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Polynesians Set Sail on Three-Year, Historic Journey

Preservationists set sail on a three-year, worldwide journey using only traditional Polynesian canoes to call for better protection of their waters.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society has launched a three-year, worldwide voyage using Polynesian canoes and traditional, "wayfinding" navigation techniques -- the first time a journey of this length and of this kind has ever been attempted. Courtesy OiwiTV

Malama Honua. It’s a Hawaiian message that means “to care for our Earth.”

To honor that message and raise awareness of their message for sustainable living, the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii has launched a three-year, worldwide trip with two traditional canoes, named Hokule’a and Hikianalia -- the first time a voyage of this kind and of this length has ever been attempted. The trip will cover 47,000 nautical miles, 85 ports, and 26 countries.

“The Hokule’a message of Malama Honua is a very inspiring message, connecting people from the Pacific islands around a common goal, to protect our oceans,” said Jerome Petit, Director of the Pew Charitable Trust's Global Ocean Legacy (GOL). “The message of Hokule’a is an important one, with high visibility.”

The Hokule’a canoe (front) and Hikianalia canoe (back), at their arrival in Papeete in Hokulea’s beach.Donatien Tanret/Pew Charitable Trust, Global Ocean Legacy

Hokule’a is the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the “Star of Gladness,” a zenith star of Hawaii. Hikianalia is the Hawaiian name for the star Spica, the "sister star" that breaks the horizon with Arcturus at the latitude of the Hawaiian Islands.

Polynesian associations, working with the GOL and the Friends of Hōkūle‘a Association, are calling for the protection of French Polynesian waters. At 5 million square kilometers, these waters have twenty-one species of sharks and an exceptional coral reef system that supports 176 coral and 1,024 fish species.

“Marine scientists recommend that some 30 percent of the oceans should be fully protected through marine reserves to maintain ocean health and resilience...Currently, less than 1 percent is fully protected."

Donatien Tanret, a researcher with GOL, says the oceans need to be better managed to safeguard their marine life and critically important ecosystem services, which continue to be seriously degraded by over-fishing, pollution, climate change, and other human activities that threaten the livelihood, food security, and economic futures of many millions of people.

“Marine scientists recommend that some 30 percent of the oceans should be fully protected through marine reserves to maintain ocean health and resilience," said Tanret. "Currently, less than 1 percent is fully protected."

In November 2013, the President of the government of French Polynesia, Gaston Flosse, announced a commitment to preserve at least 20 percent of its waters—about 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles)—by 2020. The teams behind this historic canoe journey want to hold him accountable by calling more attention to the cause.

Chad Kālepa Baybayan, Master Navigator, waving good-bye during the departure of the Hokule’a from Hilo, Hawaii on May 30, 2014.Courtesy OiwiTV

The Journey

The crew left Hilo, Hawaii on May 30, 2014 and arrived in Rangiroa, an island in French Polynesia, on June 16th. They set sail from Rangiroa three days later, arriving in Tahiti on June 22nd. This, crew members say, is the fastest that Hokule’a has ever traveled: 2600 miles in 16 days. Hokule’a will stay in French Polynesia for about one month.

During the entire voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti, the crew used only traditional navigation methods. Before the invention of the compass, sextant and clocks, or the satellite-dependent Global Positioning System, Pacific Islanders navigated open-ocean voyages without instruments. They instead relied upon observations of the stars, the sun, and ocean swells -- a method known as wayfinding.

“As a youth growing up, I never learned the Hawaiian language, the dance, the chant...I kind of missed that because it was not really encouraged to learn Hawaiian."

According to Tanret, Hokule’a was originally built to prove wrong those who believed the Polynesians sailed simply by drifting along the currents. The argument was that they could not sail upwind -- west to east -- against prevailing tradewinds. Hokule’a was built in Honolulu, Hawaii and first launched to Tahiti in March of 1975. The trip was a success. The doubters were silenced.

Polynesians, experts say, were facing cultural extinction at the time of that first voyage. In 1976, when Hokule’a first came to Tahiti, about 17,000 people were on hand to welcome her. The arrival, says Petit, launched a Polynesian cultural revival. It helped to mark a generation of renewal for Hawaii’s indigenous people; not only of voyaging and navigation traditions, but also Hawaiian language, dance, and chant.

Tragedy struck in 1978 during Hokulea's second voyage to Tahiti. The canoe capsized and the voyage was aborted. One of the sailors paddled on a surfboard to call for help. Most of the crew were rescued by Coast Guard, but that sailor – a famous surfer named Eddie Aikau – was never found. It prompted a saying later emblazoned on t-shirts and bumper stickers -- “Eddie Would Go.”

Tahitian percussion band in Papeete for the arrival of Hokule’a on June 22, 2014. The drum is called a To’ere.Jerome Petit/Pew Charitable Trust, Global Ocean Legacy

David Komine, 56, is well aware of the history of the canoe, but also the impact it can have. He was a crew member on Hikianalia on this year's journey from Hawaii to Tahiti and says he boarded to foster a new cultural renaissance. He is of European, Asian and Hawaiian descent.

“As a youth growing up, I never learned the Hawaiian language, the dance, the chant," said Komine. "I kind of missed that because it was not really encouraged to learn Hawaiian. Everything was more geared toward western society."

Joining in this journey, he says, was his opportunity to "perpetuate Hawaiian culture."

Diana Chung, 54, says she was proud to serve as crew member on Hokule’a from Rangiroa to Tahiti. She is Tahitian, originally from China.

Crew member Nainoa Thompson waves from aboard the Hokule’a as it leaves Hilo, Hawaii on May 30, 2014.Courtesy OiwiTV

“I would never have even thought about being able to sail on this canoe,” Chung said. “I can’t describe the happiness I felt when for the first time, a day before the start, I put my feet on her.”

Chung described the arrival onto Tahiti as “triumphal and unforgettable with thousands of people to welcome us, with flower croons and a spectacular celebration with traditional songs and dances.”

Komine said the hardest part of the journey wasn't the actual physical voyage, but parting ways with the host communities in Tahiti. They embodied, Komine said, the tradition “kahiau," which means to give generously with no expectation of return.

"It's the most powerful word that I know in Hawaiian," he said. "Everyone was so supportive, and they give so generously."

“They give you their car, they put gas in it, they give you the keys. They don't even lock the house; they just tell you that you can just sleep in the house. With zero second thought.”

Traditional Marquesian song, called "The Mave," to welcome the voyagers on June 22, 2014.Jerome Petit/Pew Charitable Trust, Global Ocean Legacy