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The Hokule'a: Background information when reading Pacific

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Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers

by Simon Winchester

Pacific by Simon Winchester X
Pacific by Simon Winchester
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 512 pages
    Oct 2016, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

The Hokule'a

This article relates to Pacific

Print Review

In Pacific, author Simon Winchester closes with the image of the vessel Hokule'a, which he views as a symbol of hope for the people of the Pacific Islands and a physical manifestation of a return of respect for indigenous traditions.

The Hokule'a is built in the tradition of the ancient Hawaiian double-hulled voyaging canoe known as wa'a kaulua. Its name, which means "Star of Gladness," is what Hawaiians call the star, Arcturus. Since the Hokule'a's launch from O'ahu on March 8, 1975, the ship has sailed over 140,000 nautical miles using only native navigational techniques (more on this below).

In 1973 a group of Polynesian specialists and canoe enthusiasts formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Their objective at the time was to test whether a long-distance sea journey could be successfully accomplished using only native skills; a round trip to Tahiti – a distance of over 4,600 nautical miles – was their chosen goal. According to a PBS report, "Archaeologists, maritime historians, and anthropologists collaborated on the design of a vessel that would simulate an ancient craft in shape, weight, and performance," although artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kane, one of the founders of the PVS, is widely credited for the ship's ultimate layout.

The ship has two 62-foot hulls connected by crossbeams to which decking has been lashed. It weighs eight tons and can take a load of about 5.5 tons (including crew). It has no engine, relying entirely on the wind in its two sails for propulsion; it's steered with a long paddle. "Although the society wanted to use traditional materials (koa wood hulls, lauhala sails, sennit lashing) and traditional tools (adzes, bone gouges, coral files, and sharkskin for sanding)...the construction would have been too time-consuming as the builders tried to relearn the arts of working with such materials and tools. Instead, the hulls were constructed out of plywood, fiberglass, and resin, and the sails were made from canvas; the lashings were done with synthetic cordage."

The Hokule'a The ship's approximately 400' of livable space is occupied by 12 – 16 crewmates. One recent sailor wrote in his blog, "Sleeping quarters are even more cramped and less than comfortable. The sleeping compartments run the length of both sides of the deck and are covered with canvas. Individual spaces measure about 6 feet in length and 3 feet across, usually with two crew members assigned to each space. One person sleeps while the other stands watch. Personal belongings are stowed here, with each crew member allowed one 48 quart cooler. Beds consist of a board placed over the coolers, covered by a sleeping pad."

The biggest challenge the PVS faced on its first voyage to Tahiti was finding a suitable navigator, as native navigational techniques had been almost completely lost to history. The society serendipitously met and ultimately hired Pius Piailug (1932 – 2010) from the Carolinian island of Satawal, known predominantly by his nickname, "Mau," (from the Satawalese word maumau - "strong"). Mau relied on the swell of the seas, the winds, the stars and especially birds to calculate position. He could often be seen lying in the bottom of a rowboat, using the movement of the water to learn to "feel" the ocean.

The voyage was a complete success; Hokule'a departed from Honolulu Bay, Maui on May 1, 1976 and arrived in Tahiti 34 days later, on June 4. 17,000 people – over half the island's population – came out to greet the ship on its arrival. Its triumph changed the reigning theory of how the Pacific islands were first populated, upsetting the belief that they were first inhabited by "castaways" as it became apparent they were, in fact, found through deliberate acts of exploration.

Since its maiden expedition, the Hokule'a has completed nine others, with trips to Micronesia, Polynesia, Japan, Canada, and the United States. On May 18, 2014, the Hokule'a began a three-year circumnavigation of the earth. It is expected to visit 85 ports in 26 countries and to cover 47,000 nautical miles. As of October, 2016 the vessel was along the east coast of the United States.

Picture of Hokule'a arrival in Honolulu from Tahiti in 1976 by Phil Uhl

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Pacific. It originally ran in November 2015 and has been updated for the October 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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