Amazing Places

This Traditional Deep Sea Canoe Went Around the World Without Even a Compass

Picture yourself on the open ocean. Beneath your feet, a 62-foot (19-meter) catamaran-style canoe. Above your head, the stars that guide your way. And all around you, nothing but water, all the way to the horizon. "I am Moana!" you sing-scream, getting dirty looks from all your sailing companions. Welcome to Hōkūleʻa, the replica vessel from the Polynesian islands that proved ancient craft could circumnavigate the globe.

Around the World in Ancient Ways

Depending on how you look at it, the story of Hōkūleʻa either started in 1976 or more than 2,000 years ago. That's about the time that ancient Polynesians perfected their navigation methods and began settling islands all across the Pacific. Developed before compasses, sextants, and GPS systems, the technique known as wayfinding relies only on an intimate knowledge of the natural world, from the positions of the sun and stars to animal behavior to oceanic wind patterns. And yet, it works.

Without the benefit of any modern technology, Hōkūleʻa and her sister ship Hikianalia have successfully completed nearly a dozen voyages since the first craft was built. Many of these filled in the bounds of the Polynesian triangle, the massive area framed by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island that Polynesians colonized in ancient times. But the most recent trip had even greater aspirations.

The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage left port in May of 2014 and wouldn't return for more than three years. It sailed first to Tahiti (Hōkūleʻa's second home) and then on a worldwide tour with stops including Australia, Cuba, and New York City. Hōkūleʻa crossed the Pacific Ocean for the first time in her history, though the journey from South Africa to Brazil was also her longest. Crew members endured nearly two months exposed to the elements, but survived using nothing but the traditions of their ancestors. After cruising all the way up to Nova Scotia, the ship went back south, passed through the Panama Canal, and returned home to a heroes' welcome on June 20, 2017.

Traditional Polynesian navigating technique

Cultural and Personal Heroes

Back when Hōkūleʻa was only a dream, the biggest challenge to embarking on such a voyage was recovering the ancient wayfinding methods. Enter Pius Mao Piailug. One of the last remaining master navigators in the world, Mao hailed from the Micronesian island of Satawal, where his grandfather began training him in the art almost as soon as he was old enough to walk. Fearing that the methods would be lost in the modern world, Mao agreed to train the first crew of Hōkūleʻa, and navigate with them on their maiden voyage to Tahiti. Without him, the practice of Polynesian wayfinding might have been lost forever. In 2006, the Hawaiian navigation society Na Kalai Waa thanked him with a 56-foot deep sea canoe for his village. Mao passed away in 2010, but his legacy continues with every instrument-free voyage.

Other modern Pacific Islander icons have their stories tied up in Hōkūleʻa as well. Most notably, the legendary surfer Eddie Aikau was lost at sea when he sacrificed himself to save the capsized second voyage (the rest of the crew was successfully rescued). Dangerous though her voyages might be, the vessel has never wanted for crewmembers — the worldwide voyage turned no fewer than 4,000 applicants away. It's not hard to see why. Hōkūleʻa represents a living, breathing, salt-soaked connection to at least 2,000 years of history. That's the stuff heroes are made of.

Learn about Eddie Aikau's brave sacrifice in "Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero and Pioneer of Big Wave Surfing" by Stuart Holmes Coleman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Hōkūleʻa Worldwide Voyage

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 14, 2017

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