Designing Hokule’a

Designing Hokule’a

From Hawaiki Rising – a book by Sam Low

 Early in 1973, Ben Finney met with Herb Kane and Tommy Holmes, a famous island waterman from an elite kama’aina family. “We started talking among ourselves,” Ben recalls,“ and we said, ‘well let’s do it. Let’s build a big canoe and sail to Tahiti and back.’”

Their first task was to come up with an appropriate plan for the canoe. “We wanted to get an approximate design that would be generic to the age of ancient exploration,” Herb recalls. But how to choose the best design from all those drawings made by early explorers? Herb had studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and he was familiar with the “age-area” theory which proposed that the cultural attributes most common and widespread in an area must be the most ancient. A three dimensional visualization of this theory resembles what happens when a stone is tossed into a still pond. Where the stone hits is the source of a cultural innovation – a new canoe design, for example – and the ripples represent how the design radiates out over time. Innovation may occur at the source, producing more ripples, but the original early designs are distributed far and wide. Hence, those canoe designs that are the most widespread in an area – are the earliest.

“I looked for hull and sail design features most widely distributed throughout “Eastern” or “marginal” Polynesia (including Hawai’i, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and New Zealand) when Europeans arrived,” Herb recalls, “and I figured these were the most ancient because they must have been common features in the era of exploration and settlement. To these features I added some distinctively Hawaiian stylistic elements-the end pieces and arched crossbeams.”

Archeologists debate whether the first arrivals in Hawaii came from the Society islands or the Marquesas, but there is agreement that voyages between Tahiti and Hawaii continued until sometime between the 12th and the 14th century. Then they stopped. Perhaps the islands were filling up and Hawaiians had decided to protect their precious real estate from new Tahitian migrants who they perceived as interlopers rather than ancestral brothers and sisters. Whatever the reason, Herb figured that when long distance voyaging declined, Hawaiians took to paddling their canoes rather than sailing them on the relatively short trips along the coast or between the islands. Chiefs traveled with a large number of warriors who could man the paddles and paddling offered the advantage of being able to power through calms or travel directly upwind. Herb surmised that the shape of canoe hulls changed to accommodate this change in power, from the deep vee-shaped hulls of sailing canoes to the more rounded and shallow hulls of canoes that were paddled – like the ones Cook discovered in Hawaii. Rounded hulls, like Ben Finney’s canoe, Nalehia, were not suitable for sailing. “Hulls of paddling canoes are round and are maneuverable but do not track well if you try to sail them,” Herb says, “making about seventy-five degrees to the wind in sheltered waters. On the open sea, in strong winds and buffeted by waves, such hulls would no doubt skid off the wind.”

Modern sailing catamarans have deep, flat-sided hulls which make them extremely fast and allow them to sail relatively well to windward. To maneuver such hulls, however, requires powerful stern-hung rudders – an innovation unknown in Oceania – and the hulls stand high out of the water and are affected by the wind. They also tend to plunge in heavy seas. Ben agreed with Herb that their canoe would be modeled on an ancient Tahitian variant, called a pahi, which had a curved vee-shaped bottom and rounded sides. The underwater vee shape would allow the canoe to sail to windward. The rounded sides would prevent her from plunging in swells. Given the distance between the predominant Pacific swells, Herb figured that sixty feet was a good size for the canoe. The hull would have tumblehome – a graceful inward curve at the top – because it strengthens the canoe laterally.

Herb enlisted others to help. Kim Thompson, an architect, designed the bow and stern pieces – the manu. Rudy Choy, an expert naval architect who had designed modern catamarans and written a book about them, helped with the line drawings for the hulls. The canoe was substantially funded as a part of the national bicentennial celebration, so it had to be ready to sail to Tahiti by 1976. That, and because there were no shipwrights who could fashion a canoe from a log, led them to build her of cold molded plywood covered with fiberglass.

“We needed to raise money,” says Ben Finney, “so we decided to form a non profit corporation – the Polynesian Voyaging Society. I drafted a succinct statement – ‘we are going to form the society to study Polynesian voyaging and do experimental voyages to gain information to model Polynesian migration and voyaging.’”

“We set a three year time table,” says Herb, “the first year to raise money, the second to build the canoe, the third to learn how to sail her and make the trip – from 1973 to 1976 to do the whole project.” They named their canoe Hokule’a – Star of Joy – the Hawaiian name for the star Arcturus, which reaches its zenith directly over Hawai’i and may have been a prime navigational guide for ancient navigators seeking the Islands.

Herb convinced Dillingham Corporation to provide a secure place to work – a large industrial building with a concrete floor. Warren Seaman lofted the lines and began work on the hulls, then boatwrights Curt Ashford and Malcolm Waldron took over, assisted by Tommy Heen, Calvin Coito and many volunteers.

The projected cost to build Hokule’a was a hundred thousand dollars, an enormous sum of money in 1973. To raise the funds, Ben Finney began writing grants to foundations known to fund anthropological research. The canoe was an exercise in “experimental archeology,” he wrote, a new field of study that tested ancient technologies by building something – a catapult, a fortification, a Roman chariot – and experimenting with it to see how it worked.