Cover Story

Te Mana o te Moana, The Spirit of the Sea
Voyagers bid farewell to friends and family before launching their canoes.
Image: shantel grace

Pan Pacific Vaka Voyage arrives on O‘ahu in preparation for Hōkūle‘a’s worldwide voyage in 2013
Comes with video


The restoration process is as costly as it is meticulous, but due to federal stipends and individual donations, the work continues, which means history is being preserved.


Cover image for Jun 29, 2011

Photograph by Monte Costa

Te Mana o te Moana, The Spirit of the Sea / It looked like something out of the movie Master and Commander. Amidst a backdrop of fog and the drizzle of constant rain, a fleet of seven South Pacific voyaging canoes dropped anchor in the bay near Kualoa Regional Park Saturday before undertaking a voyage to the west coast of the Mainland. Some will eventually set sail for the Galápagos Islands and the Cocos Islands before finally ending their voyage in the Solomon Islands.


To prove historians wrong. And to spread the word about how humans affect the ocean, and how the ocean affects humanity.

Voyagers came from 14 island nations including Tahiti, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tonga, New Guinea and Samoa. Hundreds of people gathered for the event to honor the Hokulea–the first double-hulled voyaging canoe to make its way through the Pacific using traditional celestial navigation in 600 years–and to bid crew members farewell as they set sail for Kauai and beyond.

The event is all part of Te Mana o te Moana (The Spirit of the Sea), a program that hopes to promote global awareness about the threats to Pacific waters. The trip is sponsored by the nonprofit organization Okeanos, founded by German native Dieter Paulmann. The fleet of seven canoes makes up the Vaka Moana and is powered by wind and sun alone (the only engine onboard is solar-powered).

In the weeks to come, Vaka Moana will undertake a grueling voyage westward, but before they do, crew members and captains will attend Honolulu’s upcoming Kava Bowl Ocean Summit to contribute their knowledge and experience of the Pacific Ocean to research.

The Hokulea–One Canoe, One destination

Just imagine for a minute voyaging around the planet in a Polynesian canoe, sailing from Hawaii and back again. It would take a minimum of 54 months, 42 ports, 200 crew members and 27 crew change-overs to complete. The route would need to avoid dangerous waters and bad weather, all-the-while staying within the capabilities of a double-hulled voyaging canoe. The global journey would be as epic as the launch of a space shuttle and the realization of a decades-long dream.

The Hokulea voyaging canoe, which plans to circumnavigate the globe in 2013, measures 61 feet 5 inches long and weighs 16,000 pounds–empty. It carries up to 16 crewmembers, supports an extra 11,000 pounds and is capable of speeds up to 6 knots. A vessel like this doesn’t simply drift on currents; it’s a performance-accurate canoe built to sail across the ocean.

But before we attempt to understand the significance of Hokulea, we should first understand its history and the nearly abandoned notion of celestial navigation.

On the Edge of Extinction

In 1976, the Polynesian Voyaging Society recruited master navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug of Micronesia to re-introduce the techniques of ancient Polynesian navigation. This led to the renaissance of voyaging, canoe building and celestial navigation throughout Polynesia, Aotearoa and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Hokulea navigator Nainoa Thompson says, “Mau passed on his closely guarded knowledge of blue water voyaging so it could be taught to future generations, and that is our plan, to enlist the next generation of voyagers. Without them, voyaging won’t continue.”

Since that year, Hokulea has completed eight voyages using ancient wayfinding techniques.

Relaunching History

If you aren’t familiar with the voyaging canoe called Hawaiiloa, you probably also aren’t familiar with the legendary navigator it was named after.

Hawaiiloa is the hero of the ancient Hawaiian legend who “stumbled upon the Hawaiian Islands.” The Hawaiiloa canoe was built not only to honor his legacy, but also to disprove theories that “hapless voyagers were simply blown off course,” as some historians have falsely, and unforgivingly, claimed.

It’s Hawaii’s only double-hulled canoe constructed entirely of traditional materials. Built in the record time of two years and launched in 1993, Hawaiiloa voyaged 6,000 miles to Tahiti, throughout French Polynesia to the Marquesas Islands, and back.

The canoe has sailed long voyages throughout the Pacific and received a great deal of attention from anthropologists and historians. But over the years, weather and exposure took a toll on the historic vessel.

The Hawaiiloa is the touchstone for the ‘Ohana Waa–a statewide organization and alliance of family canoe builders, friends and fundraisers. ‘Ohana Waa’s leader, Billy Richards, and the organization the Friends of Hokulea & Hawaiiloa plan to restore the canoe at the cost of approximately $300,000.

Inspired by the growing knowledge of sea voyaging, the late master canoe builder Wright ‘Elemakule Bowman, Jr.–“Wrighto” to his pals–turned away from fiberglass hulls to the challenge of building a canoe from native materials.

“In the late ‘80s I was part of the team asked to do a tree search in the koa forests of the Big Island,” Richards explains. “They needed a koa tree tall enough and big enough around to carve into a canoe. When they finally found a tree, they had no way to get it off the mountain.” He laughs when he says, “I called the US Marines to see if they could airlift something that was 5 to 6 tons. They said ‘no problem’ until they heard it was up a few thousand feet where the air was too thin [to operate].”

Fish Out of Water

Looking for “Plan B,” Richards and his crew made contact with the Tlingit tribe, owners of the Sealaska Corporation, who offered two Sitka spruce logs that were 200 feet tall, 7 feet in diameter and over 400 years old. Both Richards and Thompson quote the journals of Captain George Vancouver as he describes the largest canoe ever seen in the Islands, somewhere between 60 and 100 feet, carved from the trunk of a pine tree.

“To those who doubt,” Thomspon says, “visit Ka Lae, South Point on the Big Island. Even today…you can see drift logs from Alaska.”

Woodworkers Jerry Ongies and Jay Dowsett are charged with restoration of the historic canoe. Dowsett’s voice cracks when he says, “The Hawaiiloa was built from spruce, koa, ohia and other canoe woods. The 57-foot vessel logged thousands of miles of open-ocean sailing. Then it sat on exhibit. Like a fish out of water, it dried out.”

Pointing to the multiple cracks, filled and mended with pewa–traditional Hawaiian butterfly patches–Dowsett says the canoe had to come apart in order to go back together. Unfortunately, no one made a master list, so the team is putting the pieces together, “a bit like a jigsaw puzzle in the round,” says Richards.

The restoration takes money, as well as thousands of hours invested by craftsmen who still have to earn a living. In other words, the restoration process is as costly as it is meticulous, but due to federal stipends and individual donations, the work continues, which means history is being preserved.

Regarding the 2013 global launch of Hokulea, Thompson adds, “Our mandate is that 40 percent of the crew will be under 30. Forty or more legs for the trip will allow the new crews to make their own history.”

He also says the crew is already training. “We’ve sailed 16,000 miles since April of ‘08, and it’s only 21,000 miles all the way around the earth at the equator.”

Thompson hopes to recruit from other parts of the world so that they can spread the wealth of knowledge. “The things I can’t do are all achievable if you prepare yourself, if you are ocean strong.”

On Their Way

On scattered islands throughout the Pacific, many voyaging societies struggle to locate and to maintain funding for similar expeditions. But thanks to the Okeanos Foundation, which offered to pay airfares for crew members, and covered the cost of escort vessels, visas, administration costs and provisions, seven voyaging societies are now on their way toward the Mainland coast and other parts of the Pacific.

In a blog by Samoan Voyaging Society, crew member Nga Mihi writes “We’ve pretty much been battered, beaten up and smashed by mother nature for the past week. We’ve been through her washing machine, and so far we haven’t seen much of a gentle cycle.

“As I sit in our tiny galley writing this, the occasional splash of water coming over the roof and into this not-so-waterproof space I realize…It sucks to be wet for a week, it sucks to be pounded and slammed around for a week, and it sucks to not be able to have a fresh water shower. All that being said, I certainly wouldn’t change this experience for the world.”

How Much Is The Ocean Worth To You?

Starting June 30, the Kava Bowl Ocean Summit will take place at the East-West Center, providing a discussion forum on the economic costs of inaction in the face of climate change in the ocean.

Futurists, environmental and cultural educators, policy makers, marine biologists and sociologists, as well as the Polynesian fleet of voyagers will be speaking about the poor health of the Pacific ecosytem and sharing first-hand reports on the state of the Pacific Ocean.

Discussions follow the tradition of Kava Bowl talks, where participants exchange thoughts and ideas at eye-level in order to remove barriers between different cultural backgrounds and expertise.

The end result? The summit hopes to provide concrete guidance for policy and decision makers and accessible information to those of us looking for scientific outcomes applicable to all oceans.

East-West Center, 1601 East-West Rd, June 30–July 4, [], 936-1976

Just Come Sail–Criticism of the Pacific Voyaging Society

In a December 2010 article by Hawaii News Now reporter Jim Mendoza, Sen. John McCain is quoted as saying, “One of my all-time favorites that is always on [the Senate spending bill] every year is–$300,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii. Now some people are watching and thinking I’m making this up. I’m not making it up.”

McCain’s criticism of the Polynesian Voyaging Society claimed that the restoration and maintenance of the Hokulea was “a waste of money.”

“If he’s questioning the quality of our work, I’ll fiercely defend the sacredness of that canoe, the work of thousands and thousands in our communities here in the Pacific for 35 years of taking care of her, sailing with purpose, and doing our very best to create educational opportunities that help our children in Hawaii,” said Nainoa Thompson in the same article.

“When you’re talking about money,” he added, “every one of those sails, everybody on those canoes that kept every mile safe, everybody is a volunteer. People aren’t there for the money. But we still need support.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye’s then-spokesman, Peter Boylan, also commented, “Rather than learn anything about the Hokulea, how the Pacific was populated by Polynesians sailing with nothing more than the stars, wind, sun, moon and currents as their guide, Sen. McCain wants to vilify the Polynesian Voyaging Society as emblematic of wasteful government spending.”

“My comment to Sen. McCain?” said Thompson. “Just come sail.”

“McCain Criticizes Voyaging Society Earmark,” []