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Sailing to Save The Polynesian Islands From Climate Destruction

The Hōkūleʻa will sail worldwide for four years.

Two weeks ago, dozens of Hawaiians gathered at the Marine Education & Training Center in Honolulu to bid farewell to the Hōkūleʻa as she and her crew embarked on an unprecedented journey. After the group gathered in prayer aboard the Polynesian sea craft, the wind carried the double-hulled canoe onto the open sea.

The Hōkūleʻa had just departed on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

This four-year worldwide voyage, which launched on May 29, aims to raise awareness about climate change and its imminent threat to the Polynesian Islands, including Hawaii. Yet, the idea that a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe has set sail to circumnavigate the globe is all the more significant because this Hawaiian tradition itself nearly went extinct.

The revival

In the 1970s, the islands underwent a “Hawaiian Renaissance.” After more than 70 years of U.S. governance, the Hawaiian people discovered renewed dignity in their ancestral heritage and cultural practices, including music, hula, language, stories, art and farming. Civil resistance also characterized this period, and young Hawaiians occupied the island of Kahoolawe, which was being used as a U.S. military training ground and bombing range.

Perhaps more than anything else, Polynesian voyaging defined the decade. Fearful of cultural extinction, a number of young Hawaiians embarked on a journey to revive the history of their islands’ discovery and the traditional navigational skills of their ancestors.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society crafted the Hōkūleʻa, a replica of the ancient Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoes that were used thousands of years ago by the ancestors of native Hawaiians. The Hōkūleʻa, whose name means Star of Gladness in Hawaiian, is 62 feet long and 16 feet high. She has no motor and is instead steered by a long paddle and powered by two massive sails. She can travel up to 29 miles an hour in trade winds and carry nearly 20 crewmembers at a time.

After construction, the Hōkūleʻa was set to voyage 2,500 miles to Tahiti, a large island in the South Pacific Ocean. Part of the mission was to challenge the western belief that indigenous Polynesians had simply drifted to Hawaii unintentionally on ocean currents because they were incapable of navigating thousands of miles without European instruments like maps, charts, chronometers and compasses. (Another western theory, later invalidated by DNA evidence, suggested that Polynesians reached Hawaii from the Americas.)

But the Polynesian Voyaging Society couldn’t find a single Hawaiian who still knew the ancient navigation methods — called “wayfinding” — such as remembering the placement of the stars and reading the direction of the waves and swells. So the crew sought the guidance of Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the Satawal Island in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia.

The Hōkūleʻa set sail from Honolua Bay on May 1, 1976. Thirty-one days later, 20,000 elated Tahitians greeted the craft as it neared the island. The Hōkūleʻa became a symbol of Hawaiian pride, and a generation later people still felt the impact of the canoe and that first voyage.

“Now I feel proud to be from Hawaii, because I’m connected to something very real,” said current crewmember Jenna Ishii. “It’s something that has roots, and will be here long after many other technologies come and go.”

Piailug was critical to the success of Hōkūleʻa, and he taught the next generation of Hawaiian navigators the knowledge and skills necessary to continue wayfinding. Under Hawaiian direction, the Hōkūleʻa subsequently sailed to New Zealand, Tonga, the continental United States, Japan and the Satawal Island. And now she’s departed for her most ambitious voyage yet: a four-year mission to circumnavigate the globe.

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