Re-enacting an Epic Voyage

The incredible story of the exploration of the Pacific begins 4,000 years ago ñ 3,500 years before Europeans even thought to head south, when the ancestors of the Pacific looked towards a never-ending horizon and launched the world’s first sea-going craft into the greatest ocean on Earth. Their journeys and settlements were accomplished with great skill and inconceivable bravery ñ it is the Pacific story.’ Auckland Museum

One of the world’s greatest migrations is to be re-enacted next year, using ancient seafaring skills and a fleet of handmade traditional canoes, known as Vakas.

Six vessels, each with a crew of 16, will set sail for Hawaii, departing from six islands in French Polynesia. Relying on the sun, stars, knowledge of sea swells and winds to steer their course, they will have to navigate 2,500 miles of Pacific Ocean. The aim is not only to recreate history but to regenerate the ancestral traditions and legendary voyaging skills that date back thousands of years.

The 72 foot-long, double-hulled canoes are currently being built in New Zealand, in traditional Tuamotu Islands-style, with twin masts and exquisitely hand-carved 32-foot steering paddles. The two hulls, designed to accommodate heavy loads of migrating families, contain eight bunks and storage space. Although identical in construction, each canoe will be finished with the individual carvings, colours and motifs belonging to the Hawaiian island it is going to.

A keen supporter of the re-enactment is Rawiri Patene. Best known for his role in Whale Rider, he has helped generate funding to make the voyage a reality. The project’s manager, Maori New Zealander, Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp, believes it will build Polynesian pride and identity, by highlighting the epic achievements of his ancestors ñ skilled seafarers who crossed an ocean that fills a quarter of the globe.

‘They made these canoes watertight, with inadequate timber, using stone tools to drill and caulk them. They lashed them together with coconut fibre rope,’ he explains. ‘Then, they went on to make these incredible journeys, thousands of years before Europeans were even confident to go out of the sight of land.’

Until recent times, historians wrongly believed that the Polynesians had spread through the Pacific by accident, scattered by unfavourable winds. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was set up to revive the ancient sea skills as tangible proof of their ancestors’ nautical abilities. They regard their historic canoes as symbols of an exploring, pioneering heritage.

Te Aturangi is also keen to see young islanders continue to learn the skills lost in this age of air travel and has already witnessed the deep pride created by the revival of voyaging in Hawaii. ‘We went into a classroom in Molokai. The ceiling was decked out with the constellations and all the kids could name any star that was there,’ he says. ‘They were proud of their ancestors and they knew the way-finding skills that they used. It’s a great booster for any indigenous culture.’

Story courtesy of 100% Pure New Zealand

Contact: Cook Islands Voyaging Society

Vaka Moana’ is a touring exhibition, run by Auckland Museum, featuring more than 200 Maori and Pacific artefacts, rare carvings and a full-size voyaging canoe. The exhibition is currently at the National Museum of Australia and will return to Auckland Museum in 2011.

Contact: Auckland Museum
Tel: +64 (0)9 309 0443

A replica of the Vaka Moana voyaging canoe
Photo: © Auckland Museum

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