I’m used to watching sails hoisted up the mast, so seeing the triangular sail of the canoe lowered down into place is a strange sight.
For 6 months, the Polynesian Rowing club at the Great Salt Lake Marina been putting this canoe together, lashing on the outriggers and getting the sail ready. Today is her maiden voyage on the lake.
As I speak to one of the women there, she points out her brother, Mark, a thick-bodied Hawaiian who’s moving around the canoe adjusting lines, explaining things to the others there. “He’s here to help us out with this, and then he’s flying to Samoa to sail a traditional Polynesian canoe that’s going around the world.”
“Around the world? On something like this?” I nod toward the narrow six-man canoe, twin outriggers on each side supporting trampoline-like platforms. The wooden mast rises from the center, with the sail spread out beneath it.
“Oh, no. It’s much bigger than this.”
The Hokule’a, which means “Our bright star” in Hawaiian, has sailed over 100,000 miles since its maiden voyage in 1976. On May 18th, 2014, she set off on a new journey of 47,000 miles, on a course that will circle the world and return to her Hawaiian home.
Over 61′ from bow to stern, the Hokule’a is made up of two canoes that support a platform between them. There are no bolts or screws—everything is lashed together, with over 8 miles of steel cable.
Her construction and design closely follows the Polynesian ships that brought colonists across vast expanses of ocean thousands of years ago. And her operation follows millennia-old traditions as well.
“We have watches,” Mark tells us, “But they’re locked away. We have a GPS, and a sat phone, but they’re locked away.”
Instead, they rely on traditional navigation—which was nearly lost until the people behind Hokule’a revived it.
The knowledge of navigating by the stars and ocean currents had died out entirely among Hawaiians. On the Micronesian Island of Satawal, a single family retained that knowledge, passing it down from generation to generation, keeping it closely guarded from outsiders. They were reluctant to share their knowledge, until one master navigator saw how close this knowledge was to disappearing entirely, and decided to reach beyond his culture.“The Hawaiians are the ones who taught this to us,” he said. “And someday, they will teach it to us again.”
The compasses on board don’t point North. Instead, they show the locations of stars, and where they rise and set relative to the cardinal directions. By locating only a single star, Hoklue’a’s navigators can get the ship’s bearings.
There are no modern navigational instruments to tell them where they are or how far they’ve come, either. Instead, they use dead reckoning. To measure the speed, the crew counts the seconds it takes for a bubble to pass from a mark near the ship’s bow to one near it’s stern. “If there aren’t any bubbles, we’ll throw a cracker or a banana peel over,” Mark explains.
The ship has no outboard motor or power system. She is powered by the wind, steered by a paddle anchored to the back as a rudder. In heavy weather, it may take 4 or 5 crew—using every ounce of strength they have—to muscle the rudder onto the right course.
“The polynesians, our ancestors–they were the fist astronauts.” And there is something about the way this group of people shares a cramped space in the extreme isolation of the ocean, that is a little bit like a voyage into the vastness of space. They fight together to turn the giant rudder, they cheer and hug and cry together at the first spotting of land after sixteen days at sea. They eat provisions that have been carefully measured and tucked into tupperware containers–food that won’t spoil at sea, food that is compact and high calories.
And the bathroom? “We go right off the side of the ship. You harness yourself in, hang over the edge. And if you’re lucky, a big wave hits and you don’t even need to use toilet paper. Like a bidet.” Showers are with buckets and seawater—or rain, if the crew is lucky.
The idea behind it isn’t simply to cross the ocean. It’s to prove that it can be done using only traditional navigation and technology. There has been doubt that the Polynesians of thousands of years ago could have deliberately sailed to and from the islands they colonized. Some have said that they simple landed on many of those islands by accident after drifting haphazardly on ocean currents.
Hokule’a is proving them wrong.
It’s also to teach, to revive a dying piece of culture, and to inspire a new generation.
At Hokule’a’s first voyage, when they made their first stop at Tahiti, nearly half the population of the island came to meet them. Thousands crowded around, and so many crawled on board that they swamped the boat.
In harbor, even swamped by a cheering crowd of thousands, she looks massive. “This large vessel, it looks tiny when you’re on the ocean,” Mark says. “But this tiny vessel is the catalyst we need. To make a difference.”
As the sun sets over the Great Salt Lake, the 6-man crew of the canoe sails her in smoothly through the channel. Even here in the marina, where boats look their largest, she appears tiny against the rocks. I imagine how tiny she’d look next to Hokule’a—A seed, I think, watching her crew secure her to the dock. A seed blown far from her Hawaiian roots.