A voyage of reconnection
“The goal is that people learn and understand a whole lot of the culture that comes with voyaging. This is a voyage that allows people to reconnect throughout the Pacific and then carry specific messages. The message is that we need to be aware of the issues that surround us as Pacific people in terms of what is happening to the ocean, what is happening to our land, and what is happening to our culture”-Hoturoa Kerr
The five vakas involved in the Pacific Voyagers project aroused a king wave of excitement and celebration each time they made land as they sailed between New Zealand and Rarotonga.
Funded by Dieter Paulmann and his Okeanos Foundation for the Sea – named after one of the Titans from Greek mythology – the quintet of double-hulled canoes may have borne a message about protecting ocean and marine life, but they also represented the future of voyaging itself in the South Pacific.
The ancient art of navigating via the heavens and the sea has been steadily fading into memory under the influence of modern technology, but this journey by an intrepid band of mariners proved the culture of voyaging is capable of being revived. This year’s ocean journey, in fact, was a dress rehearsal of sorts for 2011, when the five vakas will be joined by the remaining two Okeanos had constructed on a historic expedition to Hawaii, the modern-age home of ocean voyaging.
Turama spoke to a representative from each nation represented on the fleet, to ascertain the state of voyaging in the countries involved in the project.
President of Cook Islands Voyaging Society
Q: What is status of voyaging in the Cook Islands?
A: The Voyaging Society is quite healthy at the moment. We have over 80 members and two vakas. Te Au-o-Tonga is in Aitutaki, where we have 22 members there taking care of her, and now we have Marumaru Atua here in Rarotonga. Half of our crew are young people, under the age of 30, in what we call a youth bracket. I see this vaka of ours now growing the membership of young people wanting to voyage.
Q: Part of the idea of the voyage was to keep alive the traditions of navigating by the stars and the wind. How did that go?
A: It’s re-learning it, for a start, and then keeping those skills alive. Especially way-finding. Traditionally, in the last 15 years that I’ve been involved, Tua Pittman and Peia Patai have been our navigators. This time, from Auckland to Raivavae they weren’t able to join us, so it meant us members who normally would have just been crewmembers have had to step up and quickly learn how to navigate traditionally. It’s been very beneficial because, through that process, I’ve learned a lot on this voyage.
Q: How has this experience changed you?
A: In 1995 – when I originally went to Hawaii on Te Au-o-Tonga – that was a life-changing experience for me. I was previously involved in the performing arts and, immediately I stepped on the vaka and came back from Hawaii, I gave the performing arts away because I believe the vaka was our very first culture. It was how our ancestors got here. From that stemmed the preparation of food, language, and performance arts. So what I’ve done, in life changing, is go back to the original culture, which is the vaka.
Q: Do you have more respect for your ancestors and their voyaging skills after sailing on the vakas?
A: Most definitely. If you look closely, our ancestors always tried to sail as close into the wind as they could. They always went windward, which meant if they didn’t find land before their food and resources ran out, they had that same wind to bring them back to their island. They were intrepid. They just got up and went. They didn’t see the ocean as a barrier. It wasn’t something to stop them – it was a means of getting from one island to another. It was the pathway.
Q: Was this a bonding experience among all the vaka crews?
A: Most definitely. Everybody looked towards us as being the older brothers because we’ve been doing it for longer. And we looked upon them as our younger siblings and we looked at ourselves as being mentors. But what we found through the voyage was they, in some respects, were better than us. We did learn that, even though we’ve been sailing vakas for 15 years, we still really don’t know how to sail effectively. Because, on the other vakas, the crew on them have been part of racing teams and know about the trimming of sails and using the wind effectively. We found that we were lacking in that department.
Q: What’s next for the Cook Islands Voyaging Society?
A: This voyage, really, was a training run for our bigger voyage that we’re planning next year to Hawaii. This has given us a good indication of our abilities and for the next 8-10 months before we leave, we will be pushing for the training of our brothers and sisters from the other nations, and learning traditional navigation.
Q: What’s the meaning of your vaka’s name, Marumaru Atua?
A: The meaning is so beautiful: we’re under the umbrella of God, we’re under the protection of God. It was just a natural choice to embrace the name.
President of Tahiti Voyaging Society
Q: What is status of voyaging in Tahiti?
A: Voyaging, for us, is a medium. It’s only a way to do greater things. We have to go through it and learn how our ancestors used to voyage through the Pacific, and to regain that pride that we’ve lost. The Tahitian Voyaging Society is composed of about 20 different groups and we try to represent the islands of French Polynesia. We’re new to this game but we’re really positive about that. We have trained about 30 crewmembers and, basically, right now, we’re in a training period.
Q: How do you feel about being part of this experience?
A: Being part of it, for me, is like a dream come true. It’s a big thing on my shoulders right now but I’m feeling confident because I have good people around me.
Q: How have you and your fellow crewmembers changed personally?
A: It’s brought us together. It’s a learning experience for all of us.
Q: How has the reception been during your various stops in the Pacific?
A: It’s been great. I was almost shocked because I wasn’t expecting a big reception. People in other islands were really eager to see this canoe and what we’re doing. It puts a lot of hope in us and the work that we are doing.
Q: Tell us about the name of your vaka.
A: Faafaite is an old name that we lost that we’re trying to put back on today. ‘Faafaite’ means ‘reconciliation’. Reconciliation with the ocean, with the environment. Reconciliation with our brothers. We feel like we’re part of this big family but it’s not really real. And we hope that canoe will bring us together again.
Crewmember on Hine Moana
Q: What is the situation with voyaging as far as Tonga is concerned?
A: As far as I know, Tonga is quite new, but we have a society that just started in September last year. I didn’t know about voyaging until I went on this journey. When I get back (to Tonga) I have a mission: to bring it back.
Q: Tell us about the name of your vaka.
A: It means Lady of the Sea or, as I say it, Princess of the Ocean. There are 15 crew: three women, including me. Five from Vanuatu, eight from Samoa and I’m the only representative from Tonga. Hine Moana has a mixed crew, to get all the islands together to see how they can go – can they go well in one canoe or not. Everything went well.
Q: How have you enjoyed the voyage to date?
A: I’m happy, and I think I’m very lucky. I’ve got a lot experience with me to bring home. I’m very happy to be part of this voyage.
Q: How has this experience changed you?
A: It’s changed me totally, a hundred percent. I didn’t know about all these islands. Since we started from New Zealand and sailed across the ocean to our first island in the middle of nowhere, I found out this is where I should be. This is very important. History back at home is not real – this is real. Everywhere I’ve been, the experience, the hospitality, has been very, very high standard.
Q: Do you have new respect now for your ancestors who did this type of voyaging centuries ago?
A: A hundred per cent respect because I know they were a smart people; they were strong. The art of voyaging is getting lost but we need to bring it back. I learned lots on the canoe: work together and live as a family. I’m proud to be from a Pacific island.
Q: You’ll have been away from Tonga nearly three months by the time you return home. What are you missing most?
A: My island food. But, really, for the first time in my life, I don’t miss anything. I am the ocean. We are from there.
Executive member of Samoan Voyaging Society
Captain of Hine Moana
Q: Tell us about the Voyaging Society in Samoa.
A: The Voyaging Society has existed since 1970 but, when we heard about the availability of a vaka for this voyage, we made it official and registered the society in Samoa about a year ago. The purpose of the Voyaging Society is, first, to revive the tradition of sailing, as well as a cultural revival. And, at the same time, focus a big environment awareness in the island. We brought this message with us to all the places we travelled to.
Q: Is voyaging becoming more popular in Samoa?
A: It’s coming up. There weren’t many people involved. It was more people with a New Zealand background and a Samoan family. Most of the members have a Western education and background. But, as we do this voyage and sail back home, it will be the first major event in Samoa in terms of voyaging canoes. At this point, I’m sure the whole country will be aware of this particular voyage and the society and what we want to do.
Q: What will you take away from this voyage?
A: For me, it has been a massive experience. I’ve learned a lot about Polynesian culture, as well as how to live in such a restricted place. With 16 people together, we learned a lot about each other. We’ve had a few bumps along the way, but no drama and no injuries. Everybody is very happy and keen to continue.
Q: Did the voyage go pretty much as you thought it would? Were there any surprises, good or bad?
A: I didn’t know what to expect. I was hired to be the skipper of the Hine Moana for this voyage and only told me that, on the canoe, there would be people from Vanuatu, people from Tonga and people from Samoa. Let’s put them all together and see what happens. And so far, so good. Most of what I felt was just positive, just beautiful. Having all these countries together, that was a little bit hard at the beginning, it took a little bit longer to get a tight crew compared to the others, but everyone is very happy with what happened.
Q: Your vaka and the Matau O Maui have electric engines powered by solar energy. How has that worked out?
A: It’s definitely a prototype. The power we have in the batteries comes from the sun. The idea is not to carry any fossil fuel onboard and be 100 per cent independent so you never need to go to the gas station. As long as the sun is shining, you can keep going. In terms of capacity and performance, we can sail on a shiny day under the sun power only, at three knots for as long as the sun is shining. At night, we use the power from the batteries. It’s a new concept for boats and worked really, really well. I’ve been very happy to be on this vaka and not have to smell the fuel. With the electric engine, we use the wind as much as we can. It pushes you to take more advantage of the wind.
Crewmember on Matau O Maui
Q: Can you tell us about the status of voyaging in New Zealand?
A: It’s in pretty good shape. We’ve got maybe four canoes in New Zealand now that we can use for training. We have a number of different groups that do the voyaging. We’ve got quite a good base of sailors. The bonus of this trip is that it’s allowed a lot of the experienced sailors that we have in New Zealand to sail alongside some of the less-experienced guys and, together, they’re building up that skill and talent base for the voyage next year to Hawaii.
Q: Will this voyage have an impact on New Zealand’s voyaging community?
A: The ultimate goal isn’t to try to get more members to join the voyaging society. I think the goal is that people learn and understand a whole lot of the culture that comes with voyaging. This is a voyage that allows people to reconnect throughout the Pacific and then carry specific messages. The message is that we need to be aware of the issues that surround us as Pacific people in terms of what is happening to the ocean, what is happening to our land, and what is happening to our culture. These are things that are based around what our ancestors knew.
Q: Do you think this voyage has been a success as far as unifying the Pacific nations?
A: I think it has. It’s been a process of sharing language, sharing songs, sharing stories. That type of togetherness, it makes everyone tighter. They understand how they come from the same historical backgrounds and they all have the same kinds of issues for the future.
President of Fiji Islands Voyaging Society
Q: What is the status of the voyaging society in Fiji?
A: We’re fairly new; we only formed last year. It’s been a little bit like being in a Ferrari: we’ve gone from nought to 100 in under 10 months. The best thing about this voyage is training the crew, and the recognition we’re getting back home is immense. Our membership is growing by the week.
Q: How experienced is the crew on Fiji’s vaka, Uto ni Yalo?
A: There are five or six who have been on fishing boats for many years. I’ve been sailing for 35-40 years.
Q: What did you hope to achieve by being part of this voyage?
A: There are two main aspects of it. The cultural aspect and the reviving of our marine heritage – Fiji has a very strong tie to the ocean. The other part of it is the environmental part of it. We believe the two aspects work in harmony and complement each other.
Q: What do you take away from an adventure like this?
A: There are two things that really impacted me personally – visiting all these wonderful islands and the welcomes that we’ve had, but also meeting people. We’ve met some fantastic people. It’s the friendships that we take away that we’ll treasure forever.
Q: Are there any skills you’ve identified on this voyage that will need to be developed for future voyages?
A: We’re pretty strong on the sailing side of things. We have very good carvers onboard; we have a weaver. But where we’re still behind the Cook Islands is in traditional navigation. That’s where we’ve really got to focus over the next eight months before we go to Hawaii.
Crewmember on Hine Moana
Q: What is happening with voyaging in Vanuatu?
A: At the moment, we don’t have anything. That’s why we got the boys together to come up here to learn and train. We have to know how to sail before we get our own vaka.
Q: The idea, then, is to take what you’ve learned on this voyage back to Vanuatu and start a voyaging society?
A: Yes. That’s what we have planned.
Q: Is there a history of voyaging in Vanuatu and will your experiences now help revive that tradition?
A: There are 83 islands in Vanuatu. For us, in our culture, we used to use the traditional canoe to sail around to get food and fish. We’ve come up to train and learn. We have to get the skills and then go back to the people in Vanuatu to train them for the future when we have our own vaka.
Q: Did you learn a lot from this voyage?
A: We did learn a lot. It was a big experience for us, the Vanuatu boys. When we go back to Vanuatu, we have to tell them all about the voyage. We’re here to learn and get more experience on different vakas. Learn the stars and navigation. Learn the winds and the weather.
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