In 2013, a ship called the Hōkūleʻa embarked on an epic journey to sail around the globe. With no GPS, no motor or modern navigation technology, the crew set out to sail just as their ancestors had thousands of years ago; along the way celebrating their Polynesian heritage, and maintaining an artform 3500 years old.
On this installation of Saturdays Around the World we are, quite literally, taking a journey around the world. Venturing, as ancient mariners once did, out into the vast expanse of our planet’s oceans on the Hōkūleʻa; a ship that has become an emblem of cultural revival, historical celebration, and ancient knowledge passed down through generations.
Here’s how this dream came to life, and the kind of knowledge they are putting into action along the way.
For the ancient Polynesian peoples who populated the islands across the Pacific islands like Hawaii, Tahiti, and Rapa Nui, the ocean was not an impediment to progress but a vast highway connecting their world. On open-deck, double-hulled canoes powered by the wind, masterful navigators read the waves, skies, stars, and winds to traverse vast expanses of the open sea. These navigators were emblems of a rich body of maritime knowledge that was almost lost to history.
Saving History on a Sailing Ship
As traditional sailing and navigation techniques became less popular, this ancient knowledge — 2000 years of it —was almost lost entirely. But then, in the 1970s, the artist Herb Kane had the idea to revive a piece of Polynesian culture in Hawaii. His vision was to build and sail a double-hulled sailing canoe. It had been 600 years since anybody had built such a vessel. And to construct and sail it took a massive effort from people with a vast range of expertise.
In 1976, Hōkūleʻa sailed the 2,629 miles (4,231 km) from Hawaii to Tahiti on its first major voyage. It was an enormous success, with nearly 17,000 people gathering to celebrate its arrival. Since then, Hōkūleʻa has become a symbol of strength and tradition. A tool not only meant to keep ancient knowledge alive but to celebrate the richness of Polynesian culture! 1
After traversing the islands of the Pacific, Hōkūleʻa took on her most ambitious journey yet: to sail around the world. For some of the back story of this remarkable journey, and to see a first-hand account of the legacy Hōkūleʻa has had on a new generation of traditional navigators, we have a great video for you from Great Big Story!
If you’d like to keep up with Hōkūleʻa and the Polynesian Voyaging Society you can check out their website. I also suggest you follow them on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to see some of the beautiful images from their voyages!
So, how do you navigate such a ship? And how did people traverse the oceans before modern technology?
These navigation techniques stretch back to 1500 BC when the first Polynesians began sailing away from their homelands in the South Pacific to explore the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. For them, this 160 million square kilometer expanse was not an obstacle but a highway.
Over the course of centuries, these explorers would settle islands over a 40 million square kilometer area. Along the way spreading their cultural traditions across the vastness of the Pacific ocean. Using the sun, moon, stars, swells, and cloud patterns they learned to read the landscape of the open ocean and navigate its vast expanses.
This great piece from TED-Ed, explains how these ancient Polynesian navigators were able to find their way across the Pacific ocean and become some of the greatest explorers in history!
The Crafts of our Ancestors
Our crafts, whether they are in navigation, knitting, or knowing the perfect time to harvest a crop, are the result of years of mastery passed down from hand to hand, and mind to mind. Technology can create a wonderful facsimile of many a piece of culture. But it’s the connection of hand, to mind, to teacher stretching back generations that adds soul to the artifacts we treasure.
Losing a skill that is so central to our cultural heritage seems so devastating because there is an element of teaching necessary to pass it down. Craft is a universal part of human culture. In corners across the globe, you will find people fighting for, and preserving their cultural knowledge.
If you’d like to check out a few of them, take a second to explore our Circle about preserving cultural heritage!
What traditions are central to your identity? How has your heritage informed your way of life? What can we learn from the beautiful traditions of others?
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
Tell us about your traditions!
- Hōkūleʻa. “The Story of Hōkūleʻa.” Hōkūleʻa, www.hokulea.com/voyages/our-story/. Accessed 13 June 2019. ↩
- Great Big Story. “Sailing Across the World’s Oceans with No Tech.” YouTube, Great Big Story, 27 July 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk1gYmPjdyY. Accessed 15 May 2019. ↩
- TED-Ed. “How Did Polynesian Wayfinders Navigate the Pacific Ocean? – Alan Tamayose and Shantell De Silva.” YouTube, TED-Ed, 17 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8bDCaPhOek. Accessed 15 May 2019. ↩