and he said: "Eia ka wa'a e ho'opomaika'i ia." ("Here is the canoe in your care for a Christian blessing.") Kahu Kaupu, in celebration, offered a prayer:

E Ke Akua Manaloa, Ke Akua Ka Makua piha Ka 'ihi'ihi ame Kealoha, no Kou ka honua ame Kona mea i piha ai. Eia no ka wa'a Hokule'a e kalai 'ia no na moana me na kai, a he pono ia 'oia makou i na mea ma'a mau mai kupuna mai. E loa'a 'oia me ka malu ame Kealoha.

Na Ke Akua, me kokoke 'oe Hokule'a, e pale aku mai 'oe; a iloko 'oe Hokule'a, e ho'oikaika mai 'oe, a puni 'oe Hokule'a, e malama mai 'oe; a mamua ae 'oe Hokule'a, e alaka'i mai 'oe; a mahope iho 'oe Hokule'a, e ho'apono mai 'oe; a maluna 'oe Hokule'a, e ho'opomaika'i mai 'oe. Me Kealoha o ka Haku Ka Makua, Ke Keiki, a me Ka 'Uhane Hemolele, me 'oe ame e noho 'oia mau aku. 'Amene.

Almighty God, our Loving and Holy Father, the earth is yours and the fullness there of. Here is your canoe, the Hokule'a, built for the oceans and the seas. And we have consecrated her according to the traditions of our Kupuna. Receive her, O God with Aloha and peace.

May the Spirit of God be near you to defend you, within you to restrengthen you, around you to preserve you, before you to guide you, behind you to justify you, and above you to bless you. May the Aloha of God, The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you always. Amen.

At the completion of Kahu Kaupu's prayer, he and Ka'upena embraced. Kahu was embraced by Kalena and Keli'i, the paddlers, Herb ma. Everyone felt good, proud. It was time for the lu'au, hula, songs, music, beer, talk-story.2

Video of the Launching, March 8, 1975 (posted on YouTube by BudScelsa):


1. See “Voyaging Chiefs of Kāne‘ohe Bay” for voyaging traditions related to Kane‘ohe Bay.

2. Herb Kane says "the launching festivities and lu'au for 2,000 was entirely done by volunteers, led largely by Paige Barber. Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii donated entertainment as did a hula halau." The notes above by Kenneth P. Emory describe the ceremonies and chants used for her launching. Emory was an anthopologist for the Bishop Musuem and a member of the Board of Directors of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. He and Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Puku'i served as consultants to those who planned and carried out the launching ceremony.


Hōkūle‘a's Ki'i

The ki'i wahine, or female image, lashed to the manu or back-piece of the port hull onHōkūle‘a, is named "Kiha Wahine o Ka Mao o Malu Ulu o Lele." The ki'i kāne, or male image, lashed to the back manu of the starboard hull is named "Kane o Hōkūle‘a o Kalani." (Traditionally, the port, or left, hull of a double-hulled canoe is female; the starboard, or right, hull is male.)

The ki'i were fashioned by master carver Sam Ka'ai of Maui. Ka'ai keeps the original ki'i under his protection; the duplicates on the canoe are called the traveling ki'i; they are in the keeping of Wally Froiseth. These ki'i embody the spirit of Hawai'i and watch over the canoe while it voyages.

The female image has eyes that represents seeing and foresight; the male image represents knowledge; they work together to guide the canoe. Before the start of a voyage, the feet and legs of the ki'i are wrapped with maile lei.

Taking Hold of the Old Story: Sam Ka'ai, by Sam Low

Sam Ka’ai was brought up in Kaupō, an old district of Hawaiian homesteads in rural East Maui.

Until 1938, there was no road to Kaupō. When they finally put one in, Sam’s father and stepfather worked on it. His family raised pigs and cattle. They fished. They grew papaya, avocado and peanuts. They made okolehao, liquor distilled from ti root. “We grew our own food,” Sam remembers, “so we didn’t know there was a depression going on. We had little need for money. We made our own pipes for smoking. A pipe bought in a store was called ‘a lazy man’s pipe.’” Sam’s father and grandfather made canoes. Sam continued in this tradition, although as a carver of fine sculpture. He used adzes that came down to him from his ancestors. They were fashioned a century or so ago.

Herb Kane traveled to each island to introduce the concept of the voyage, taking the Hawaiian pulse at each encounter. In 1973, Sam Ka’ai went to Maui Community College to listen to Herb talk about Hōkūle‘a. When the talk was over, Sam stood up holding a copy of Honolulu Magazine and pointed to a picture of the canoe. He spoke to Herb in Hawaiian. Herb said “speak English please.”

“We cannot participate in the making of your canoe because it’s going to be in Oahu, so maybe we can make some small part,” Sam said. “In the picture, there are two ki’is (sculpted figures) on the two manus – the two stern pieces of your canoe. Have they been made yet? If not, I will do it.”

It was a busy meeting so Sam gave Herb his address and left. A few days later, a letter arrived from Herb: “if you come from a canoe family, please dream and make your own design for the ki’is.”

Sam carved two ki’is – a man and a woman. The female figure would be lashed to the port manu, the male ki’i to the starboard. When Sam carved the male figure he fashioned his hands reaching up to the heavens in supplication.

Honaunau, 1992 Voyage to Tahiti

“This is an effigy of how we are after so many years of oppression,” Sam explains. “Blind to our past, we reach up to grasp heaven one more time. The same stars are rising at the same time as they did for our fathers for many, many generations. So if you lose your way - if you cannot find your way – remember that you once sailed on your mother’s lap and you were never lost. The stars turned minute by minute, hour by hour, dawn and dusk and you always came home or your kind wouldn't be here. So you were never lost. This is an effigy of the Hokule’a experience – the ohana wa’a, the family of the canoe. He is reaching above himself, beyond himself, to the story that has not changed, the forever and ever story, the olelo, olelo, olelo - down the corridor of time – the lei of bones. He is showing that we are taking hold of the old story once again.”

Canoe ‘Aumākua, by Herb Kawanui Kāne

Throughout Polynesia, the spirits of illustrious ancestors (‘aumākua) are remembered and venerated for their extraordinary talents, abilities, and other manifestations of mana. The living, by emulating such qualities, show their respect for their ancestors, and by such respect they hope to encourage their aumakua to take a beneficial and protective interest in them and bestow mana upon them. Well into the 20th century, Hawaiians learned many of their ‘aumākua by name, and the chants for invoking their help. The scholar Mary Kawena Pukui learned the names of 50 ‘aumākua as a child.

A protective interest on the part of ancestral spirits was especially needed when confronting the dangers of the sea. Much of the elaborate surface carving, ornamentation and carved images typical of some South Pacific canoes may be interpreted as symbolic of protective ‘aumākua. South Pacific carved human images on canoes (tiki, Hawaiian ki'i) are not "gods," but visible objects wherein invisible ‘aumākua may repose when they are present.

Unlike many South Pacific canoes which featured much symbolic surface carving and other ornamentation, Hawaiian canoes were distinguished by their clean lines and the absence of carvings that might weaken their structure or add weight. It's likely that this was a design evolution from an earlier canoe form more similar to South Pacific canoes. The rough interisland waters of the Hawaiian Islands demanded every design component to be rugged and functional, and the sleek form of the the Hawaiian canoe followed its function.

Yet there had to be a place in the canoe for the ‘aumākua as spiritual passengers. Sometimes images were carried aboard. Samwell, with the Cook Expedition in 1778-79, saw small wooden images carried within the stern of some canoes*. However, we have no drawings of them, and this is the only reference. With this precedent in mind, artist Sam Ka'ai carved the ki'i that is carried on the sternpiece (manu hope) of the starboard hull (akea) of the voyaging canoe Hokule'a. An ‘aumakua figure in traditional Hawaiian carving style representing a navigator spirit, it holds aloft a shining pearl shell symbolic of the navigation star, Hōkūle‘a (Arcturus).

There is, however, a small feature of the design of traditonal Hawaiian canoes which provides a place for the benevolent ‘aumākua to ride along with his descendants. This is the momoa, the small tip of the hull projecting at the stern behind the manu hope.

The distinctive momoa is omitted by some modern canoemakers who are unaware of its significance. According to one story, the tradition originated when a chief was leaving "Kahiki" (Hawaiian for Tahiti – probably the Tahitian island of Ra'iatea, anciently named Havai'i) on his return voyage to Hawai'i, and a spirit (‘aumākua) asked to accompany him.

"Where will you ride?" the chief asked. "The canoe was fully loaded with the crew and provisions for the voyage." The spirit said " I will ride upon a small projection I see at the stern end of the hull." The spirit leaped from shore, and rode to Hawai'i on that small projection. Since then, Hawaiian canoemakers have traditionally kept that projection, the momoa, as the place where the ‘aumākua may ride.

*Edge-Partington, James 1899. Extracts from the diary of Dr. Samwell: Polynesian Society Journal, vol. 8. p 262.


Mālama Wa‘a: Caring for the Canoes

A Laying on of Hands

Sam Low

Sailing Hōkūle‘a with a crew of volunteers over routes not traversed for perhaps a millennium has presented many crises. One such occurred in May of 1997, when Nainoa hired a surveyor to inspect the canoe prior to its voyage to Rapa Nui.

A marine surveyor is empowered to say whether or not a vessel is seaworthy. He uses simple tools, a trained eye, a pocketknife and a rubber mallet. With his knife he probes for dry rot, a kind of virus that reduces wood to dust, although not obviously so to the naked eye. Poking in strategic places tells the story. If the knife goes in easily, the wood is rotten. Banging on the hull with a mallet may produce discordant notes to a surveyor's ear, another sign of problems.

After a few hours of poking and banging on that May afternoon, the surveyor made his report: "the canoe is rotten," he said. "I cannot certify her seaworthiness. I suggest you think about putting her in a museum." The pronouncement was a surprise but not a shock. Nainoa had seen places where there was dry rot, but the canoe had taken him safely across many oceans and had demonstrated more than seaworthiness, she had shown her mana, her strength of spirit. Retiring Hōkūle‘a to a museum was not an option.

"I will need two lists," Nainoa said to the surveyor, "I need a list of what's wrong with her, and I need a list of what we need to do to make her even stronger than when she was built." The what-to-do list was long. Two of the wooden iakos had to be replaced - an onerous job but not exceedingly so. The hull was another matter. Wooden stringers run lengthwise from bow to stern, providing strength. There are five such stringers on each side, many of them rotten. The job of fixing all these problems fell to Bruce Blankenfeld.

Into dry-dock, 1997

In September, the canoe went into dry-dock. Perhaps "dry-dock" is a misnomer because it conjures a picture of Hōkūle‘a in a mammoth shipyard cofferdam. Hōkūle‘a's dry-dock was a shed in a decrepit section of the Port of Honolulu. Nearby was a junkyard with a tall fence and barking dogs, a pile of sand for making cement, a small marina, a few boatyards that did not appear very busy. Bruce set about finding workers.

Bruce, Wally, and Jerry discussing repairs (2002)

"It's easy to find people when you're ready to go sailing but when you need them to maintain the canoe it can be pretty difficult. I had a group of young folk come down at the beginning of September and tell me they wanted to help. I said, 'well, it's pretty easy to do that. All you have to do is show up.' But after they saw all the work that was going on, they never returned."

What the prospective workers saw was nasty. Young men and women squirmed through hatches only slightly wider than their shoulders where they toiled for hours, in Stygian gloom, amidst fiberglass dust and the odor of polyvinyl resin. They excised the rotten stringers. They fitted new sections of wood. Then they "sister-framed" the entire stringer by adding two new pieces of wood, one on top and one on the bottom. Triangular wedges of foamed plastic followed for yet more strength and to "fair" the stringers into the hull. They sanded all this smooth and laid layers of glass fiber over it. They pushed resin into the fiber's mesh. When it hardened, the process was repeated. Then again. Three coats of resin; then two coats of paint. Meanwhile, other volunteers sanded off the hulls' gel-coat. Fiberglass dust veiled the canoe, clogging the pores of exposed skin.

Open Hull. Cat Fuller (2002)

Keao Watson Applying Epoxy in Dry Rot in hull (2002)

Kawai Hoe Applying Epoxy inside the Hull (2002)

Tim, Russell and Jerry Preparing the hull for Fiberglassing

Fiberglass work

Ann Marie Mizuno, Sanding before Varnishing

Relashing the deck: Kealoha and Kawai Hoe

Relashing the canoe Liz Kashinsky, Bob Bee, Cindy Macfarlane and Sean Marrs

For eight months, Bruce found himself down at dry-dock at odd hours inspecting the work. Seeing his crew laboring over the canoe was like seeing a resurrection. "Even though the work was hard, there was always a lot of energy. We saw progress every day. People are working together in the same place. It's usually dry and, compared to sailing the canoe, working conditions are luxurious. There are fits and starts, but everything seems to come together all right in the end. You are working on something that is very beautiful. You are touching the past with sandpaper and saws and rope lashings."

Bruce supervised his crew as they stripped the canoe's twin masts and brushed on eight coats of varnish and sanded each to the texture of baby-skin. Then they renewed five miles of rope lashings a few feet at a time. They ripped off deck planking, replaced and relashed it. The canoe received new iakos, new splashboards, and new manus fore and aft. She received stanchions, catwalks, hatches, and wiring for running lights and emergency radios.

An army of volunteers donated thousands of man and woman hours to Hōkūle‘a's rebirth, a laying on of hands that expressed their deep commitment to the canoe and what she meant to them. They came from all walks of life. There is Russell Amimoto, for example, nineteen years old, a professional house painter and volunteer canoe lasher. He has served Hōkūle‘a for three years. There is Kamaki Worthington, twenty-six, a teacher, fiberglasser, also a veteran of three years service. There is Kiki Hugo, in his forties, a cross country trucker who spends long months on the mainland driving from San Francisco to the Bronx, the Bronx to San Francisco, until he earns enough money to return home to Oahu. He is a kupuna, an elder crewmember with twenty-five years service. There is Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, a fortyish college professor, chair of the department of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, Hōkūle‘a's chanter and master of protocol; Wally Froiseth, early seventies, once Hawaii's most famous big-wave surfer, now captain of the pilot boat of the Port of Honolulu; Jerry Ongies, early sixties, retired Army officer, ex-manager Dole Pineapple plant, boat builder, cabinet maker, canoe fabricator. This list of workers is an extremely small selection of the hundreds who donated their time to the canoe. The complete list would fill a book. If you were to ask these people why they have so freely given of themselves to the canoe they will give you a variety of reasons, unique to each of them, but there will also be a common response similar to what Nainoa once told an audience of legislators when they asked him why they should fund Hōkūle‘a and her voyages.

"We must sail in the wake of our ancestors," he told them, "to find ourselves."

Finally, on the last week in March, the work is finished. The surveyor returned with his knife, his mallet and his well trained eye and certified the canoe "Lloyds A-1," nomenclature used by the world's largest insurer of watercraft to signify complete readiness for sea. A few days later, the canoe was launched.

Coming out of Drydock (1997)

Among the men and women who tended Hōkūle‘a as a giant crane lifted her from her cradle and laid her upon the ocean was Bruce Blankenfeld. "The mana in this canoe comes from all the people who have sailed aboard Hōkūle‘a and cared for her," Bruce said, looking out over the crowd that had come down for the launching. "I think of the literally hundreds of people who have come down and given to the canoe when she was in dry dock. I think of everyone who has shared similar work since she was first launched in 1975, those who have sailed aboard her, the men and women in all the islands we have visited who hosted us. All of this Mālama - this laying on of hands - adds to the mana of the canoe. It is intangible but it is alive and well."

Photograph of Hōkūle‘a Sailing toward Moloka‘i © Monte Costa


The Spirit of ‘Ohana and the Polynesian Voyagers

Cecilia Kapua Lindo

[from Polynesian Seafaring Heritage (Honolulu: PVS and Kamehameha Schools, 1980)]

Departure, from Peter Buck's Vikings of the Pacific

The 'ohana (family) of old made it possible for the Polynesian voyagers to venture forth to unknown lands. This seafaring 'ohana was able to travel thousands of miles on double-hulled canoes because it was in touch with nature and the gods. The 'ohana felt safe because there were no barriers between the spiritual and cultural world. The Hawaiian was never separated from his makers and ancestors because the gods and demi-gods showed themselves everywhere; in the sky, in the earth, and in the sea. They could move from one realm to another.

"Every cloud, rainstorm, lightning flash, ti plant, and maile vine was a body form of Kane. Rainclouds, rain, lush ferns, aholehole fish and certain types of seaweed revealed the god Lono. The god Kanaloa was represented by the deep ocean depths by squid, octopus and certain kinds of seashells" (William Pila Kikuchi, "Heritage of Kaua'i," The Native Hawaiian, February 1979, Vol. 111, No. 4, page 4). Ku was god of agriculture and of war. Every rock, waterfall and natural feature had a name and explanation as to its origin, just like the Hawaiian race.

The Hawaiians had their own mystical and ancestral roots. According to tradition the Hawaiian Islands and its people were born of the spirit world. The honored genealogies of the Hawaiians do not stem from Adam and Eve but from Papa and Wakea. Wakea was the first man and the ancestor of the Polynesians. Haloa, son of Wakea was born a shapeless mass and was buried beside Wakea's home. A taro plant grew in this spot. The ancients believed that the progenitors of the Hawaiians came from this mystic man called Ha-loa. The word Haloa means long stem, which represents the long stem of the taro plant.

The word 'ohana comes from the 'oha, or corm of the taro plant. The taro plant links the Hawaiians to the origin of their people. Is it any wonder, since taro was, and still is, the staff of life for the Hawaiian people?

The ancient Hawaiians not only used taro corm, stems and leaves as food, but they also used various parts of the plant as medicine. The leaf stalk was rubbed on insect bites to take away the sting. The juice of the stalk, blended with sugar or coconut milk, was drunk to reduce fever, cut root stopped bleeding, and thickened poi was applied as a poultice to infected sores.

Since there were 84 types of taro, some varieties were offered to Hawaiian gods, others were kapu (sacred) to the ali'i (royalty), but there were enough varieties to make poi the mainstay of the Hawaiian diet. Varieties of taro could be identified by the color of the cormÑgreen, red, white, gray, rose and purple.

Taro was not native to Hawai'i. The first written records of taro came from China, 200 years before Christ. It was also recorded in Egypt, 23 B.C. The first Polynesian voyagers who settled in Hawai i probably carried taro plants on their double-hulled canoes. Records show that some taro patches in Hawai'i have been under cultivation for over 100 years.

Hawaiians believed that 'oha, or taro corm, was the "root of origin." It did not matter how many offshoots came from the 'oha. In Hawaiian terms regardless of how distantly people were related, they were still all brothers and sisters. Even if they were l4th or l6th cousins, their roots were from the 'ohana, so they were 'ohana. The'ohana included parents, grandparents, children, ties of blood and non-related persons and immortals like the 'aumakua, or family god. The'ohana in nearly every sense were those adopted in friendship. A loved, non-related child could be made a ho'okama (son or daughter adopted in friendship).

Members of the 'ohana, like taro shoots, were all from the same root. Taro gave the Hawaiian poi, and poi was god given, like the 'ohana. Pule (prayer) was important in the 'ohana. This helped to prevent unhappiness. Pule was so much a part of the 'ohana that to this day, the word 'ohana is often used to mean pule 'ohana (family prayer).

Affection and warmth were the values of the'ohana. Hawaiians believed it was important to keep lines of communication open. Members of the 'ohana did not strain feelings by forcing other members to conform. In the 'ohana there was a sense of shared involvement, mutual responsibility, interdependence and helpfulness. The 'ohana meant love and loyalty. All its members practiced the spirit of sharing and caring. Forgiveness was very important. There was great respect for the elders.

Members of the 'ohana knew that life was interconnected. The 'ohana who farmed depended on the 'ohana that fished. Each depended on the other for survival.

The maka'ainana (commoner) lived on the 'aina (land) of the ali'i. The ali'i knew they could not survive without the maka'ainana, upon whom they depended for food and well-being. If an ali'i treated his tenant unfairly, the tenant could leave and become a tenant of another ali'i. There was an old Hawaiian proverb that said, "You are a chief because of your people." The 'aina did not belong to the chief; he was caretaker of the land that belonged to the gods.

The beliefs of the ancient 'ohana corresponded with the view of the relationship between humanity and nature. And it really made good sense. If you look back to Hokule'a and its origin, interdependency was the key to the canoe's success. Herb Kawainui Kane, Dr. Ben R. Finney and Charles Tommy Holmes founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society, but they had to rely on hundreds of people and resources to make Hokule'a a reality.

We can learn from the ancient 'ohana who practiced the art of dealing with people and understanding feelings. In other words they practiced the spirit of aloha. The Hawaiians constantly gave thanks to their gods and to nature. They were grateful even for the tiny 'elepaio bird (flycatcher) which they considered a deity, because the bird helped them select good trees for their canoes. If the'elepaio pecked at a tree trunk, they knew that the tree had worms and would not be good for a canoe. They considered the 'elepaio a canoe goddess and called her Lea.

We can learn meaningful and beautiful lessons from the ancient 'ohana.

Mary Kawena Pukui’s
‘0lelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings
(Bishop Museum Press 1983)

Selected by Melenani Lessett.
Illustrations by Melenani Lessett and Helene Iverson.

Ke kai lipolipo polihua a Kane (1729). "The dark-blue ocean of Kane." The deep sea out of sight of land.

Ka manu kahea i ka wa'a e holo (1478). "The bird that calls the canoe to sail." Said of the kioea (bristle-thighed curlew), whose early morning call was often a signal to canoes to go fishing or traveling.

Eia no kahi koe o ka moamoa (306). "Here is the only space left, the moamoa (a projection at the stern of the canoe)." Said when offering a small space or seat to someone, when every other space is occupied. (From the story of Pa'ao, who offered the moamoa to Makuaka'umana, a priest, on a voyage from Kahiki to Hawai'i. Makuaka'umana leapt from a cliff and landed on the moamoa; thus, he was able to sail to Hawai'i.)

Ha'ule i ka hope wa'a (489). "Left in the aft of the canoe." Said of one who comes last or is tardy.

E pane'e ka wa'a oi moe ka 'ale (371). "Set the canoe moving while the billows are at rest." Said by Holowae, a kahuna, to suggest that Kalani'Opu'u return to Hawai'i while there was peace. Later used to stir one to action.

Ha'alele koa wa'a i koa kanaka (398). "The koa canoe has departed, leaving the warriors behind." Said when a canoe goes off and leaves the people behind.

'Au i ke kai me he manu ala (237). "Cross the sea like a bird." To sail across the sea.

Ola i ke ahe lau makani (2483) "Life is in a gentle breath of wind." Said of a breeze on a hot day. ka makani (1133) "The winds roars." Said of great speed. pono na pe'a heke a ku ana (2681). "A full sail helped him to arrive." Said of a fast traveler. mai kau mapuna hoe (1836). "Dip your paddle in." Join in the effort.'okahi ka 'ilau like ana (1068). "Wield the paddles together." Work together.

E lauhoe mai na wa'a; i ke ka, i ka hoe; i ka hoe, i ke ka; pae aku i ka 'aina (327) "Everybody paddle the canoes together; bail and paddle, paddle and bail, and the shore will be reached."If everybody pitches in, the work is quickly done.

He ma'uka'uka hoe hewa (809). "A person from the uplands, unskilled in paddling."

He po'e ho'opiha wa'a (897) "Canoe fillers." Useless people, like riders in a canoe who do nothing to help.

Ka manu ka'upu halo 'alo o ka moana (1479). "The albatross that observes the ocean." A careful observer.

Ua ho'i ka noio 'au kai i uka, ke 'ino nei ka moana (2787). "The seafaring noddy tem has returned to land, for a storm rages at sea." A weather sign.

Lele ka 'iwa malie kai ko'o (1979). "When the frigate bird flies out to sea, the rough sea will grow calm." A weather sign. noio 'a'e 'ale no ke kai 1oa (844). "A noddy tern that treads over the billows of the distant sea." An expression of admiration for a person outstanding in wisdom and skill.

'A'ohe wa'a ho'ohoa 0 ka la 'ino (216). "No canoe is defiant on a stormy day."

E ho'i ka wa'a; mai ho'opa'a aku i ka 'ino (286). "Make the canoe go back; don't insist on heading into a storm."

He ho'okele wa'a no ka la 'ino (592). "A steersman for a stormy day." A courageous person.

Kihe ka ihu i ka 'ale (1789). "One who sneezes when the spray from the surf rises at the bow of the canoe." Said of one who braves danger with indifference.

Mai ka ho'okui i ka halawai (2059). "From zenith to horizon." Expression in prayers to the gods, calling them from everywhere. o ka la (2870). "The sun grows." Said of the light of sunrise just as the sun's rim touches the horizon. The morning sun is used for navigation to determine the primary direction of east. na hoku no na kiu o ka lani (2513). "The stars are the eyes of heaven." The stars secretly observe all.

E 'ike ka hoku o ka nalu, o hoku 'ula, o hoku lei "Behold the stars of the waves, the red star, the wreath of stars." When the rising and setting stars are near the ocean horizon, they provide clues to direction. [From a chant in the story of Paka'a and Kuapaka'a.]

He hewa i Kapua ka 'auwa'a panana 'ole (1125) "The fleet of canoes without a compass landed at Kapua by mistake." Said of one who is off his course, mentally or otherwise. ke ola i Kahiki (58) "Life is in Kahiki." Life and prosperity are in the care of the gods [The gods are said to reside in Kahiki.]

He kau auane'i i ka lae 'a'a (677). "Watch out lest the canoe land on a rocky reef."

Pae mai la ka wa'a i ka 'aina (2566). "The canoe has come ashore." Hunger is satisfied; desire fulfilled.

'A'ohe hana a Kauhikoa; ua kau ka wa'a i ke 'aki (139) "Kauhikoa has nothing more to do; his canoe is resting on the block." The work is done.