Ancient Polynesians undertook their great exploratory trans-Pacific migrations aboard beautiful, big outrigger canoes (called va’a in Tahitian). Today, there’s a renaissance of the art as enthusiasts search for knowledge passed down through their ancestors as well as links to their roots.
The characteristic upside-down triangle shaped sails of the five canoes in the Tavaru Expedition cut the horizon. Slowly, the flotilla approaches. Faafaite, the Tahitian team is the first to enter the Port of Papeete then one by one the boats come up several feet from the beach where the outrigger Hokulea docked in 1976. The Hokulea was a pioneer canoe that sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti using only traditional Polynesian navigation. The arrival of the five canoes in the Tavaru Expedition doesn’t draw as big a crowd as their illustrious forbearer. For Hokulea, 15,000 people showed up to welcome the boat and the crew captained by Hawaiian Mau Piailug. Still the crew of the Tavaru canoes seem happy enough. They came from the Cook Islands to Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand and now French Polynesia. Their adventure is far from ordinary: to spread Polynesian navigational knowledge. A first voyage in April and May allowed the team to sail between the Austral and Cook Islands, passing the Society Archipelago.
«In the 1970s the mystery of the early Polynesian migrations hadn’t been solved,» says Matahi Tutavae of the Faafaite crew. «No one knew how the Polynesians did it. The Hokulea showed that it was possible to travel by canoe from Asia and that Polynesians conquered the Pacific with their navigational knowledge, not instruments.»
After the Hokulea voyage, many sailors within the Polynesian Triangle were inspired to learn more about this ancient art and the Pacific once again began to see canoes on its waters. In 1985 Francis Cowan sailed between Raiatea, Rarotonga and New Zealand on the Hawaiki Nui. As a next step from his previous adventures Matahi Tutave and his companions also rediscovered their navigational heritage by not using instruments. For him, the outrigger should be a place of sailing learning and apprenticeship.
This year many projects such as Tavaru have come to life. «We could call this a renaissance even though outrigger canoes have always been with us,» says sailor Teiki Pamrun. «Most of the resurgence has been seen in Hawaii and Rarotonga.» Today Teiki Pambrun is setting sail in a va’a motu, an outrigger named Upoo Tahiti with Clément Pito who has been thinking up this trip for 20 years. «Upoo Tahiti means «Tahiti’s head,» explains Pito. «Polynesian’s were born of the ocean. Canoes were a mode of transport but also of survival. We had to look for new lands, to lance out from our own countries.» To Pito, ancestral knowledge will never completely disappear thanks to invisible spirits that linger in our world. «My canoe designs come from images spinning round in my eyes,» he says. «Eric Tabarly said this. Our canoes were models for catamarans. Our multi-hull boats have become the fastest in the world.» The five boats in the Tavaru Expedition are double hulls called Tipaerua. This type is a veritable Rolls Royce of the sea and is sailed by a 20-man crew. Blessed with two hollow hulls and a platform that supports a hut for shelter, the boats can transport food and passengers. Every part of its production has a purpose. The port side is the first part that’s hollowed out. This area was for women and children. The starboard side is called O’tane and was reserved for the men.
Va’a tipaerua weren’t just used for long voyages but were used for many other purposes. Often used for short distances, once loaded the boat could travel much further. The Tavaru canoes are all 72 feet long by 21 feet wide.
On the O Tahiti Nui, Hiria Ottino and his crew hope to «retrace the history of a migration that happened six centuries ago in six months.» O Tahiti Nui will head to China by heading west in the footsteps of Polynesian ancestors who came from Taiwan. For the project’s developers, the journey will be staged around the main areas of populating. The crew will go to Avarua, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Santa Cruz islands, Soloman Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Philippines before reaching their final destination, Shanghai.
Follow the road map in the sky
All the canoes are equipped with modern navigational equipment to meet maritime regulations but the captains aim to make the voyage only using celestial navigation.
Some Hawaiian masters still know how to navigate by the stars. In the Polynesian Triangle (New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and French Polynesia) word of mouth carries the names of which fisherman is able to navigate by listening to the waves against his boat, a true attention to how nature works. «We want to find our navigational heritage based on the natural world,» says Matahi Tutavae of Faafaite. «We’ve lost the techniques and we have to bring them back. We come from the sea. Today we’ve forgotten this relationship with nature and we need to find our habits of observation again.
The fact that all these projects are happening at the same time is pure coincidence; what it proves is that there is a real desire to renew links to the past that have been clouded over by modernity. But it goes farther than this as Yves Doudoute from the group Faafaite i te ao Maohi explains: «The projects surrounding outrigger canoes help us to find ourselves. Our culture and all our values come from va’a. It is a foundation of Polynesian culture.»