Ben Finney, a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, dies at 83
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Ben Finney, a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, dies at 83

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / JAN. 2012

    University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Ben Finney, who helped to show that ancient Polynesians sailing thousands of miles were capable of finding the Hawaiian Islands through non-instrument navigation, died at about noon Tuesday at a nursing home in Kaimuki, his son Sean said.

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The last surviving founder and first president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who helped to debunk the scientific theory that Polynesians had drifted to Hawaii by chance, has died.

University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Ben Finney, who helped to show that ancient Polynesians sailing thousands of miles were capable of finding the Hawaiian Islands through non-instrument navigation, died at about noon Tuesday at a nursing home in Kaimuki, his son Sean said.

He was 83.

“The voyage changed the whole identity of the Hawaiian people. We went from being castaways…to being children of the world’s greatest navigators,” said Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson.

“We owe it to our visionaries … and Ben was the first.”

Sean said his father was conceived in Hawaii but born in San Diego because Ben’s father was reassigned by the Navy.

Ben Finney, who loved surfing, found his way back to Hawaii, eventually earning an masters degree in anthropology at UH.

He received his doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University and was a senior fellow at the East-West Center.

He worked as a professor at the University of Hawaii from 1973 through 2000, including nine years as chairman of the Department of Anthropology.

“Finney combined that sense of rigorous scientific testing with a deep appreciation and aloha for the Polynesian people,” said Sam Low, Hokule’a crew member and author of “Hawaiki Rising: Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance.”

For decades prior to the early 1970s, a popular assumption about migration was that Pacific islanders found islands such as the Hawaiian Islands by accidentally drifting as castaways in the currents — a theory supported by scientist Thor Heyerdahl aboard the experimental wooden raft Kon Tiki and writers like Andrew Sharp.

But Finney and other co-founders waterman Tommy Holmes and architect Herb Kane thought otherwise.

Kane had seen Hawaiian carvings of ancient petroglyphs of sailing canoes, heard of ancient chants about trips between Hawaii and Tahiti, and wanted to build a voyaging canoe.

Finney had heard from UH folklorist Katherine Luomala that Sharp’s theory was wrong and should be challenged and Finney was also aware of Pacific Island navigators who practiced non-instrument navigation in Micronesia and he sought to find one, friends said.

Together, the three founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973 and sought support to build a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe to embark on a voyage of more than 2,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Finney had heard of a navigator on Satawal atoll named Mau Piailug who was known for his sailing skills and invited Mau to serve as the navigator on the voyage. But Finney wasn’t sure when or how Mau might arrive because radio communications were difficult in that part of Micronesia.

“My dad told me a story the one day, a customs guy called him up at Honolulu Airport and said, ‘This guy from Micronesia is here,’” Sean recalled. “He jumped in his car to pick up Mau.”

He was on the first crew along with a number of renowned Hawaiian watermen sailed into Papaeete in Tahiti to a crowd of thousands of people in 1976.

The culture of native voyaging has grown, with about 25 native voyaging canoes along with more than 2,000 sailors in the Pacific, including more than seven based in Hawaii.

Hokule’a, the original voyaging canoe, is completing a three-year worldwide voyage next month when it returns to Hawaii.

Thompson said the Hokule’a owes much to Finney and and other visionaries. “He was responsible for changing history,” he said.

Services are pending.

Correction: Ben Finney received his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree at UH and a doctorate at Harvard University. An earlier version of this obituary reported his undergraduate degree was from UH.
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