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Hokulea: Voyaging with Traditional Polynesian Navigation

(Last Updated On: February 25, 2020)

2013-09-06 13.29.37

We went down to the Hanalei Pier to see Hokule‘a and her sibling voyaging canoe, Hikianalia, who had arrived earlier in the week. The big sisters dwarfed most of the other boats in Hanalei Bay.

Hosting tours of schoolchildren and the public, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was finishing a series of stops throughout the main islands of Hawaii as part of its thousand mile Statewide Sail 2013. It was a wonderful opportunity to see first hand the restoration and cultural reawakening of the old ways and traditions.


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Hokule‘a and Hikianalia are double hulled masted vessels that use traditional Polynesian navigation methods, which include sailing by the stars, using the appearance of wildlife species, evaluating changes in sky and ocean colors, and noting the behavior of ocean waves. The ancient people gauged their position on the ocean by interpreting and observing much in the same way that explorers and trackers do on land.

Polynesians courageously navigated and traveled throughout Oceania in similar sailing canoes beginning thousands of years ago, in about the 3rd century AD. Their explorations covered a vast area of the Pacific called the Polynesian Triangle that encompasses the Hawaiian Islands to the North, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east, and New Zealand to the west. In 2006, chicken bones from 14th century Argentina were matched by DNA testing to those of Polynesian chickens, suggesting that Polynesians had traveled as far as the South American continent. Conversely, the sweet potato, brought by Polynesians to Hawaii as a food crop, originated in South America. Its first archeological evidence is analogous to an active long distance voyaging period in Polynesian history.

We have been fascinated by the strong links to traditional Polynesian culture that remain intact here on Kauai. One of the earliest settlements by Polynesians in Hawaii was at Limahuli, a few miles west of where we live on Kauai. Its Canoe Garden is a restored portion of a terraced agricultural complex containing the plants that were carefully packed and nurtured during the canoes’ long journey. Staples such as kalo (taro), ki (ti), banana, turmeric, coconut and sugar cane (along with jungle fowl, pigs, rats and dogs) all came to Hawaii on Polynesian canoes.

Hokule‘a and Hikianalia will sail to the island of Nihoa from Ni’ihau (off Kauai) early this week in Hikianalia’s first deepwater sail. This will also be the first lengthy sail for apprentice navigators using traditional Polynesian navigation.

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All of these activities are part of the Malama Honua, the Worldwide Voyage (WWV), a 36-month voyage to 21 countries, covering 46,000 miles. If you are going to be anywhere near their planned stops, you will not want to miss the opportunity to visit either Hokule’a or Hikianalia between now and 2017. For a comprehensive resource list of information on traditional Hawaiian voyaging, including ‘Ike (knowledge and traditions), Holokai (the voyages of Hokule’a), voyagers and archive, click here.

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