As It Happens

'Sailing the wake of our ancestors': Canoeists return to Hawaii after world voyage guided by sea and stars

Travelling the seas aboard a replica of an ancient Polynesian vessel, without the help of modern navigation or an engine, was a "magical" experience, says Ka'iulani Murphy.
The Hokule'a, a traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe that navigates primarily by using the stars and ocean swells, departs on a three-year worldwide voyage from Honolulu, Hawaii, on May 17, 2014. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

story transcript

Travelling the high seas aboard a replica of an ancient Polynesian vessel, without the help of modern navigation or even an engine, was a "magical" experience, says Ka'iulani Murphy.

"For me, it's just a special time. It feels like we're almost going back in time and really sailing the wake of our ancestors," she told As It Happens host Carol off.

Murphy was an apprentice navigator aboard Hokule'a, a double-hulled canoe that just completed its ambitious three-year voyage around the world using only an ancient navigation technique known as wayfinding.

Hawaiian cultural practitioner Pua Case, left, blesses rocks that were given as cultural gifts before the Hokule'a departed on its three-year voyage. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

The vessel, built in 1970 by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is a replica of the boats that first brought Polynesian settlers to Hawaii hundreds of years ago.

It arrived back at its starting point in Honolulu on Saturday after sailing about 74,000 kilometres, visiting 19 countries, while spreading a message of conservation and the preservation of Indigenous culture.

"You feel like you're, you know, practicing the same art, skills that our ancestors did," Murphy, who was onboard Hokule'a for four separate legs of the journey, said.

"So there's something really special about that, having that connection, especially when you're out at sea, you really get that sense that you're not actually the first ones travelling these routes, but we're kind of following these sea paths of our ancestors."

Hokule'a sails by the United Nations on New York's East River on June 8, 2016. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

When the ancient Polynesian people first settled the islands of the Pacific, they crossed vast distances of open ocean with only the sun, the stars and the waves to guide them.

Hokule'a​ travelled with an escort vessel in case of emergency, but otherwise followed the same rules as those early settlers. 

"The most consistent and the easiest part of that navigation is the stars, the celestial bodies, because they're predictable," Murphy said.

But most nights, the sky isn't quite clear enough to rely on that alone.

"Then we rely on ocean swells. So being able to read the surface of ocean and the direction of the swells throughout the course of the day or night. If you don't have any other clues, that really can be a challenge."

Polynesian Voyaging Society president Nainoa Thompson participates in a ceremony on Hokule'a at port in New York on June 5, 2016. (Seth Wening/Associated Press)

Crewmembers slept in plywood bunks covered with waterproof canvas, and often ate fish they caught themselves. 

"It's really special — a special time we all cherish," Murphy said. "Especially to be on Hokule'a, on the ocean, really developing this sense of family with our fellow crew members ... and the love of our natural surroundings."

The crew held a formal homecoming ceremony on Magic Island, which is in Honolulu, that included welcoming remarks from Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell and a speech by Nainoa Thompson, a well-known master navigator.

People wave leaves to celebrate the arrival of the Hawaiian canoe Hokule'a in the Mavai Bay in Tahiti on April 14, 2017. (Gregory Boissy/AFP/Getty Images)

After getting a bit of TLC in the form of maintenance, Hokule'a​ will embark again on an eight-month trip sailing throughout the Hawaiian islands.

"There's talk about next year possibly going down to visit our cousins in the South Pacific again," Murphy said.

"There's also been talk about a future voyage going to Taiwan, because that's where the first people came out of Taiwan into the Oceania and then really spread out through all of what is known as Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia."

Hokule'a arrived home at Magic Island in Honolulu on Saturday, June 17. (Craig T. Kojima/the Star-Advertiser via Associated Press)