Auwe Ua Hiti E!

Auwe Ua Hiti E!: Hōkūle‘a’s worldwide voyage comes to America

Dr. Craig Thomas guiding Hōkūle‘a through the turbulent swells of the Indian Ocean on their way to Mauritius from Bali, Indonesia.

It began in 1975 as a dream to prove that Polynesians had settled the Island Pacific – crossing an ocean covering one third of our planet – through intentional voyaging, a thousand years before Europeans knew the Pacific Ocean existed. Intended as Hawaii’s contribution to the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial, Hōkūle‘a was built as a replica of the vessels used by Polynesians, using illustrations made by European explorers of the canoes they encountered in the 18th century.

The canoe itself was built of modern materials: her hulls are fiber-glassed marine plywood because the art of carving such canoes from live wood has vanished – along with the ancient canoe-makers, the kahuna kālai wa‘a, and the koa trees large enough to make such a craft. The sails are made of Dacron; the lashing is nylon rope. She was a “performance replica,” designed to perform like an ancient vessel and intended for one historic voyage: to sail to Tahiti using traditional navigation. 

“We wanted to test the theory that such canoes could have carried Polynesian navigators on long voyages of exploration throughout the Polynesian triangle,” says navigator Nainoa Thompson. “We wanted to see how she sailed into the wind, off the wind, how much cargo she could carry, how she stood up to storms. Could we navigate her without instruments? Could we endure the rigors of long voyages ourselves? Frankly, that was enough of a challenge. It didn't matter if the canoe was made of modern materials as long as she performed like an ancient vessel.”

In 1976, Hōkūle‘a proved her mettle by sailing 2,400 miles across empty ocean to Tahiti, guided by traditional Micronesian navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug. Her voyage spurred not just the revival of voyaging and ancient techniques of navigation but also an astonishing renaissance of indigenous culture in Hawaii and throughout the Pacific. Since 1975, Hōkūle‘a has sailed 150,000 miles, following the routes taken by intrepid Polynesian explorers, navigated always as they would have done – without instruments or charts – by relying instead on signs in the stars, waves and the flight of birds. In May 2016, Hōkūle‘a will arrive on the East Coast of the United States on one of the final legs of a voyage around the world to “mālama honua,” care for Planet Earth.

The voyage still relies on traditional navigation, but it can also call on modern technology. According to Nāālehu Anthony, co-chair of the ‘Ohana Wa‘a (“canoe family”), even though the Hōkūle‘a is traveling in different longitudes, the latitudes are much the same: tropical. And the stars in the tropics are the same around the globe. “The skills test for our traditional navigators is from leaving the sight of land to the sighting of the next land. The worldwide voyage is taking us to islands, coastlines and waters we have never seen, so once you sight that target, having traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, you turn on a chart plotter so that you know depth, where the harbor entrances are and so forth. There are all kinds of things to consider when you are coming to a dock. You need these modern pieces of equipment when you are trying to navigate these very precarious entrances and you’re a vessel under tow without any power. And that’s not part of the navigational test.”

The idea for a worldwide voyage emerged around 2000. The planning began in earnest around 2008, after six years of discussion with the Hawaiian community. Jenna Ishii, education coordinator for the Polynesian Voyaging Society and assistant to Hōkūle‘a navigator Thompson, says that, “Some community members questioned whether we should take Hōkūle‘a outside of the Pacific, because she’s our iconic symbol of cultural revival and pride. What if something happened to her? It’s dangerous, it’s risky. What impact will we really have? Is this going to just be a great adventure or are we truly going inspire change to protect our Island Earth?” 

Doug Herman is senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian and a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. In 2013 he built his own outrigger canoe and has blogged about building it ( Sam Low is a film maker, anthropologist and a Hōkūle‘a crew member. He is the author of the award-winning book, Hawaiki Rising – Hōkūle‘a’, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance.