Story: Canoe navigation

Page 4. Decline and renaissance of canoe voyaging

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Knowledge and practice of traditional methods of navigation declined after Europeans colonised the Pacific. Canoes were replaced by European ships, and some colonial governments introduced regulations restricting free movement between different administrative territories.

The decline was so dramatic that theorists about canoe voyaging began to deny that Pacific journeys were possible. Andrew Sharp, in his book Ancient voyagers in the Pacific (1957), suggested that because Polynesian craft were vulnerable to swamping and breaking up, ancestors could not have voyaged for distances greater than 480 km. Partly to test such theories, replica canoes were built and sailed.

Renaissance: the Hōkūle‘a

The Polynesian Voyaging Society of Hawaii built the Hōkūle‘a, a 20-metre double-hulled canoe, from fibreglass and plywood. In 1976 it completed a return voyage to Tahiti under the guidance of Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from Satawal in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. A second return voyage to Tahiti was made in 1980. These voyages proved that navigation without modern instruments was possible.

Piailug's teaching emphasised the spirit it took to be a navigator:

I have no fear when I am at sea because I have faith in the words of the ancestors. This faith is what we call courage. With this courage you can travel anywhere in the world and not get lost. Because I have faith in the words of my ancestors, I am a navigator. I learned these words when I was a young boy in my father's canoe. 1

Piailug instructed a young Hawaiian, Nainoa Thompson. In turn, Thompson taught a new generation of young navigators from Tahiti, the Marquesas, Rarotonga and New Zealand. In 1985 Thompson launched a two-year voyage of rediscovery, sailing the Hōkūle‘a from Hawaii, around the Pacific islands and New Zealand, and home again. Traditional vessels were proven not to be inferior to modern yachts when the European boat that escorted the Hōkūle‘a on its voyage broke down and had to be escorted to Rarotonga for repairs.

In 1999 and 2000, the Hōkūle‘a sailed from Hawaii to Easter Island and back, one of the longest and most difficult pathways travelled by the Polynesian ancestors. Six women crewed on the return leg to Hawaii; one, Pi‘ikea Miller, became the first woman navigator of the modern period.

  1. Interview with Mau Piailug, 1972. › Back
How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe navigation - Decline and renaissance of canoe voyaging', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005