The Revival of Traditional Voyaging in Hawai‘i

A photographer and member of Maui’s Hui O Waa Kaulua voyaging community shares what it’s like to sail the ocean in a traditional wa‘a, or canoe.

The Revival of Traditional Voyaging in Hawai‘i

Photographer Brendan George Ko typically sails with the Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani, a 62-foot-long double-hull canoe.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

Brendan George Ko, photographer and author of the new book Moemoeā (Conveyor Studio, 2021) and member of Maui’s Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua voyaging community.

“In 2015, I started doing research into the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s, which was both a civil rights movement and a cultural renaissance. [This included the resurgence of traditional wayfinding, which was nearly lost until a team of native Hawaiians sought out the Micronesian navigator Pius Piailug, known as Papa Mau.] In 2016, I showed up at the voyaging society on Maui, Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua, and that’s where I met my friend Kala, a kapena [captain] and apprentice navigator. Soon after, I was on a wa‘a [canoe] for the first time.

I felt really guilty because I’m not Polynesian, I’m not Kanaka ‘Ōiwi. But I remember my first steps on that wa‘a. I could feel the spirits. I felt a deep kuleana, a personal sense of responsibility, to perpetuating that culture—becoming an educator of it, becoming a crew member.

The biggest difference [between traditional and modern voyaging] is that there are no instruments. The major wayfinding methods are celestial bodies, marine life, and swell patterns, along with wind. A good navigator can see at least five different swell patterns and directions through that. Birds are a huge thing—having an intimate knowledge of birds. Knowing, for example, that the manu-o-Kū
indicates that a sailor is near land.

The canoe I usually sail for is called Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani. It’s a 62-foot-long double-hull canoe. It typically fits anywhere from 10 to 16 people. When we sail, the wa‘a is the vessel for so many different spirits. There’s the kūpuna, the ancestors. And there’s everybody who put their mana, their spirit energy, into creating the canoe, because there isn’t a company that makes them—it’s communities that get together and sand [the wood] endlessly till your hands are soft or bleeding. The voyaging canoe has my blood on it.

Before we depart, we do a pule, which is a prayer. We always have a designated cultural advisor on the canoe, usually someone who speaks ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, which is native Hawaiian. It’s all about safe passage and intention, because a lot could go wrong. We speak to the spirits of the ocean, to the wind, to ask for their permission, their guidance, help, and protection.

For me, it’s important to preserve these traditions, because it was only in recent times that traditional voyaging came back—and there’s so much new history being made. Seeing the voyaging canoe go beyond the Pacific Ocean, into the Atlantic Ocean—into the Great Lakes of all things—that’s going beyond what the ancestors had done. It’s a sign that progress is being made. Holo i mua is to move forward—it’s not just about trying to get [back to] what was, it’s moving further.”

–as told to Aislyn Greene

>>Next: A Better Way to Visit Hawaiʻi

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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