In the day and age of modern navigational equipment, where anyone sailing around the world would these days use a GPS (Global Positioning System) and other technological gadgets, the journey around the world on a traditional Hōkūle‘a canoe is all the more remarkable given that navigation was done purely using natural elements, such as the direction of the:
The term wayfinding is considered to originate from the Polynesian Islands, in the days when navigators would use these natural elements to find their way. These navigators were highly skilled, spending years learning the craft and techniques for reading the sun, wind and water movements.
In this voyage, 12 crew members were used on each stage of the journey (a total of 245 people in total), a journey that has taken 3 years to complete and many more years to organise. The 20 meter length boat, the Hokulea, is a sailing vessel that was built to replicate the original Polynesian design and on the 17th June 2017, the 43,000 nautical miles round trip was completed, final arriving back onto Magic Island in Honolulu, Hawaii, after visiting over 150 ports along the way!
Wayfinding as a form of heritage is central to the purpose of this journey, with the traditional methods of navigating and keeping this knowledge alive, considered important to many people in Hawaii given their connection to wayfinding historically.
The Hōkūle‘a, the canoe used for this round the world journey, was completed in 1975 and is said to be the first traditional canoes of its type to be built in 600 years. These canoes by-passed many generations and this traditional canoe appeared to be in danger of cultural extinction until the decision to re-awaken this heritage artefact. In addition to rebuilding one of the traditional canoes, the next problem was finding a traditional navigator to guide the boat, because no navigator was skilled enough from Hawaii in the ancient skills! This is where Mau Piaug from Satawal, Micronesia, was so important given that it was Mau who helped the Hawaiians to rebuild the knowledge base in Hawaii. Crew member Ka’iulani Murphy notes that “we had to re-learn what our ancestors had mastered”. Indeed, without the expertise learned from Mau Piailug (from Micronesia) before he died in 2010, such a trip would be difficult to comprehend. Mau was one of the last surviving traditional navigators who truly understood the techniques necessary for this type of voyage to take place.
On the journey, the Mālama Honua was considered important. This translates from Hawaiian into English as “To care for our Island Earth”. This terms also means to learn from our ancestors and to learn from other islanders and to protect everything around us – that is the ocean, our communities, other people, our cultures, and the land. Mālama Honua thus involves learning how to use resources carefully as though one is living on a canoe in the open sea. In other words, how one would take great care of the resources at one’s disposal. Spreading the word of Mālama Honua was a part of the goal of this journey for the crew.
The video below is a great chance to learn more about some of the greatest explorers from the past, these explorers having discovered the Polynesian Islands 1000 years before Columbus discovered America!
You might enjoy watching the video below from KHON2 News, Hawaii’s leading news station. This 10 minute video shows the arrival of the Hōkūle‘a and provides some background to the boat’s story.
On a fairly sad note, Ben Finney passed away recently (May 2017) and unfortunately did not get to see the completion of the 3 year Hōkūle‘a journey. Finney was the co-founder of the ‘Polynesian Voyaging Society’ and famously (in wayfinding circles at least) refused to believe the theory from Andrew Sharp that Polynesian wayfinding was by accident rather than through navigational expertise. Indeed, Andrew Sharp’s theory was also supported by others, such as by the scientist Thor Heyerdahl. Finney spent years to work on disproving this theory. Finney was certain that it was with intention that Polynesian wayfinders found islands in the Pacific Ocean such as Hawaii. In the 1960s, Finney built a replica 40 foot canoe and then used this canoe to disprove these theories.
Working with Mau Piailug (the expert from Micronesia), Finney and a colleague sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti using traditional methods of navigation. As a result of this voyage, it was widely then accepted that Finney was correct in affording the Polynesian navigators the credit they deserved as expert navigators and not opportunists, as Andrew Sharp and Thor Heyerdahl had previously claimed. In wayfinding circles, Ben Finney will be sadly missed.