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On the Survival of Polynesian Voyaging

Posted on February 19 2021

The Hōkūleʻa canoe on the water

 

Photos courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society 

Story by Ali Harford 

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Lehua Kamalu wears many hats: Leader, Educator, Navigator, Voyager, Explorer. She is well spoken and friendly, and makes me, who gets seasick on seconds-long rollercoaster rides, want to join her on the 42-month Moananuiākea Voyage she is planning with the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), a non-profit organization based in Hawai’i that perpetuates the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging. On the voyage, Kamalu, who is a Voyaging Director at PVS, and her crew members will educate people all around the world on Polynesian culture and issues of climate change, and they hope to teach people about how to better their own communities.

 

The Moananuiākea Voyage will “plot a course for the future,” by circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean over the course of, yes, 42 months and 41,000 miles, starting in 2022. Kamalu and her crewmates on the voyage will do this with no modern instrumentation, by using traditional Polynesian voyaging and navigating techniques. The intent is to “inspire, educate, and elevate a new generation of 10 million Navigators by the end of the Voyage in 2026, young people who can lead the many different kinds of bold voyages our Earth needs now,” according to the PVS website.

Lehua Kamalu

Lehua Kamalu, pictured here on the deck of the canoe, is a Voyaging Director at the Polynesian Voyaging Society. 

 

The voyages the Society takes balance modernity with tradition—and modernity, right now, looks a lot like many meetings on how to safely voyage within the challenges of a global pandemic, climate change, and cultural disruption. How can the canoe be accessible for those who cannot step on the deck, who cannot feel the paddles in their hands, who cannot smell the sea as it rolls beneath them? How can this voyage contribute to the world we’re in, one that is desperate for education on climate change and unity? How do you use a canoe to save a culture from extinction?

 

“Each voyage has allowed us to recognize another layer of purpose,” Kamalu says. The first voyage taken by the Society in the 70s found identity, in reviving ancient Polynesian canoe design—the first canoe, Hōkūleʻa (meaning “Star of Gladness”), was built by an artist named Herb Kane, who “dreamed of rebuilding a double-hulled sailing canoe similar to the ones his ancestors sailed.” Hōkūleʻa is a beacon of light for Pacific Islanders all over the world—it’s more than a voyaging canoe, the PVS website says, because it represents “the common desire shared by the people of Hawai’i, the Pacific, and the world to protect our most cherished values and places from disappearing.

 

“I always felt that voyaging was a tool of survival,” Kamalu says. The type of voyaging the Society does allows culture to survive, both physically on the open ocean, with only training to rely on, and in the stories the crew members bring with them to the places they visit. “We’re able to put things on the deck of this canoe and it lives on. It travels forward into the future.”

 Kamalu turns the canoe

A navigator helps propel the canoe as a wave crashes in the background

 Sailing the canoes on the open sea requires months of training. 

••• 

 

Pacific Islanders have been navigating the oceans since at least 400 C.E., historians estimate. This was long before the invention of the compass and the sextant—Pacific Islanders would use, and still use, their observations of the natural world: the stars, the sun, the marine life, the birds, and the ocean itself, to find the way. Navigators memorize the rising and setting of the stars, and the ocean swells that can lead them in the right direction on cloudy nights.

 

If you’re into astronomy, you might have an idea of what this is like. At my home in Colorado, for example, I know that if I stand on my driveway in February, the Orion constellation appears just above the east face of the house. From there, I can usually find the Big Dipper, and from there, Polaris, the North Star. Polynesian wayfinding relies on years of collective memory like that—they know what pieces of the natural world to expect, and where to expect them.

 

But of course, the measurements of a Polynesian navigator get way more exact. Islands in Polynesia, other than those of Hawai’i and Aotearoa (New Zealand), have land areas that range from of 0.167 square miles (Anuta) to 403 square miles (Tahiti), meaning there’s a tiny amount of room for error for early wayfinders attempting to reach the islands.

 

Sam Low, who traveled on some of the early voyages taken by the Society, wrote that to determine latitude, navigators would judge the altitude of stars above the horizon at the highest point in their path across the sky, using their hands as instruments.

 

“Nainoa’s little finger, when held at arms length and adjusted to lie along the horizon, marks off 2 degrees of altitude,” Low wrote about Nainoa Thompson, the first Polynesian navigator at the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “Sighting along the crease between his hand and upthrust thumb gives a reading of 13 degrees.” Pairing that knowledge with the knowledge of where exactly a star should be, if the canoe is on the right path, allows a navigator to find their way.

 

Thompson currently serves as president of the Society. He trained under Mau Piailug, a Micronesian palu who guided the first ever voyage and taught Society members about navigation without modern instrumentation. To become a master at the art, Thompson also studied astronomy at the Bishop Museum Planetarium, and oceanography and meteorology at the University of Hawai’i. He also developed the Star Compass, a “mental construct” that divides the visual horizon into 32 houses. Each house is defined by a celestial body and makes an 11.25º arc, so the houses help navigators keep track of where and when stars rise and set.

 

“Nainoa’s system of navigation is like all great discoveries,” Low wrote. “Both complex enough to render description difficult yet, at its foundation, incredibly simple.” 

A photo of the canoe, taken from a GoPro.  

According to the Voyaging Society, a modern voyage has three components: designing a course strategy, which includes a reference course for reaching one’s destination; holding as closely as possible to the reference course during the voyage, including tracking how far and for how long the canoe has traveled; and finding land after entering the vicinity of the destination.

 

“At the end of the day when you’re navigating without instrumentation, your world relies on your training,” Kamalu says.

 

•••

 

The Society is so passionate about climate change because if something were to drastically change, like the behavior of animals, or if something were to cause disruption in ocean currents, “the entire system that we use to calibrate which way is home, and how to get from one point to another, goes away,” Kamalu says.

 

Simply to ensure the survival of navigation, she says, it’s critical that the Society thinks about their role and responsibility to the environment.

 

While that doesn’t mean that crew members are going to pick up every piece of plastic in the ocean (it’s a small ship, and there’s a trash field twice the size of Texas out there), it does mean that the Society prioritizes education on what communities can be doing to offset the effects of climate change. They want the world to acknowledge that there’s a shared responsibility to take care of the planet, despite what differences we all might have.

 

“There’s always common ground,” Kamalu says. “A common deck we stand on, a common ocean we’re swimming in.”

 

The intention of the Moananuiākea Voyage, to educate, to inspireit can’t just live in Hawai’i, or just on the deck of the canoe, Kamalu says. She feels a responsibility toward the worldwide community, now more than ever. And she feels a connection to her crew, and to her purpose, and to her identity: these voyages carry a responsibility toward the past and the future.

A drone shot of the canoe as it sails with the sun behind it, casting a shadow onto the water

 

When I talk to Lehua Kamalu, what she is saying sounds a lot like hope. For communities, for climate change, for the survival of navigation and the survival of a culture. The education she and her crewmates share, and have revitalized, is invaluable. And if I let myself imagine the voyage, there’s something about the ocean that makes me feel small and giddy, and something about staring up at the stars and the vastness of the ever-expanding universe that feels the same way. And to experience that, while also knowing you’re on the right path toward home, that’s a powerful feeling.

 

“The ocean is not separate,” Kamalu says. “It’s not this thing we’re looking at in a laboratory. It is very much connected to our lifeblood, and the thing that sustains us.”

A map of the 2022 voyage, which will circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean.

A map of the tentative route of the Moananuiākea Voyage. Map by Ali Harford. 


 

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