AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND » As hundreds of onlookers watched from shore, six Pacific canoes converged Sunday for a rare beachside reunion to celebrate how far they’ve come and to honor Hokule‘a, the Hawaiian vessel that started their push to keep ancient voyaging practices alive.
These traditional double-hulled canoes from the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Hawaii met in a scenic coastal region named by its early Maori inhabitants Tamaki Herenga Waka, "The Gathering Place of the Canoes," and coincidence brought them all together in one aptly named place.
Crews returning from a voyage to Australia happened to be sailing to New Zealand not long after Hokule‘a and its escort canoe, Hikianalia, had arrived in their latest stop of an epic but risky around-the-world voyage.
"It just settled in my bones that we’re all part of a whole," Jenny Mauger, a crew member of New Zealand-based voyaging canoe Haunui, said of the gathering. The reunion included dozens of crews and six master navigators — experts and teachers in the art of wayfinding that nearly disappeared several decades ago.
"Finally, here we all are as family — not as separate canoes, but as one," Mauger said.
Hokule‘a and Hikianalia also were joined by New Zealand-based canoes Hine Moana and Aotearoa One, as well as the Cook Island-based canoe Marumaru Atua.
Haunui and Marumaru Atua, along with two other canoes, Samoan-based Gaualofa and Fijian-based Utonialo, had just made landfall in their return from the sail to Sydney to attend the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Parks Congress. Their aim was to raise awareness of ocean ecological issues.
The canoes from Samoa and Fiji didn’t arrive down the New Zealand coast in time for the reunion, but their crews did attend festivities later in the day.
Dozens of international voyagers also seized the moment to salute Hokule‘a, anchored not far from where several of the canoes came up on the beach in Auckland’s Okahu Bay. The Hawaiian vessel, which kicked off this Pacific-wide revival of voyaging and navigating with the stars and swells, will leave the Pacific next year for the first time in its nearly 40-year existence.
This event nearly 5,000 miles from Hawaii showed just how active and widespread voyaging has become across the Pacific following the example of Hokule‘a. Captains and crews on all of the other canoes could either directly or indirectly trace their start in voyaging back to Hokule‘a.
"She’s the icon of Pacific island existence," said Tua Pittman, a Cook Islander and master navigator who got his start in voyaging by crewing Hokule‘a in 1986.
"If they hadn’t jumped on Hokule‘a and sailed back to Tahiti (in 1976), we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now," Pittman said.
When Hokule‘a first pushed off the shore at Kualoa in 1975, it was one of several long-distance canoes in the Pacific — but the only one created to use non-instrumentation navigation.
Since then it’s helped lead to the creation of 16 or so similar voyaging canoes around the Pacific, each supported by local sailing societies and foundations.
The day was significant for Hikianalia, too. It reunited the escort vessel with three "sister" canoes built from the same mold, part of an eight-vessel fleet created by a philanthropic foundation looking to promote cleaner, more environmentally friendly watercraft for the future.
The concept, Okeanos Foundation head and underwater filmmaker Dieter Paulmann explained, was to take the successful canoe designs that Polynesians perfected hundreds of years ago and combine them with modern, clean energy sources of wind and sun.
Most of the canoes were built in 2009, ahead of a pan-Pacific voyage dubbed Te Mana o te Moana ("The Spirit of the Ocean"). After the voyage, Okeanos gave voyaging societies in Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and the Cook Islands one canoe each from the fleet, Paulmann said.
All eight canoes can fall back on electric motors to propel them quietly for relatively short distances. They share the same design, but their crews have customized each craft.
These voyaging societies emerged over the past several decades following the earliest sojourns of Hokule‘a.
They also occasionally share crew members. When Marumaru Atua first tied up to its sister canoe Hikianalia outside Auckland on Friday, the Cook Island-based vessel included Hawaii island natives Kala Thomas and Lei‘ohu Santos-Colburn.
The two Waimea natives sailed on a previous leg of the Malama Honua voyage with the master navigators currently aboard Marumaru: Pittman and his fellow Cook Islander, Peia Patai.
Thomas said he’s really enjoyed the experience so far. These younger societies, he said, offer those from Hawaii a chance to do more long-distance voyaging.
The well-established Oahu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society already has huge demand from volunteers to crew its canoes.
"You have a spot on the canoe," Thomas said of the other societies Sunday.
"This is a part of our life," Thomas added, referring to himself and Santos-Colburn. "We’re going to do this for the rest of our lives in some capacity. Seize the opportunities when they present themselves."
Some crew members come from as far away as Sweden and Italy.
"I hope to inspire the people back home," said Malaysian native and Haunui crew member Mohiyuddin Gilani.
Fishermen in his nation detonate dynamite in coral-filled waters as a means of fishing, he lamented.
"People in Malaysia have a serious pollution problem," he added. "When you live on the waka (canoe), you live on an island, and you have to take care of your resources. I think this is a good step to learn from our Pacific cousins."
Sunday’s events featured a traditional "powhiri" ceremony with Maori leaders from around the country and a greeting from Auckland Mayor Len Brown at Waitemata Harbor.
"The voyaging isn’t just about sailing," Polynesian Voyaging Society Vice President Bruce Blankenfeld told the Maori elders and guests during the powhiri. "This voyage, Malama Honua … is about the Pacific islands having a voice and recognizing the validity of ancient wisdom.
"We weren’t just surviving on islands; we were flourishing on islands."