Sailing the Star Paths
"Why have you voyaged to our island? Who are you? If you come in peace, you are welcome. If in war, we will kill you where you stand!"
The interrogator's warriors are arrayed behind him along the beach. Further inland stand lines of young women dressed in short skirts of pili grass, their black hair glistening under the tropical sun. Over the visitor's shoulders, I see three large voyaging canoes, their double hulls rising and falling with the gentle swell, their crews poised to swarm ashore if violence erupts.
The interrogator steps back and stands proud before his warriors. The silence is tense. It is the visitor's turn to speak.
"I come in peace from a far distant island. I am a prince of New Zealand, descended from the first voyagers who settled our island. But if your intention is war, your blood will wash the shore clean."
I stand transfixed. The crowd jostles around me, pushing forward. A young girl giggles, breaking the spell.
I have just witnessed a "recreation" of an ancient scene, a ritualized greeting that was common throughout Polynesia in a time when powerful voyaging canoes plied the Pacific in great numbers. These canoes are replicas. The island's warriors are high school students, the visitors are men and women dedicated to the revitalization of Polynesian culture through retracing the ancient voyaging routes taken by their ancestors.
It is April 14, 1995. I am on the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. Assembled in the harbor after an arduous 750 mile voyage from Tahiti are seven canoes. Each is the recreation of an ancient design. They represent the Cook Islands, The Societies, New Zealand and Hawaii - the core cultural areas of the Eastern Polynesian triangle. In a few days, this fleet will sail from the Marquesas to Hawaii, 1700 miles across a trackless ocean wilderness. And they will find their way by the signs that once guided their ancestors - the arc of stars, the slope of ocean swells, the flight of birds.
My mission here is personal - a voyage back to my own roots. My father was Polynesian -- born in Hawaii but sent as a teenager to a boarding school in Connecticut. He stayed in New England, and died there, never having returned to the islands. I am returning for him.
In the Hawaii that my father grew up in, the population of native Hawaiians had been nearly eradicated by disease. The language was not taught, in fact, was forbidden in Hawaiian schools. Hawaiian culture was in danger of being lost. But in 1976, a remarkable event stirred the imagination of all Polynesians. Hokule'a, the replica of an ancient voyaging canoe, set out from Hawaii to retrace the mythic voyaging route to Tahiti. Sailing across 2200 miles of open ocean, the canoe was guided by one of the last navigators to know the signs written in waves and stars, Mau Piailug from the tiny Micronesian atoll of Satawal. After thirty days at sea, Hokule'a was welcomed by the largest throng ever to assemble in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.
In 1981, I began work on a PBS documentary to celebrate the seafaring skills of my ancestors. I delved deeply into scientific studies of Polynesian prehistory to discover that linguistics, Carbon 14 dates, blood types, and the archaeological affinities between islands all confirm that the Polynesians settled the pacific by sailing east against the prevailing winds in powerful canoes much like Hokule'a. Later, I journeyed to Satawal to sail with Mau Piailug aboard his swift proa which he fashioned without plans or metal fastenings from the log of a breadfruit tree. At night, in his darkened canoe house, he unfolded a woven pandanus mat before me and placed 32 lumps of coral upon it to represent the rising and setting points of the stars that define his "star compass." He taught me the direction of ocean swells that he steered by when clouds obscured the sky. Mau allowed me to enter a world in which writing, maps, sextants and compasses were replaced by a knowledge of nature so profound that he could sail with confidence anywhere in the world.
"When I first set out aboard Hokule'a from Hawaii to Tahiti, I was afraid," he told me. "But then I remembered the teaching of my ancestors and I found courage. With this courage, I will never be lost."
Now, the spark kindled by Hokule'a's voyage has inspired other islanders to build their own canoes. Hence this fleet of Polynesian sail assembled in the harbor of Nuku Hiva. As I watch a line of dancers perform a graceful hula on the temple platform overlooking the harbor, I feel the power of my Polynesian ancestors - their mana - enter my soul. If this powerful emotion is possible for me, a Hawaiian by virtue of a small percentage of my blood, one born and raised on "The Mainland," what must it be like for the crews of the canoes?
I have sailed to Nuku Hiva aboard Rizaldar, a powerful 43 foot Swan sloop. She is a one of seven escort vessels which will accompany the fleet on their voyage to Hawaii.
"Our first priority is safety," says Nainoa Thompson, leader of the expedition, "and so without the escorts to protect the canoes we would not be able to make these long voyages."
The escort fleet is varied. There is Goodwind, Captain Terry Causey, a 51 foot long sloop built in 1927 of iron plate. She was once a training vessel for German naval officers. Gershon II, Captain Steve Kornberg, and Kama Hele, Captain Alex Jakubenku, are steel motor sailors which Alex built from the keel up as escort vessels. Three Daughters, Captain Peter Giles, is 60 foot long Herrischoff Mobjack Ketch. Pozzuolana, Captain Joe Tragovich, is a ferro-cement sloop. On the Way is a 38 foot Morgan cutter-rigged sloop, modified for a single handed passage around the world by Captain Bob Jans. Rizaldar, Captain Randy Wichman, is a 43 foot Swan, the speed demon of the fleet.
The "admiral" of the escort fleet is Alex Jakubenku. Red-faced with a shock of white hair and bushy eyebrows, Alex is about 5' 10" tall. Russian born, he escaped the Nazis to fight with the French underground - the Maquis - during World War II. He is 71 years old, but looks 50. Alex appears to be an amiable bear but is known as a demanding captain.
"My boat, my life and the lives of everyone on board would be sacrificed to save the life of just one crew member of one canoe under our care. Without hesitation! I tell this to everyone who comes aboard and if they do not agree completely they are off my vessel. Simple as that."
It is not idle talk. In 1980, Alex was escorting Hokule'a on a training voyage off a lee shore when a terrific storm descended on the two vessels. Hokule'a's tow line parted and the canoe drifted perilously close to the breakers. Ordering his crew to don life-vests and swim to shore if the rescue mission failed, Alex took his ship so close to the breakers that spray from them swept his decks. Hooking up, he held the canoe off shore for hours until a Coast Guard vessel came to their rescue.
"Without Alex, Hokule'a would have gone ashore and been destroyed," says Nainoa. "He is awesome!"
Rizaldar's mission is different.
"We are Nainoa's eyes and ears," says Captain Randy Wichman.
As the "ears" of the fleet, Rizaldar maintains the communications net - originating a single side band "fleet roll call" twice a day. At 0830 and 2030, according to a standard protocol, each vessel relays course, speed, status of crew and equipment and intentions.
As the "eyes" of the fleet, Rizaldar has no canoe to escort but is constantly roving, visually checking the status of each canoe. The fastest vessel in the fleet, she is prepared to speed wherever she may be needed. On the voyage down to Tahiti, two days out of Honolulu, a crew member aboard Kama Hele suffered a serious wound. Rizaldar picked him up and sailed to meet a Coast Guard vessel speeding to the scene.
"We should have a big 911 stenciled on our hull," jokes one Rizaldar crew member.
The Southern Cross
Tuesday, April 18th. A full moon rises over the anchored canoes, spreading a silver sheen across the harbor of Nuku Hiva. The gentle light reveals a hidden shape in the surrounding mountains - the open palm of a giant hand. The canoes seem to rest in the flesh of the palm. At the mouth of the harbor, the fingers spread to form the twin Sentinels, spikes of lava guarding the entrance on either side. The Southern Cross lies on her side between the Sentinels. Tomorrow, in the time it takes for the Southern Cross to wheel across the sky, the canoes will set sail for Hawaii, 1800 miles away. As in the past, the fate of each canoe will depend on how well their navigators can read the patterns of the night sky.
To steer their canoes without instruments, the navigators use a modified version of Mau's "star compass." At the same latitude, the stars rise and set in the same place, night after night. In Hawaiian waters, for example, Deneb rises in the north east (46 degrees) and arcs across the sky to set in the north west (314 degrees) defining two points on the star compass. Shaula rises close to south east (127 degrees) and sets near the south west (233 degrees.) South is defined by the pointing stars in the Southern Cross. North is in the direction of Polaris. (Adjustments must be made as the canoe moves into different latitudes.) Nainoa and the other navigators in the fleet will use a modified version of Mau's star compass to guide them to Hawaii. [Diagram here?]
April 24. On our second day at sea, I stand the midnight to six watch.
Our course is 320 magnetic. I decide to try steering by the stars. First, I calibrate my personal version of the star compass by the magnetic compass, then cover the binnacle. The Big Dipper is almost straight up and down. The stars in the bottom of the Dipper's cup line up with Rizaldar's tilted mast. The constellation stretches high so that when clouds obscure the cup I steer by the handle. I keep The Porpoise, one of my favorite constellations, off the starboard beam and the Southern Cross just over the top of the Mariner outboard motor stowed on the port rail. At about 2:30 A.M. the moon rises and sends a shimmering path across the swells, another guide to steer by.
By checking the binnacle every fifteen minutes and making adjustments as the stars wheel across the sky, I find that I can guide Rizaldar easily by the compass in the sky. But Mau and the others have no magnetic compass to check. They have memorized the rising and setting points of hundreds of stars. And I have chosen a clear night for my experiment. What must it be like to guide a canoe when clouds obscure all but a few stars?
A canoe is lost
Sunday, April 23rd, 0830 roll call begins with Captain Randy Wichman routinely calling for the positions of the vessels. The routine is short lived.
"Break, Break, this is On The Way, I have lost contact with my canoe."
This is an emergency message. Position reporting stops. Nainoa, aboard Hokule'a comes up on the net to seek details - where, when, how.
"I lost contact with Te'aurere at 2040 hours in a squall and I hove to," reports Bob. "I stayed hove to until 0400 when the visibility improved, then I began a quartering search pattern. The last I heard of the canoe on VHF was at 2240. She was reporting that she was heaving to in another squall."
Losing contact with a canoe in bad weather is relatively common. But why was Bob unable to raise them again on VHF or single sideband? Could they be disabled? Even worse, could the canoe have gone down? Quickly estimating the drift of a disabled canoe, a box search area is established. On The Way will sail up the east side of the box and Gershon II will patrol the west side. Aboard Rizaldar, Randy searches the fleet frequencies for Te'aurere. On the 2182 megahertz band he finds them.
"Rizaldar this is Te'aurere. We experienced a serious battery failure last night and we lost radio contact." The signal is weak, dying. Randy requests approximate position.
Te'aurere heaves to. It will take four hours for On the Way to reestablish visual contact. The smooth handling of the emergency is a vindication of fleet procedures worked out before the voyage.
"You all did the right thing," says Nainoa over the net. "Good work."
Rizaldar takes up position near the fleet's eastern flanker - Takitumu. Having raced at 9.5 knots to join up with her, we now stall the boat to stay with the canoe - moving due north at about six knots under a tiny fore triangle and reefed main.
Off watch, I try to sleep. The boat rocks gently. The sun slants into the main saloon, sending a square of light to pendulum over my bunk, up to the bunk above, then back down again. The single side band, tuned to the fleet frequency, spits and whistles and occasionally erupts in distant alien chatter.
Now begins the pattern of our voyage, one or two days of slow monotonous station keeping followed by a day or two of "flybys" - high speed dashes with all sails set to visually checkout and visit with one of the canoes.
To the eye of a Western seafarer, the shapes of the Polynesian canoes are unsettling. Takitumu's triangular sail tilts its apex to the wind, not the sky. The rest raise sails shaped like crab claws, with the largest area of sail aloft - the reverse of the Western Marconi rig.
"Ancient sails were made of woven fibers like lauhala (pandanus)" explains Hokule'a's captain, Chad Baybayan. "Modern sail cloth can take the strain imposed on the top of the marconi rigged sail. Lauhala would rip out. So I think the ancient sails were designed to spread the strain more easily across the fabric."
All the canoes are double hulled, catamaran-like. Their broad decks (42 feet long by ten feet wide for Hokule'a) are perfect for carrying large crews and cargo on voyages of discovery. And the Polynesians certainly built canoes twice the size of the replicas they sail today. Hokule'a's crew sleeps in the hulls under a tent or on deck in calm weather, much like the ancient Polynesians may have done. All the canoes can easily make five and a half knots on the wind and as much as twelve with the wind behind them. Voyaging aboard Hokule'a during an earlier inter-island trip in Hawaiian waters was like riding a rocket sled. Four of us were required to man three sweeps to keep the canoe under control!
At sea, Fleet Communications Net, VHF channel 72.
"Teo O Tonga, this is Three Daughters. I am doing 9.5 knots, with my engine going full speed and you are going faster. Slow down so that I can catch you."
With a steady beam wind, the Cook Island canoe outruns a modern motor sailor. Te'au O Tonga is sharp hulled and light. Everyone knew that she would be fast. But not this fast!
Life on Board
Saturday, April 22nd. Rizaldar proceeds north into a zone of squalls. Groggy with lack of sleep, I struggle up the companionway at midnight to relieve the watch. Ironically, because she is such a pretty yacht, many in the fleet assume Rizaldar is comfortable. They envision air conditioning, sofas in the main cabin, a television set. The reverse is true.
The Swan is all business. The cockpit holds three fifteen gallon plastic drums of diesel fuel, allowing room for only the two people on watch. There is no bimini, so we bake under the constant tropical sun. Underway, We carry only 100 gallons of water so none of it is wasted on such luxuries as bathing. After a few days at sea, my skin is rimed with an unsavory blend of salt and sweat.
During the first excruciating days before I get my sea legs, Rizaldar pitches and rolls in heavy weather. I am certain that her fury is directed at me - she wants to buck me off and throw me to the sharks. Changing the watch at night, I confront a mental image of myself bobbing helplessly in the Swan's shimmering wake.
April 24. The fleet approaches the equator with Rizaldar holding "search and rescue" position in the middle of the formation. The wind blows from the northeast at 10 to 15 knots. A blessing. If this continues we will be in Hawaiian waters in record time.
At sunset we pass a school of bottle nosed dolphins. A few hours earlier we caught a 45 pound Aku (Bonito). As we sail over the equator, we feast on Aku steaks and break out a can of cold beer for each of the crew.
As we move from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern, Polaris rises out of the sea. The Southern Cross sinks lower. Some stars that once wheeled across the sky are now below the horizon. New ones take their place. For traditional navigators, the height of stars above the horizon at their meridian crossing (highest rising) is the key to latitude.
To help judge their height, Nainoa and his students use various pairs of stars that are a known number of degrees apart. Gacrux and Acrux, in the Southern Cross, for example, are six degrees apart. When the Southern Cross is upright (with Gacrux directly above Acrux) and the traditional navigator observes that the distance between Acrux and the horizon is the same as the distance between Acrux and Gacrux, the canoe is in the latitude of Hawaii (21 degrees north - see diagram, position one). Similarly, when the Southern Cross lies on its side Becrux is directly above Acruz. When the distance between them (four degrees) is the same as the distance between Acrux and the horizon, the canoe is at 21 degrees, 14 minutes north latitude, the same as Hawaii's South Point. (Diagram, position two). Many other star pairs are used during the journey to help determine latitude in a similar way.
"This is a kind of crutch that I use," says Nainoa Thompson. "Mau is so familiar with the sky that just by looking at the dome of stars and its overall shape he knows his latitude."
Steering by the waves
April 29. Dark clouds march in from the east carrying a veil of rain beneath them. We take fresh water showers in the downbursts as the Swan buries her rail and rushes along at 9 knots. At four in the afternoon, I take the helm. With the sky completely clouded over, the canoe navigators cannot see the sun. They must be steering by the waves alone.
"One of the most difficult things to do is to learn to feel the waves," says Bruce Blankenfield, navigator of Hawai'iloa. "You always sit on the same side of the canoe when you are steering by the waves. You feel the way the canoe moves, does the bow rise first, does it fall off in a certain way, when does the second hull rise, the stern. There is a pattern to it that you have got to lock onto or you will get lost for sure."
"On the voyage between Hawaii and Tahiti, we had an entire night when we passed through squalls and we could not see the sky, so we had to steer by the waves. Before the squalls, I had a small patch of sky and a few stars near the Southern Cross that I could see so I was steering by them and I calibrated the wave patterns by them. We were steering south of east. Then the sky closed down and the wind came up so we had to brail up our sails and even so we were really moving. I steered by the waves during the night but after about eight hours the sky cleared and I could see the Southern Cross and we were still steering south of east. So I felt real good that the technique worked and I was able to use it."
Aboard Rizaldar, I decide to experiment with wave steering. First, I orient the wave train, large and steady swells moving under the boat from a little north of east. I notice that the surface of the sea is striated by the wave sets - a series of parallel diagonal lines marching to the vanishing point. I cover the compass and steer by keeping Rizaldar at a constant angle to these lines. As I focus on the far horizon, the wave train becomes a "heads up display" that allows me to engage in the larger world around me. My steering becomes more fluid and sure. Checking the compass, I find that I am invariably heading due north.
The Polynesian Renaissance
On May 6, after 17 days at sea, Rizaldar slides west in light airs under genoa and main. At 1045 the haze ahead darkens at the horizon, then hardens to reveal the shape of Hawaii's South Point. Landfall.
Behind us the canoes and their escorts are strung out in an uneven column. Te'au O Tonga is already in port, having set a record passage, but now every canoe has arrived safely after a voyage 2500 miles long and as deep as the human imagination. A gentle melancholy settles over Rizaldar's crew - an expectancy mingled with regret that this voyage, one that has tapped our emotions and physical endurance, is almost over.
Reflecting back on the trip, I remember one night in particular. As we moved through the Equatorial Counter Current, during the midnight to six watch, I experienced the arc of stars above me wheel across the sky. Some tribal people believe the stars are the spirits of their ancestors. On that night, I imagined that a pair of stars rising off the starboard bow were the spirits of my mother and father. I felt a deep welling of emotion. I imagined the milky way to be a trail of my ancestors stretching back to the original seeding of my blood line. As I looked over the side of the vessel, I saw glowing plankton turn the sea as effervescent as champagne. Large globs of green light flared up, shimmered for an instant, then slowly faded. I seemed to float through a universe of jewels, the stars above and the sea below. Here, perhaps as far away from the influence of modern life as one can get, time stood still. I imagined myself on the deck of a Polynesian canoe, making the first voyage to Hawaii. The past lived.
The renaissance of voyaging that began in Hawaii has now spread throughout Polynesia. For Rizaldar crew member Karim Cowan, a Tahitian captain, navigator and canoe builder, it has brought a profound change of course in the life of his people.
"When Captain Cook came to our islands, a European way of living and thinking replaced or Polynesian way. When I went to school, for example, the teacher used to strike me if he caught me speaking Tahitian. 'You will only speak French,' he said. Now, with the increase in voyaging, it is as if we have been given back our culture. Young teachers are teaching Tahitian in the schools. Rediscovering our voyaging has given Tahitian children something to look up to. A while ago I saw my teacher in the street and I went up to him, 'You should not have forbidden us to speak our own language,' I told him. He did not say anything. He just hung his head."
Later, at the final ceremonies celebrating the voyage, Captain Chad Baybayan of Hokule'a summed up the meaning of the voyage for Hawaiians.
"Let us not forget that it was men and women very much like us that set out on the long voyages and that from these voyages came our Polynesian culture. Our youth today sail with us, and with them we have the means to perpetuate that culture. Our horizon is bright."