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Voyaging canoes can boost isle nations’ sustainability

  • Hikianalia’s amenities include a photovoltaic array mounted on her stern. This photo was taken during Hoku­le‘a and Hiki­ana­lia’s sail from Hono­lulu to Hilo. (Courtesy Oiwi TV)
Hikianalia’s amenities include a photovoltaic array mounted on her stern. This photo was taken during Hoku­le‘a and Hiki­ana­lia’s sail from Hono­lulu to Hilo. (Courtesy Oiwi TV)
Hikianalia’s amenities include a photovoltaic array mounted on her stern. This photo was taken during Hoku­le‘a and Hiki­ana­lia’s sail from Hono­lulu to Hilo. (Courtesy Oiwi TV)


ABOARD HOKULE’A >> Keen awareness of environmental challenges faced by our blue planet must be combined with creative and practical solutions that bring prosperity. The greatest obstacle to sustainability is immediate self-interest. Despite widespread concern about global warming, gradually rising sea levels, threatened species and polluted air and water, these problems can seem remote from our daily lives. People must have access to quality shelter, food, clothing and transportation but in a way that conserves Earth’s natural resources.

Solar-powered, traditional, Polynesian sailing canoes have the potential to transform the way cargo is moved within Pacific island nations, according to Magnus Danbolt, general manager of Pacific Voyagers Charitable Trust. I first met Danbolt when he served as admiral for a fleet of seven such canoes built in New Zealand by the trust in 2010. Their arrival in Hawaii, along with captains and crew from throughout the Pacific, stimulated dynamic dialogue within the resurgent voyaging movement in Hawaii, which had been marked by Hoku­le‘a’s maiden voyage to Tahiti in 1976 using noninstrument navigation.

In short order an agreement was made to build a sister vessel to join Hoku­le‘a on her worldwide voyage. Until that point, Hoku­le‘a had always relied on a mono-hull motor sailboat as an escort vessel to tow her in and out of moorings and in case of unsafe conditions.

Toward the end of 2012, I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to New Zealand for the blessing, launch and sea trials of Hiki­ana­lia and to sail her toward her new home in Hawaii as far as Tahiti. The two stars Hoku­le‘a (Arcturus) and Hiki­ana­lia (Spica) rise at the same time at Hawaii’s latitude. Polynesian Voyaging Society Captain Bruce Blankenfeld invited Danbolt to join us on the sail to Tahiti and share his knowledge of that style of canoe.

She is a beautiful canoe, painted with the same color palette as Hoku­le‘a. What is unique is her impressive array of solar panels, lithium batteries and electric motor.

I just had the pleasure of sailing with Danbolt once more this week on Hoku­le‘a from Hono­lulu to Hilo. He said PVCT has built two more smaller (50-foot), traditional, solar-powered sailing canoes, designed to transport up to 4 tons of cargo for approximately 120 miles. They leverage the brilliance of ancient canoe design with cutting-edge solar-electric motor technology that lowers the cost of cargo transport, reduces carbon-based emissions and supports the renaissance of indigenous voyaging cultures of the Pacific Ocean.

In Palau these environmentally friendly canoes have the potential to enable commercial fishing boats to stay at sea longer while increasing the reliability of getting their catch to market without spoiling. In the Tua­mo­tus the canoes can enhance the ability to transport produce, specialized building materials and passengers more efficiently at lower cost. PVCT is also interested in testing this model in Fiji and Kiri­bati, the Marshall Islands and additional islands in Micronesia to see if it is viable, according to Danbolt.

PVCT aims to refine a business model that involves a transfer of knowledge and ownership of these canoes to island societies. Critical to the success of these initiatives is the ability to assist peoples to overcome their dependence upon and expectation of foreign aid. The fact that these canoes are a source of tremendous cultural pride goes a long way toward inspiring adoption of the conceptual model. The synergy of cultural renaissance, environmental sustainability and personal responsibility through right livelihood is a recipe that suits the blue planet and will enable her to keep on giving.

Malama Honua, “Caring for the Earth,” is the mission of the worldwide voyage and is more than a wish. It is about skillfully placing great ideas into action in a way that not only inspires and educates, but also brings people together with practical solutions that improve their daily lives.


Note: At the request of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Dr. Zunin is serving as medical officer for the crews aboard Hoku­le‘a and Hiki­ana­lia during the first leg of the international portion of the worldwide voyage to Tahiti.

 Ira “Kawika” Zunin, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., is a practicing physician. He is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to

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