Environment

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.

Ocean Connections, Global Lessons

The Polynesian Voyaging Society spent five years planning its first-ever worldwide tour. Crewmembers and organizers explain that the trip was inspired by a sense of urgency to face the ecological and societal issues confronting Hawaii and to search around the globe for sustainable solutions. The journey is guided by one fundamental question­­­­­­­­ that crewmembers will ask each community they visit: How do you care for the Earth?

The voyage begins with a five-month local sail around the Hawaiian Islands to promote environmental sustainability through the preservation of Hawaiian culture and to raise awareness about threats to Hawaii’s reefs, shorelines, deep waters and natural resources. Hōkūleʻa will then travel to familiar terrains in the Pacific before making a b-line for Africa, where she will curve around the continent’s tip before heading north toward Brazil. Next she will head to New York City, before sailing through the Panama Canal to the Galapagos Islands and finally home to Hawaii. The voyage will encompass 47,000 miles and will take the crew to 85 international ports. While the Hōkūleʻa has sailed extensively in the Pacific, once the crew reaches unfamiliar oceans, such as the Indian Ocean, it will have to rely on host countries to share their navigational knowledge.

But the Hōkūleʻa and her crew won’t be completely at the mercy of the open oceans. A modern-day escort vessel named Hikianalia will join the voyage. This second craft looks like a traditional double-hulled canoe, but each of her hulls holds an electric motor powered by photovoltaic solar panels.

To members of the crew, the Hikianalia is the modern expression of a Polynesian voyaging canoe, and the two canoes represent the balance between modern technology and traditional respect for the earth and its survival.

Ishii explained this dynamic. “ Hōkūleʻa and Hikianalia are how you can learn to live in both worlds,” she said. “Respect the technology and science that we need to know to get this world back on course, but constantly have a foot in the past to know where you came from and the knowledge that has been passed down for generations that you cannot forget.”

The worldwide voyage seeks to unify communities linked by the ocean and to celebrate diverse navigation traditions. The trip is particularly focused on establishing alliances with indigenous leaders and elders from around the world. The crew is comprised of nearly 300 members representing 11 Pacific nations, including Micronesia, Japan and Alaska. Crewmembers will rotate each month, and Hawaiian airlines are sponsoring the flights to and from each destination.

Worldwide voyage leaders are particularly concerned with training the next generation of navigators, which is why at least 40 percent of the crew is under the age of 30. “If they don’t pass on everything they’ve learned, it’s another cycle of extinction,” said crewmember Ishii. To keep this history alive, a documentation team from Ōiwi TV, the Native Hawaiian television station, will also travel on the Hikianlia and collect and share the stories of communities working on environmental stewardship, cultural perpetuation and education.

For hundreds of years colonial forces have been circumnavigating the globe, arriving at the shores of — and then conquering — lands of indigenous communities from Hawaii to New York City. In the 1970s Hōkūleʻa became a form of local resistance against this colonization. Now, this worldwide voyage seeks to transcend local resistance as she arrives at shores around the world to unite local indigenous communities in their efforts to Malama Honua — to care for the Earth.

The circumnavigation of the globe by colonial forces is not only a story of conquering land. It also reflects the interconnected relationship between the land and the sea — a delicate balance that is increasingly at risk as climate change and global warming lead to rising sea levels.

“The ocean is only a mirror of the well-being of the land,” said Pwo navigator Nainoa Thompson. “What happens in the ocean comes from the land. What we do on the land, we do to the sea.”