This Polynesian Canoe Sails Around the World Using Only the Stars

They’re unplugging from technology and plugging into this cultural heritage.

This Polynesian Canoe Sails Around the World Using Only the Stars

Photo by 'Ōwi TV/Polynesian Voyaging Society

A spirited heroine, who sails by the stars across the mighty Pacific on a mission to revive the Polynesian legacy and save the future, is taking the world by storm.

You might be cueing up the Moana soundtrack in your head, but no, this heroine isn’t the voyaging animated Disney princess who teams up with a well-meaning demigod to save the day. This heroine is Hōkūle‘a, the Star of Gladness, and she is a real-life replica of the traditional, double-hulled voyaging canoes that Polynesians used to explore the Pacific for thousands of years. Like Moana (although without the demigod sidekick), the crew of Hōkūle‘a navigates the ocean using the ancient Polynesian practice of wayfinding, or using the stars and surrounding natural elements to navigate—without today’s technology.

The first canoe of her kind in 600 years, Hōkūle‘a is on her way home from an unprecedented three-year, worldwide voyage. The route weaves what the Polynesian Voyaging Society calls a “lei of hope” over 40,000 nautical miles around the globe. Hōkūle‘a’s journey, the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, is partly a campaign for a sustainable future—the name “Mālama Honua” itself means “to care for island Earth.”

Since she left Oahu in 2014, Hōkūle‘a has visited 27 nations and 150 ports around the globe, from Bali to South Africa to New York City—all without modern instrumentation. The 62-foot fiberglass, wood, and resin voyaging canoe eschews modern navigational technology, and so does Hōkūle‘a’s crew, who forgo beds, toilets, and cell phones. Instead, crewmembers sleep in shallow canvas shelters, fish for food, and guide their vessel across the oceans using the same stars and techniques their ancestors used.

Hōkūle‘a wasn’t the first canoe to make the journey—Hawaii was settled around 800 by voyagers from Tahiti who sailed similar ships—but her 1976 inaugural voyage from Oahu to Tahiti was revolutionary. When the crew unfurled her sandstone-colored sails for the 2,500-mile journey to Pape’ete, which was navigated exclusively by wayfinding, they were the first in modern history to attempt such a feat. The canoe was at sea for 31 days, and when Hōkūle‘a finally arrived in Tahiti, she was met with a welcoming party 17,000 strong.

Welcoming Hōkūle'a to Tahiti

Welcoming Hōkūle’a to Tahiti

Photo by Allison Montroy

That journey ignited a resurgence of Polynesian culture that stretches beyond museums and history books to students, educators, leaders, and travelers around the globe. These days, there are 25 deep-sea voyaging vessels similar to Hōkūle‘a across a dozen countries in the Pacific. And you’ll undoubtedly see the Polynesian vessel embedded in daily life, architecture, and tourism around every corner on its home island of Oahu. (While designing the Disney Aulani resort in Ko’Olina, for instance, Disney imagineers drew inspiration from the legendary canoe.)

Hōkūle‘a returns to Oahu’s south shore on Saturday, June 17, concluding the monumental chapter of its circumnavigation. But even after the celebrations, curious seafarers can experience a taste of life as a Polynesian voyager with Holokino Hawaii aboard the Uluwehi, a custom-built canoe. The canoe is manned by Austin Kino, one of Hōkūle‘a’s apprentice navigators, who sailed on the first leg of the Mālama Honua to Tahiti in 2014 and again to Tahiti this past April.

“Hōkūle‘a reopened a cultural passageway that was closed for thousands of years,” says Kino. “It reminded and proved to the world that we—our ancestors—were explorers.”

Kino’s guided adventure, powered by wind and waves, teaches novice voyagers how to observe the sun, waves, wind, and surrounding seabirds and other life to determine course as well as how to calculate speed using bubbles in the water that pass by the canoe. Using the island’s landscape and topography as a map to the past, you’ll also dive into Hawaiian history and gain an understanding of how Hawaii’s ancestors managed resources on the islands.

Whether or not you’re interested in testing out your sea legs, you can use a live tracking map to trace Hōkūle‘a’s journey and follow along as she (joined in the Pacific and Hawaiian islands by sister vessel Hikianalia) returns home.

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