The Founders – Ben Finney

The Founders – Ben Finney

From Hawaiki Rising – a book by Sam Low


Ben Finney is a lean six foot three Californian with sandy hair and blue eyes. He grew up in San Diego surfing and diving for abalone. He learned to sail catamarans. He attended Berkley where he “wandered from engineering, to humanities, to history to anthropology.” It was the fifties and jobs were plentiful, so he was indulging his interests. Ben traveled to the Hawaiian Islands to surf and became fascinated by Polynesian culture. “My question was how did they adapt so well to the sea? Everything I read in anthropology was about land people. The Polynesians were a sea people – how did they learn to use the ocean so well, to create this ocean based way of life?”

At the University of Hawaii, he met Kenneth Emory, then the world’s foremost authority on Polynesia, and folklorist Katherine Luomala who supervised his master’s thesis – “Surfing, the History of an Ancient Sport” which was published, rare for a scholarly treatise, and is now in its second edition. Loumala introduced him to a book called “The Ancient Voyagers of the Pacific” by Andrew Sharp.

“I don’t like this book and I want you to read it” Loumala told him.

Andrew Sharp had accepted the scholars’ conclusion that Polynesia had been settled from Southeast Asia, but he could not accept Captain Cook’s earlier theory that Polynesians had navigated their canoes by sun, moon and stars. How would they have plotted their course over thousands of empty sea miles without a map or have found their latitude and longitude without instruments? Sharp thought Polynesia was settled by accidental voyages – by castaways blown off course in storms. “On occasion,” he wrote, “voluntary exiles, or exiles driven out to sea, were conveyed to other islands on one-way voyages in which precise navigation played no part.”

“I didn’t believe it,” Finney remembers. “My response was partly emotional – I had been thinking of the Polynesians as great voyagers and this guy says they are not. Here are the Polynesians, sitting in the middle of this huge ocean and they’ve got these big canoes – the ones seen by Captain Cook on his voyages – so they must have sailed here. Sharp said flatly that you can’t sail more than three hundred miles out of sight of land without instruments because of navigational errors. But you have Hawaiian legends of people going back and forth between a place called Kahiki which is arguably – but not necessarily – Tahiti. Was Polynesia settled by competent sailors on purposeful voyages of discovery, or by accident – by storm tossed castaways? So the obvious idea occurred, ‘well, we have to rebuild an ancient canoe, relearn how to navigate and sail it and take some of the legendary voyages.’” Ben had the wits to know this is not something that a graduate student should be thinking about. You have to get your degree first. So he earned his Ph.D in anthropology from Harvard after arduous study in Tahiti. But all the time he was thinking about building a canoe.

In 1966, Ben got a teaching job at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He was newly married. He had a few thousand dollars saved up. He still dreamed of building a big canoe to sail throughout Polynesia but he settled on a more prudent first step. Why not build a smaller canoe of the same type and test that? “There was a mould for a Hawaiian shaped hull in California,” he recalls. “I could plunk down five hundred dollars and put my labor in and end up with two hulls for a forty foot double canoe.” He developed the project under the non-profit umbrella of his university, recruited some students as labor, and launched the canoe within a year. Mary Kawena Pukui, famous Hawaiian scholar, named her Nalehia – “the skilled ones.”

Ben received a grant from the National Science Foundation to find out how much energy was needed to paddle her. He shipped Nalehia to Hawaii where he conducted oxygen uptake tests and discovered that paddling long distances would take more water and food than the canoe could possibly carry. Clearly, Polynesian explorers must have been skilled at harnessing the power of the wind.

In the fifties, when Ben was in the islands as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, most Hawaiians seemed oblivious of their cultural heritage. “It was a thing of the past,” he wrote in his book – Hokule’a – the Way to Tahiti – “and better left that way seemed to be the common attitude on the part of Hawaiians, then a dispirited minority comprising less than one fifth of Hawaii’s multiracial population, dominated by Americans of Caucasian and Asian Ancestry.” But now, returning to the islands in 1966, he found new stirrings among Hawaiians. “Young Hawaiians who had grown up speaking only English were trying to learn Hawaiian and were studying old forms of chanting, dancing and other practices of the ancient culture.”

Finney knew some surfers and canoe paddlers at the Waikiki Surf Club – people like Rabbit Kekai and Nappy Napoleon, big names in those days. He enlisted them to crew aboard Nalehia and their fame soon attracted others. Among them was a young eighteen-year-old nicknamed ‘Hoss’ because he was big and clumsy. Hoss had just graduated from high school and was having trouble finding a job. He became deeply involved in the canoe. He soaked up Ben’s stories of his early ancestors. A few months after their first acquaintance, Ben met Hoss on the beach.

“Hey Ben, I got a job now,” Hoss told him.

“Yeah, what?”

“Working for the telephone company.”

“How did you get that?”

“Well, I went for the interview and I told them about the canoe project and what we were doing and I got so enthusiastic they said, ‘well, you are an enthusiastic guy, we’ll hire you.’”

“It was a revelation,” Ben remembers, “Look at what the canoe can do for Hawaiians. This project is not going to be another Kon Tiki – eight haoles on a raft. We will make it a Hawaiian-Polynesian project and I will get my Hawaiian and Tahitian friends involved.”