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More Than Just An Ocean Voyaging Canoe.

Thor Heyerdahl had it all wrong. A Hawaiian ocean voyaging canoe is proving it by sailing around the world to demonstrate the art, science and genius of traditional Polynesian navigation — something Heyerdahl never accepted — and its significance in the Pacific.

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Heyerdahl led the famous 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition in which six men in a balsa-wood raft sailed and drifted from Peru almost 7,000 miles across the Pacific before landing on a reef in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Heyerdahl claimed the voyage proved his theory that Polynesia was settled by prehistoric explorers sailing from South America, in the east. His book became a bestseller, and his documentary about the trip won an Academy Award — but his theory proved a bust.

Current scientific evidence, including relatively new genetic testing, now shows that Polynesia was settled by natives from Southeast Asia 3,000 years ago (probably originating in Taiwan), in the west. They crossed vast stretches of the Pacific in their distinctive wa‘a kaulua (double-hulled ocean voyaging canoes) using a unique form of non-instrument dead reckoning.

Not surprisingly, Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki aren’t too popular with indigenous Polynesians today. “He based his whole thesis on a negative assessment of native culture,” says Kalepa Baybayan, captain and master navigator of the modern Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule’a, who spoke this summer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Polynesian wayfinding relies purely on human memory and intricate knowledge of the stars, the sea and clues from nature, such as the movements of wave patterns, birds and clouds. Over the past 41 years, Baybayan and fellow Hawaiian wayfinders have used the technique to guide the 62-foot Hokule’a some 160,000 miles over the world’s oceans using no compass, charts, GPS, sextant, clock or other modern navigational tools. The boat left Hawaii in 2013 and is visiting the U.S. East Coast, a bit more than halfway through its circumnavigation. It will stop at about 85 ports in 26 countries and is due back in Hawaii in mid-2017.

More than just wayfinding, the expedition is also designed to raise awareness about the importance of the world’s oceans and environment, as well as its aboriginal cultures. Its official title is “The Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage.” (Malama honua means “caring for Island Earth” in Hawaiian.) Hokule’a and its voyages have sparked a cultural renaissance among Polynesians, Hawaiians especially, and the crew celebrates native groups wherever it stops.

When Hokule’a reached the continental United States for the first time, in March, it docked in the Everglades as the voyagers met with the Seminole tribe of South Florida, as well as other tribes as it went north. In the Chesapeake region they met with the Pamunkey, Mattaponi and Nottoway Indian tribes of Virginia. The canoe spent almost two weeks in the nation’s capital in April, tied up at the historic Washington Canoe Club in Georgetown, and held a day-long festival with Native Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian — in addition to meeting with the entire Hawaiian congressional delegation on Capitol Hill and federal officials.

The Canoe

Nainoa Thompson is an expert in the ancient Polynesian techniques used to navigate Hokule’a.

Hokule’a was built in Oahu, Hawaii, and launched in 1975. The 62-foot voyager has a 20-foot beam and weighs almost 13 tons fully loaded. It was designed by Herb Kawainui Kane, a Hawaiian artist, historian and co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who gave it the Hawaiian name for “Star of Gladness” (also known as Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere).

As Baybayan is quick to point out, Hokule’a is a design-accurate reproduction of an ancient Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe but for safety reasons is not construction-accurate. The two hulls are built of wood and covered in fiberglass for seaworthiness. The five miles of hand-tied ropes, straps and rigging that hold the boat together are synthetic, as are its two red “crab-claw” sails. Solar panels mounted on the stern charge four lead-acid batteries that power the safety equipment: the boat’s cruising lights, VHF radio, an AIS receiver/transponder to track and warn vessels that might be on a collision course, and a satellite telephone (mainly used for school and education programs). Hokule’a has no engine — it is towed into and out of port by an escort vessel — and carries none of the electronic or mechanical navigation equipment that most boaters have come to depend on.

Its crewmembers sleep on 6-foot-long wooden planks inside the hulls, sheltered only by canvas. It takes at least two people (more in a blow) to handle the main wooden sweep on the stern that steers the canoe. A small camping stove is used to cook meals, as it was determined that trying to adapt the crew to an ancient Polynesian diet could jeopardize their health. Highly trained volunteer crews of a dozen or so men and women at a time rotate through the boat about every month; about 360 sailors have participated in the circumnavigation.

The Wayfinding

In its first 25 years, Hokule’a went through a series of long shakedown cruises. Between its launching in 1975 and 2000, it sailed on six major voyages that covered the entire Polynesian Triangle among Hawaii in the north, New Zealand in the southwest and Easter Island in the southeast — millions of square miles of ocean, an area bigger than Russia. These voyages proved traditional Polynesian wayfinding worked and inspired a revival of canoe building and voyaging throughout the Pacific.

The art of non-instrument wayfinding was almost extinct by the time Hokule’a was built. That made Hokule’a’s initial “voyages of rediscovery” a learning experience in both navigation and boat handling. In 1976, during the canoe’s first voyage to Tahiti, more than 17,000 people (more than half the island’s population) turned out for a frenzied greeting on the beach at Pape‘ete. But the second voyage to Tahiti, in 1978, turned tragic: The heavily loaded canoe capsized in heavy weather off Molokai in Hawaii, taking the life of Eddie Aikau, one of the world’s best big-wave surfers. It took two years to rebuild the boat and relaunch the program.

When the Hokule’a project began there were no Hawaiian navigators left, so the Polynesian Voyaging Society turned to one of the last traditional navigators — Mau Piailug, from Micronesia. Piailug was flown to Hawaii and then guided Hokule’a to a pinpoint non-instrument landing in Tahiti, more than 2,600 miles away. He subsequently trained Nainoa Thompson (president of the PVS and the first modern-day Polynesian to learn and use wayfinding for ocean voyaging), who would later navigate the canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. Membership is slowly growing again in the order of Pwo, the 2,000-year-old society of deep-sea non-instrument oceanic navigators.

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The foundational framework for Polynesian wayfinding is the Hawaiian star compass, a mental construct (not a physical device) in which the visual horizon is divided into 32 “houses” — a bearing on the horizon where a celestial body rises and sets. Each of the 32 houses is separated by 11.25 degrees of arc for a complete circle and marks the “home” of key navigational stars as they rise in the east and set in the west. In the ancient oral Pacific cultures, wayfinding knowledge was passed down verbally without written records and kept secret among the powerful navigator guilds.

A navigator often stands watch for up to 22 hours a day, steers by memory of his starting point and orients the boat at sea based on stars, sun and wave patterns using navigational marks, known as “starlines,” along the railings of the canoe and his hands to measure the height of sun or stars over the horizon. Thompson, a master wayfinder, says navigators have 220 stars they depend upon and 440 points of light that tell them where to go. “But we know more than that,” he says.

The double-hulled oceangoing canoe has made many stops on its voyage, including one in our nation’s capital that included a festival at the National Museum of the American Indian.

During World War II, the U.S. military used Polynesian navigation as the basis for The Raft Book, a survival guide distributed to pilots and sailors in the Pacific. The slim waterproof book was written by an Australian, Harold Gatty, considered the master sea and sky navigator of the 20th century, and describes how to use ancient Polynesian wayfinding techniques to find land.

A slightly larger sister voyaging canoe, Hikianalia (named for Spica, a sister star to Arcturus), is sailing in the Pacific and will rendezvous with Hokule’a when it clears the Panama Canal and re-enters the Pacific next year.

“To us, to go around the world has this enormous potential,” says Thompson. “To go to 40, 50 countries on the planet. To be with the great navigators on earth — and I’m not talking about those in canoes. I’m talking about those who are doing things to give kindness and compassion to the earth and those who live on it — those navigators.

“We’re not going to change the world,” Thompson adds, “but we’re going to build a network of people around the Earth who are going to change it.”

The Washington Canoe Club If Hokule’a is a project of renewal and revival, so is the Potomac River boathouse where it docked in the nation’s capital this spring, the Washington Canoe Club. The 110-year-old boathouse, an icon on the Georgetown waterfront and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in such bad shape that more than half of it is shuttered and propped up with braces. Club members are able to use only three bays of a later extension of the boathouse to store kayaks and canoes, so almost all activity is outside on the apron and on the floating docks in the Potomac. The club’s connection with Hokule’a came about by luck almost 30 years ago, when member Dan Havens and several other local paddlers entered the 1988 Molokai Challenge outrigger canoe race. Their crew was short a steersperson, so Dan’s wife, Bonnie, who grew up in Hawaii, turned to her father (a Navy veteran and at the time vice president at the Bank of Hawaii) for help. Through friends, they wound up with Nainoa Thompson, who already was a legend in Hawaiian canoe circles and helped the inexperienced Virginia paddlers make a respectable showing. A close family friendship was born, cemented during other trips and Thompson’s visits to Washington over the years. Because of this relationship, the WCC was the logical home for Hokule’a when it came to town. “We have such a strong connection to Hokule’a, and for them to actually be docked here at the Washington Canoe Club after all these years was phenomenal. It’s been such a dream to see this trip come true,” Bonnie says. Despite its condition, the WCC boathouse remains a busy and vibrant place. It has a deeply loyal community (four generations of the Havens family have been members), is one of the oldest and most elite paddling clubs in the United States, and has produced several Olympic-medaling canoe and kayak athletes. The WCC introduced flatwater canoe paddling as a demonstration event at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where it won three of the six events raced. Since then, the club has fostered numerous national champions and Olympic medalists. The WCC also runs community programs with Washington, D.C., school groups, veterans’ service organizations, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and local affinity organizations. Although floods, ice and age have taken their toll on the old boathouse, legalities have been the most damaging. The WCC argues it is the rightful owner of the building, but since the original structure was built over water it appears that no deed ever existed — or if it did it has since been lost. With the WCC and the National Park Service disputing ownership, maintenance came to a halt, and the clubhouse deteriorated to the point that the NPS closed it in 2011, adding structural supports to prevent collapse. After years of negotiations, the WCC and NPS are on the verge of signing a long-term lease that will allow the building to be fully rehabilitated, improved and reoccupied by the club. However, the WCC will have to do most of the fundraising to make that happen, which could cost up to $8 million. For a dedicated all-volunteer paddling club, that will require a truly Olympic effort. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.