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Polynesian Voyaging Canoe

Hōkūle’a 2009

Hōkūle’a 2009 Launch to Palmyra Atoll 

Hōkūle’a 1976

Hōkūle’a 1976 Original Footage from the maiden Voyage
from Hawai’i to Tahiti,
2500 Miles without Instruments


Hōkūle’a Photo Album
Villa alumni Cliff Thompson ’67 and his wife visit Hōkūle’a


Polynesian Voyaging Canoe launches Polynesian Renaissance

Something extraordinary is happening throughout the Polynesian Triangle, launched from Hawai’i in the mid-1970s, with the resumption of the building & sailing of the ancient deep ocean going Polynesian Voyaging Canoes, original construction of which began circa 1600 BC and ended around 1500 AD. The ship’s captains utilized instrument-less navigation techniques to discover and settle all the island nations of the Polynesian Triangle during that period. With the aim of refuting such modern Western theories as Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition “drift theory” of Polynesian migration and settlement, the Hawaiians, who had lost the art of Polynesian voyaging canoe building & navigating, in 1973 formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), which in 1975 built a full size, twin-sailed, double-hulled, classic 62-foot transoceanic Polynesian voyaging canoe of the type used in ancient times to discover & settle all the island nations of the Polynesian Triangle, the first such canoe built since 1500 A.D., the now legendary “Hōkūle‘a“. The Hawaiians were further able, through the Polynesian / Melanesian / Micronesian network, to locate within their island community, on the remote coral island of Satawal, in the Caroline Islands of the Yap island group in Micronesia, & aided by Peace Corps volunteer Mike McCoy, stationed on Satawal, the last surviving Elder Master Navigator and Voyaging Canoe builder Mau Piailug, who had learned the art of instrument-less celestial navigation and canoe construction from his grandfather and father, and who, along with his people, still utilize these methods of navigation and inter-island travel today. In the mid-1970s, Mau traveled to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu & in 1976 the Society recruited Mau for their Hōkūle‘a maiden & 1st Voyage of Rediscovery, for which Mau served as navigator, & with a crew of 14, navigated without instruments 2500 miles from Hawai’i to Tahiti. The new ships are full scale performance-accurate recreations of the originals, generally ~ 60 foot X 20 foot double canoe hulls like a catamaran. Construction of a 2nd canoe “Hawai‘iloa” followed, and concomitant with these developments, after the creation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) for directing further expeditions, was the formation of the Friends of Hōkūle‘a & Hawai‘iloa (FOHH), providing canoe construction services, joined by the Marine Education Training Center (METC), offering training in ancient Polynesian canoe design/construction & instrument-less celestial navigation techniques. The navigation techniques involve being worked out in advance, originally by the navigator in the village laying out on the ground a “star map-like” assemblage of sticks & stones representing the celestial directives in a figure called the Star Compass; and in modern times the compass is  joined by a highly refined printed version, optimized for global voyaging on Hōkūle‘a, created after hundreds of hours of simulating celestial motions utilizing Hawai’i’s Bishop Museum planetarium projector, as developed by Mau Piailug’s protégé, Polynesian Voyaging Society Executive Director Nainoa Thompson, resulting in the Hawaiian Star Compass. The navigation techniques further involve reading natural signs from a combination of sources including celestial body positions and movements, appearance of distinctive weather patterns & cloud shapes above islands, wind & humidity shifts (for ex., moist trade wind to dry, cool northeasters), unique wave patterns from water passing around islands, paths of various species of birds, migratory routes & “hangouts” (aka “seamarks”) of sea life, and especially, when the sky is overcast, the mysterious te lapa (underwater streaks of lightening-like light radiating 120-150 km from an island, disappearing closer in (write-up, R&D+video, voyaging)), as well as the compound motions and directions of the bobbing of the vessel from roughly a dozen sea swells about the South Pacific – these swell are modeled on “stick charts” used to represent “major ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupted those patterns” (– Wikipedia)”, as displayed on a woven grid whose intersections & threads represent islands & waves respectively, as pictured at Polynesian Stick Charts.

All of the marine organizations above are located in Honolulu Harbor on Sand Island, in whose piers the canoes are moored when not voyaging, and to which organizations Mau Piailug was able to pass on his knowledge. Over the next few years from her maiden voyage, Hōkūle‘a proceeded to retrace all the original ancient inter-island Polynesian Voyages of Discovery routes, logging over 100,000 miles. Construction of additional canoes soon followed, notably “Hōkūalaka‘i” & “Makali’i“, which in turn led to an explosion of voyaging canoe building and sailing throughout the island nations of the Polynesian Triangle, firmly reestablishing the ancient network of travel and trade routes, which is now fueling the ongoing “Polynesian Renaissance”. The Renaissance movement is now preparing all the canoes, led by Hōkūle‘a, for an historic, 1st-ever mission to circumnavigate the Earth, called the “Hōkūle‘a Worldwide Voyage”, aimed at promoting a message of global sustainability and slated for 2012.

Villa alumni Cliff Thompson ’67 and his wife, in May 2010 traveled to the State of Hawai’i, to O’ahu island with the express purpose of visiting Hōkūle‘a, PVS, FOHH & METC, as well as to Hawai’i island to visit Hōkūalaka‘i & Makali’i. On O’ahu, aided by GPS and Google maps, they were able to track down, along the unmarked back roads on Sand Island, the location of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, whose office turned out to be on the top floor of the Marine Education Training Center. Visiting the Society’s office, inquiring as to the whereabouts of Hōkūle‘a and the possibility of a brief tour of the facilities, a Society staffer took their visitors downstairs and outside to the Center’s wharf area and, rounding a turn, headed toward a pier. As the visitors approached the pier, something wonderful began to appear in their field of view, in the water – at first a tall wooden aft mast, tipped by a crescent shaped horn supporting tricing lines and halyards for opening and closing an aft sail, with stays and shrouds for holding the mast; then appeared a spar, then 2, then a 2nd, forward, mast, similarly rigged for a foresail, both sails shaped like crab claws; next, upwardly curved stern and bow end pieces of port and starboard hulls emerged, joined by crossbeams running under a wide plank deck; and lastly, centered between the stern hulls, materialized a long, large steering paddle, flanked on either side by smaller port and starboard steering blades. As the Society staffer led the visitors closer, a man appeared from behind a sail and walked across the deck. The Society staffer introduced the visitors to the man and passed on their request. Then the man turned to them and said, “I’m Captain Mike Taylor. Would you like to come aboard the Hōkūle‘a?”.

The visitors were speechless & could only nod most affirmatively, while grinning like Alice in Wonderland Cheshire cats. Captain Mike then proceeded to open a small gate on the starboard keel and beckoned the elated pair to cross a narrow gangplank spanning the water between shore and vessel. Unconsciously raising a hand to their breast and thinking “be still our hearts”, and as if in a dream, they crossed over, and in a few moments, bobbing up and down, swaying to and fro, were standing on the deck of Hōkūle‘a. Captain Mike just happened to be there preparing course material for the Center’s ongoing Tuesday/Thursday Polynesian navigation and sailing classes, aimed at preparing a new crop of voyaging captains and crews for the Hōkūle‘a Worldwide Voyage of 2012. The class, in a few hours, would involve bringing the fledgling sailors onboard the Hōkūle‘a to address the topic of the class which was titled “Parts of the Voyaging Canoe”. Captain Mike expressed his interest in rehearsing his presentation on the visitors, then proceeded to give them a thoroughgoing tour of every corner of Hōkūle‘a. Afterwards Captain Mike invited them to hang out on the Hōkūle‘a, while he in turn had to head over to the Center’s classroom to perform an equipment check. Barely able to contain their excitement, the visitors did manage to sufficiently collect themselves long enough to perform an extensive photo and video shoot, with their recently acquired Panasonic high-resolution Digital SLR camera and High Definition video camcorder, with Toni operating the former, and Cliff the latter. After the shoot they visited the METC classroom where they were able to get a close-up look at the facility’s portable planetarium (used to work out compound celestial & canoe navigation motions), as well as, through the class, order & pickup the next day, a copy of the actual classroom training text used by the student crew members-in-training, the Polynesian Voyaging Society Voyaging Manual, whose contents include depictions of the Hawaiian Star Compass & “cloud shapes above islands” referenced above.

Lastly they visited the Friends of Hōkūle‘a & Hawai‘iloa (FOAA), where they met, & got a tour of numerous canoes in various stages of construction, from VP Jay Dowsett. Cliff was particularly interested in what’s involved in getting a Polynesian voyaging canoe together, and was excited to learn that FOAA regularly helps individuals and organizations either build their own canoe or have FOAA build it for them, aided by the use of a set of canoe hull and other component molds to greatly accelerate the canoe construction process. Cliff was also keenly interested in discussing with Jay the possibility of merging ancient Polynesian canoe and modern catamaran construction techniques in order to possibly greatly reduce crew size and ultimately enable modern catamaran deep ocean solo voyaging, a topic which Jay was also very interested in, as the whole point of launching a Polynesian cultural Renaissance is then to evolve. This led to the exciting discovery of a catamaran builder in England who, inspired by Polynesian voyaging canoes, has come up with several just such designs, available as build-it-yourself kits or as Polynesian catamarans they build for purchase. Cliff was able to track down the company, James Wharram Designs, & obtain The Wharram Design Book (photos).

To quickly & easily locate Polynesian voyaging canoe resources, as well as other aspects of the visit to the islands, Cliff cobbled together from several tour books, a set of canoe resources & itinerary points of interest including museums, beaches, trails, restaurants (some featuring indigenous Polynesian cuisine prepared by native Hawaiian families) & lodgings, into a custom map (can take a while to download – wait till the map icons appear) at Google Map. Though current home & work obligations require that it’ll be a while before Cliff can get to editing/uploading the video material, fortunately Toni shot a short album’s worth of photos, of the core of the same material in the videos, & Cliff was able to quickly upload the photos to the online photo album above. A video clip of Hōkūle‘a at sea, demonstrating Polynesian Migration for the National Geographic Explorer series episode Easter Island Underworld, appeared on HD cable TV recently, & is viewable in the online episode starting about 5:52 minutes in & lasting a minute (to playback just the segment, hover the mouse over the player opening screen until the player controls bar pops up, click the bar’s play control, then hover over the progress bar until the timecode pop-up appears, then move the mouse until 5:52 appears & click the progress bar there): Easter Island Underworld.

See Also

Discovery of Hawaii

“The Discovery of Hawai’i”
by Herb Kawainui Kane

Ka'anapali in Ancient Times

“Ka’anapali in the Ancient Time”
from Artist Herb Kawainui Kane

Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoes from Elected Living Treasure/Chosen Po’okela (Champion) of Hawaii, Artist/Historian/Author & General Designer/Builder/1st captain of Hōkūle’a, Herb Kawainui Kane (June 21, 1928 – March 8, 2011)



Exploratorium Museum Of Science, Art And Human Perception:
Polynesian Navigation


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