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Hawaiian Voyaging Canoe to Navigate World Without Instruments

  • Heidi Chang

The Höküle‘a is about to set sail on an around-the-world journey to spread a conservation message. (Courtesy: Polynesian Voyaging Society/Oiwi-TV)

The Höküle‘a is about to set sail on an around-the-world journey to spread a conservation message. (Courtesy: Polynesian Voyaging Society/Oiwi-TV)

A Hawaiian voyaging canoe is set to sail around the world using the age-old art of wayfinding ‒ navigating without instruments ‒ as part of a global movement to help create a more sustainable world.

Polynesian voyaging rediscovered

When the Hawaiian voyaging canoe known as Höküle‘a first sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976, no one imagined it would spark a revival of Polynesian voyaging throughout the Pacific and become an important symbol of cultural pride.

"Our primary motivation in building and sailing and navigating canoes was to have Hawaiians and other Polynesians, and other Pacific Islanders, take over the leadership in relearning, reinventing the technology, and putting it to use, and demonstrating its use, so it becomes their project, not my project," said Ben Finney, founding president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which built the canoe.

Now 82, the retired anthropologist says they initially wanted to demonstrate it was possible for Polynesians to have intentionally explored and settled the Pacific. Finney recalls they also wanted to revive the art of wayfinding, navigating without instruments, guided only by the stars, winds, waves, birds and other signs of nature.

The tradition had been lost in Polynesia. Fortunately, the society found an expert navigator in Micronesia, and under his guidance, Nainoa Thompson became the first Hawaiian in 600 years to practice the art of wayfinding. Thompson also integrated the tradition with modern science. Since then, he’s helped train a whole new generation of navigators.

Circumnavigating the globe

Now, after nearly 40 years of sailing Höküle‘a around the Pacific and the Pacific Rim, Thompson is about to embark on a worldwide voyage called Malama Honua, Caring for our Earth. He says several people inspired the vision for the voyage, including his friend, the late NASA astronaut Lacy Veach.

"He kept saying, 'Nainoa, you need to know how beautiful your island Earth is,'" Thompson said. "'It’s just one island in space. It’s all we've got. There’s no other island we can go to. And it’s fragile, and it needs to be protected, and Höküle‘a needs to help us learn and find the way. Take it around the world.' That was 22 years ago.”

To prepare for the expedition, Thompson and his crew spent a year sailing around the Hawaiian islands with Hokulea, which means Star of Gladness, and a new canoe, Hikianalia. Both are named after stars that navigators use to guide them back to Hawaii. The double-hulled canoes will circumnavigate the globe together.

The voyagers will visit more than 20 countries, learning from other cultures, including the Zulu of South Africa.

"Imagine that we’re going to go to South Africa," Thompson said. "Imagine that we’re going to have the chance to meet the Zulu that are about 140- to about 180,000 years old, and to celebrate the fact that they’re still here on this planet, maybe one of the oldest cultures. So it’s our privilege to be the youngest culture and have the ability to explore and go and meet and pay respects to all the cultures of the earth."

Inspiring a new generation

One goal of the worldwide voyage is to inspire young people and strengthen a new generation of navigators and voyagers.

That’s why half the crew is under the age of 30. Thompson, who’s now in his 60s, hopes many people will follow the voyage online and participate in its educational journey.

“If you don’t teach children how to take care of the world, they won’t have the tools to do that," Thompson said. "We’re not going to go save the world. All we’re trying to do with Höküle‘a and Hikianalia is do our part. And our part is to sail. And so we want to join that human movement of kindness and compassion on the planet with the belief that collectively we can make a difference.”

Once the canoes leave Hawaii with the first good wind, they won’t return until 2017.

Nainoa Thompson will captain and navigate Höküle‘a on the first leg of the voyage to Tahiti, sharing a message of Aloha and Malama Honua ‒ caring for our Earth.
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