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CULTURE : Canoe Voyage Rekindles Pride in Old Polynesian Seafaring Skills

May 09, 1995|SUSAN ESSOYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONOLULU — The traditional voyaging canoe Hawaiiloa arrived home Sunday after a 19-day, 2,500-mile journey from the Marquesas, retracing the likely route of the earliest Hawaiian settlers.

Its navigators, like their ancestors more than 1,600 years ago, relied on their knowledge of the stars, wind and waves to guide them. The canoe left Hawaii on Feb. 11 for Tahiti and hooked up with several canoes in French Polynesia for the return trip from the Marquesas Islands.

"For me, it's a way to find my own heritage," said crew member Catherine Fuller, who is part Hawaiian. "It's a way I can make the legends live for more generations--I can live them myself."

It was the maiden voyage for the 57-foot, double-hulled Hawaiiloa, the first Polynesian voyaging canoe in modern times built largely of traditional materials. The 20-year-old, fiberglass Hawaiian canoe Hokulea joined it, along with a modern escort boat.

The voyage demonstrated the seafaring skills of the early Polynesians who, without compass or sextant, settled the far-flung islands of the Pacific--sailing at times upwind and against the currents.

Navigating more than 1,000 years before Columbus, the Polynesians memorized hundreds of stars, the patterns of clouds and the sea swells. But the painstaking art of celestial navigation faded over time.

Then in 1976, Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug guided the Hokulea on its first voyage to Tahiti. He passed on his knowledge to a young Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson, who has trained others. Today there are five navigators and 12 apprentices in Hawaii.

The Hawaiiloa's trip was the first by a voyaging canoe from the Marquesas to Hawaii in modern times. Many people consider the Marquesas the source of much migration to Hawaii because of similarities in language and tools.

It took five years and roughly $1.5 million to build and outfit the Hawaiiloa. More than 2,000 volunteers pitched in. The joint project of the Bishop Museum Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program and the Polynesian Voyaging Society was funded through the National Park Service and donations.

The crew had wanted to use only native materials to build the canoe. But that proved impossible. When they failed to find koa trees large enough for the canoe's hulls in Hawaii's forests, the Hawaiians turned to Alaska's Tinglit and Haida tribes for massive spruce logs. Ancient Hawaiians also used drift logs from the Pacific Northwest for their canoes. Native koa and ohia wood was used for the rest of Hawaiiloa, including its crossbeams, masts and steering paddle.

Eleven traditional weavers labored for two years on Hawaiiloa's pandanus leaf sails, only to find that the panels began to tear during sea trials. Canvas sails were substituted for most of the voyage. Craftspeople plaited coconut fibers into cordage to lash the boat, but nylon was used as well for the miles of rope needed.

"A lot of arts have been lost, a lot of skills need to be recovered," said Dennis Kawaharada, education coordinator for the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The project has fostered a revival of traditional arts and efforts to replant the native forest. Hokulea and Hawaiiloa also have inspired a voyaging renaissance among Polynesians.

Hawaiiloa and Hokulea made it to Tahiti in a record 20 days. They then traveled through French Polynesia, linking up with Cook Islands canoes and others, and on to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, then home to Hawaii, a 6,000-mile round-trip.

During the voyage, crew members bathed in the ocean and took turns sleeping on small bunks. Each received eight-tenths of a gallon of fresh water a day. Some ate a traditional diet of dried foods, including breadfruit, sweet potato and greens, along with fresh fish.

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