Daniel Lin is a well-traveled photographer and writer whose love of the Pacific and its many islands and cultures has inspired him to explore their every niche. Follow him as he partakes in the long-awaited and historic Hōkūle‘a canoe voyage from Hawai’i across the world—which uses only wayfinding, or traditional navigation, to guide it over perilous seas.
In the summer of 1976, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Hōkūle’a, completed her maiden voyage to Tahiti without the aid of any modern navigation instruments. The significance of that voyage—from a historical, cultural, and scientific perspective—has echoed throughout the better part of the past four decades as a re-awakening for the voyaging traditions of the Pacific. Against all odds and the murmurs of a largely skeptical public, the crew of Hōkūle’a's maiden voyage successful found land under the guidance of Micronesian master navigator, Pius “Mau” Piailug, who used only the signs of his natural environment to navigate through approximately 2,500 miles of open ocean. That journey, which was also covered by National Geographic in 1976, took 31 days.
Today, the crew of Hōkūle’a and her sister canoe, Hikianalia, are on a different mission—a voyage to sail the world—and the first stop along the way is Tahiti. This time around, however, with added benefit of fair winds and a more modernized canoe design, the crew was able to reach their destination, or “pull Tahiti out of the sea”, in record time: 16 days!
The Importance of Tahiti
Since the time of the maiden voyage, the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) has sailed Hōkūle’a to the Tahitian islands several times, each time being greeted like royalty by the generous people of these islands. As a result, there is a unique bond that has developed between Hōkūle’a and Tahiti and, in a broader sense, Hawai’i and Tahiti. So, naturally, when the leaders of PVS agreed to undertake the current voyage to circumnavigate the world, it was decided early on that Tahiti would be the first stop along the way. Unlike the maiden voyage in 1976, however, things are very different this time around.
For starters, all of the previous trips involved Hōkūle’a returning back to Hawai’i after reaching Tahiti. This time, Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia (which serves as the safety/escort/scientific vessel), will not be returning back home to Hawai’i for another three years. In fact, Tahiti is merely the first stop in a series of 85 different ports that Hōkūle’a will visit between now and the summer of 2017.
Additionally, the crew is made up of many more young members. In fact, one of the goals stated by PVS is that 30% of the crew of this entire voyage is required to be under the age of 30. This first leg is particularly significant because it serves as an opportunity for the younger class of navigators to train under the tutelage of several Hawaiian master navigators that are on board. This group will be among the ones to lead the organization in the not-too-distant future and so the current leadership of PVS felt that is paramount for them to undergo this rigorous hands-on experience.
In teams of two, the apprentice navigators took shifts of up to 48 hours straight. They used their knowledge of the stars, the swells, and the wind to guide the canoes to the island chain approximately 2,500 miles south of Hawaii, just as the late“Papa Mau” had originally done by himself 38 years ago. And, like Mau, the master navigators in PVS today know that the only true way to internalize the knowledge of celestial navigation is by being out in the open ocean and doing it yourself, fully exposed to the elements.
Lastly, from a fundamental standpoint, Hōkūle’a’s voyage to Tahiti remains unchanged: to strengthen bonds between two strong Polynesian cultures and to honor a relationship between island groups that have existed hundreds of years before Hōkūle’a was born. This time, however, the mission of the voyage has an increased breadth. This voyage is about education and raising awareness about issues that are not unique to the Pacific. These issues include climate change, rising oceans, decreased fish stock and unsustainable practices. This time, we sail for the hope that the voyage can serve as lens for the world to see through and a catalyst for change.
Ultimately, the connection between Hōkūle’a and Tahiti is critical in furthering the mission of the voyage because it sets the tone for the remaining three years. Even more important, however, is that this relationship shows us just how strong a connection can be between two communities if they are united in solidarity around a common cause.