“They’re crazy!” “How do they do it?” “Wow! I wish I had the guts to do that.” “Its amazing!”
These the most common comments I receive from people who find out about my relationship with the traditional voyaging canoe, “Uto Ni Yalo”.
As you read this, the Uto Ni Yalo, Cook Islands’Marumaru Atua and Samoa’s Gau’alofa have arrived in Australia, preparing to sail into Sydney Harbour on November 12th for the IUCN World Parks Congress, joined by the Haunui from Aotearoa.
The Fiji voyaging project that resulted in the Uto Ni Yalo voyages and establishment of the Uto Ni Yalo Trust may not be a long or old story, but its genesis, out of the ocean we call home, stretches back almost eight decades.
Inspired by Pacific voyaging canoes and guided by the indigenous people of Hawaii, Eric de Bisschop built the Kaimiloa in 1936. However, he used modern building materials and methods. For example, he joined the two hulls together with old car springs instead of tying them to wooden beams (long pieces of strong wood). After many adventures, he succeeded in sailing west across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and then around Africa to France.
In the 1947 ”Kon Tiki Expeditiion,” Thor Heyerdahl, set out to demonstrate how South American Indians could have settled Polynesia by raft. The voyage of the KonTiki raft, in 1948, to prove the theory of the settlement of the Central Pacific islands from South America (East-to-West theory), achieved worldwide fame for Thor Heyerdahl. However, after studies of languages, cultures, and artifacts (objects created by people) from the area, modern researchers believe that Heyerdahl’s theory is incorrect.
After Kon-Tiki’s voyage, Eric de Bisschop wanted to prove that Polynesians could have sailed by raft to South America. In 1955 he built Tahiti-Nui (a bamboo raft) and sailed south from Tahiti to catch the west winds east. Tahitian navigator Francis Cowan went with him. However, he and his crew had to abandon (leave) the broken raft near Chile. They were rescued by the Chilean navy. Later, in 1958 they sailed back to Polynesia on Tahiti-Nui II, a raft made from Cyprus wood. Which eventually crashed on the coral reef of Rakahanga in the northern Cook Islands, killing De Bisschop. James Wharram, took up the banner of Eric de Bisschop and between 1954 and 1959, in two pioneering double canoe voyages across the Atlantic, confirmed that Eric de Bisschop was correct in his assumption that the ancient Pacific raft-stable double canoe enabled ancient Pacific migrations to have been made from West to East out of SE Asia.
Since the ancient voyaging canoes and their navigators had disappeared from the Pacific, the obvious course was to experiment, to recreate the voyaging canoes and ways of navigating without instruments and then try them out at sea. In other words, the situation called for a nautical application of experimental archaeology, that branch of prehistory concerned with the reconstruction and testing of ancient artifacts and techniques.
This experimental effort got underway in the mid-1960s, when David Lewis navigated his catamaran, the “Rehu Moana” from Tahiti to New Zealand without instruments. This form of traditional navigation is known as “Wayfinding”. Wayfinding involves navigating on the open ocean without sextant, compass, clock, radio reports, or satellites reports. The wayfinder depends on observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea. Wayfinding was used for voyaging for thousands of years before the invention of European navigational instruments. In the 20th century
In the mid-1960s, a New Zealand historian named Andrew Sharp claimed that the Polynesians did not explore and settle the Pacific on purpose. He said that their canoes and ways of navigation weren’t good enough. He argued that they’d been blown to the islands by storms and bad winds. To show that Sharp was wrong, anthropologist (person who studies human cultures) Ben Finney started a project to build double-hulled canoes. He wanted to test these canoes on long voyages and
recover the old ways of navigating. The first tests were made with Nalehia, a copy of a Hawaiian double hull. The tests showed how well double hulls could sail on the open ocean. They provided the information needed to build the big voyaging canoe Hokulea and sail it to Tahiti.
In 1975 Hawaiian artist Herb Kane designed Hokulea, a 19-metre-long voyaging canoe. Hokulea was built mostly with modern materials (plywood hulls and cloth sails). However, it sailed like a traditional canoe. No old Polynesian navigators were available to guide Hokulea from Hawaii to Tahiti, so Ben Finney brought a master navigator from Satawal, Micronesia. His name was Mau Piali. He guided the canoe on a 2,300 mile voyage to Tahiti in 1976, the first voyage in over 600 years navigated without instruments on this ancestral Polynesian sea route.
On July 12th, 2010 Mau Piailug, master navigator, died on his home island of Satawal in the Federated States of Micronesia, aged 78. However, the traditional knowledge had been handed on to others including Hawaiian, Nainoa Thompson, who in 1980 navigated the Hokulea back to Tahiti and in doing so became the first Polynesian in hundreds of years to navigate a canoe so far. The voyage marked the rebirth of long-distance voyaging in Polynesia.
38 years later, the Hokulea is still sailing. Many other vaka have set sail from their island homes to celebrate or protect the science of traditional navigation and call the world to respect the wisdom of the ancient peoples of Oceania. This is the mana, the power with which the 4 vaka and their crew carry the message of the Pacific to the World Parks Congress.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”
NB: Rev. Bhagwan has served as the voluntary chaplain of the Uto Ni Yalo since 2010 and is a trustee of the Uto Ni Yalo Trust. Material in this column, courtesy of the voyaging community across Oceania.