Excerpt from Sea People by Christina Thompson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Sea People

The Puzzle of Polynesia

by Christina Thompson

Sea People by Christina Thompson X
Sea People by Christina Thompson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 384 pages

    Mar 2020, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Print Excerpt

Leaving the Hawaiian Islands, Mau steered east-southeast toward the rising point of Antares, "a red giant of a star" in the constellation Scorpius, known to Polynesians as "the Fishhook of Maui." Finney watched Mau watching the sky and the sea, describing it as "a rare privilege" to see a master navigator at work. Thomas Gladwin, the anthropologist, had observed that Carolinian navigators remained continually alert during a voyage. "They say," he wrote, that "you can tell the experienced navigators by their bloodshot eyes." Mau, thought Finney, "looks the part," almost never sleeping, just catnapping from time to time. "Most of the time he stands leaning on the deck railing, or sits perched atop it, checking the sea, the sails and at night the stars."

Although some of those on board were experienced sailors— Mau, Kawika, Lewis, Finney—many of the crew were what are known in Hawai'i as "watermen," meaning surfers, paddlers, and lifeguards. They were good swimmers, strong and at home in the sea, but they had never crewed professionally or sailed long distances. Just six days out, one of them startled the relief captain by asking, "Hey, we almost there?" In fact, it would be more than three weeks before they saw land again. A long spell in the Doldrums with fitful, shifting winds and periods of glassy calm—the sea, as one recorder of the story put it, "smoothed to a vast skin of heaving mercury under a copper sun"—only aggravated the situation. One of the crew members became nearly catatonic, while others retreated into a sullen funk.

As they drew closer to their target, Lewis began to fear that they had been pushed too far west. But Mau seemed "calmly confident," and on the thirtieth day of the voyage he predicted that they would reach the Tuamotus the next day. Not long after this, a crew member spotted some white fairy terns. Then the regular trade-wind swell faltered. "An island lies out there," wrote Finney. "But which island? And how far away?" The next day, the Hōkūle'a made landfall on Mataiva, at the extreme northwestern edge of the Tuamotu Archipelago, less than two hundred miles north of Tahiti.

Hokuleʻa arrived in the Tahitian capital of Papeete on the morning of June 4. Unbeknownst to the crew, who had been out of radio communication with the rest of the world, the Tahitians had been avidly following Hokuleʻa's progress, posting the canoe's daily position on charts tacked up around the city and broadcasting updates in newspapers, radio, and TV. The Governor of French Polynesia had declared the day of their arrival a public holiday; schools and businesses were closed, and the harbor was filled with hundreds of paddling canoes, launches, and yachts. People had begun gathering at the harbor the previous night, and by the time the canoe arrived, wrote Finney, "they were everywhere, standing knee deep in the surf, surging over the reef, jammed along the shore, perched atop waterfront buildings and weighing down the limbs of shade trees lining the water's edge." More than 17,000 people—over half the population of the island—had come to witness Hokuleʻa's arrival. On shore there was cheering and the beating of drums, then as the canoe approached a silence fell over the crowd, and a church choir lifted up its voice in a Tahitian hymn of welcome composed specially for the day. The effect, as thousands joined in, recalled one eyewitness, was "spine-tingling."

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Excerpted from Sea People by Christina Thompson. Copyright © 2019 by Christina Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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