Last year I was lucky enough to spend a couple of gloriously sunny months travelling along the Californian coast, meeting with various environmental organisations and groups along the way. Though I would come across a number of very interesting and inspiring people during the journey, it was a chance meeting with one group in particluar that really made a long-lasting impression on me. These were The Pacific Voyagers (who were in the process of mooring up their very special sea voyaging vessels at Cabrillo beach, just outside of LA when I met them) and their adventurous project and journey is nothing short of incredible.
Back in 2008 Dieter Paulmann, the founder of Okeanos – Foundation for the Sea, spotted a vaka (the word for a traditional voyaging canoe or vessel used by South Pacific islanders) from the Cook Islands at the Festival of Pacific Arts in American Samoa and was inspired by it. He had been spending time with scientists, learning of the increasing changes that were taking place in the ecosystems of the Earth’s Oceans and was becoming increasingly saddened by the destruction that was taking place due to over-fishing, rising sea-levels, plastic debris and fossil fuel contamination. Ocean dead zones, acidification and noise pollution were just the tip of this problematic iceberg but instead of dwelling on this unwelcome news, Dieter looked to do something proactive. The vaka sighting came just at the right time and jumped out at him ‘as a metaphor and symbol for a sustainable, respectful life and relationship with the sea‘ and so the Pacific Voyage was born, a project which would aim to ‘bring back the traditional culture and wisdom of their ancestors into our modern world‘.
The plan that formed was to sail from the South Pacific to the US and back in traditional vaka moanas, using only the power of the wind, sun and traditional methods of Pacific voyaging. In doing so, the crews (from several different South Pacific islands including New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Kiribati, Tonga and Hawaii amongst others), are aiming to spread the message of the need for stewardship of our oceans as well as ‘to strengthen our ties with the sea, renew our commitment to healthy ecosystems for future generations, and to honour our ancestors who have sailed before us‘.
Seven vakas were rebuilt in New Zealand using Polynesian expertise and design, complete with beautiful carvings but combined with more modern materials:
‘We followed our ancestor’s design, but incorporated more sustainable materials to lessen the impact on our environment. Fibreglass hulls replace timbre to protect our forests and we’ve added eight solar panels on the back of each vaka to power our engines. Natural gas is the only fossil fuel used, which is employed solely for cooking. Like our ancestors before us, we use no running water.’
The vakas left New Zealand back in April 2011 and had reached US shores by July. By the time we caught up with them it was late August and they had already journeyed across the Pacific to San Francisco and were over half way to San Diego, their winter break destination point (where the crews and boats were to rest until January earlier this year). Their eventual goal for part II of this epic voyage is was reach the Solomon Islands in time for the Festival of Pacific Arts in early July 2012 but they first sailed via Cabo San Lucas, The Cocos Islands, the Galapagos and then onto several destinations in the South Pacific including Fakarava, Tahiti, Bora Bora and Raiatea. On their return to the South Pacific in July, the crew continued to sail onwards stopping at many Pacific islands along the way.
All the crew kept (and continue to update) blogs of the experience here . Having spent several months at sea last year myself, one line in particular stood out for me:
‘the voyage on the ocean is also a journey within, dealing with the fluctuations of our minds as much as with the outer waves and winds‘.
The crews that we met on Cabrillo beach however, seemed a lot happier and ‘together’ than some of those who have sought to revive ancient sailing methods in recent years. The crew on the 1976 voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, which famously featured in a documentary film ‘Voyage of the Hōkūleʻa’, released the same year, were barely speaking to each other by the end due to underlying tensions and crew/navigator conflict. Not so here it seems. The cabins on these vakas were almost as small as those on the Hōkūleʻa but were well equipped and had a cosy rather than claustrophobic feel to them. The beautiful traditional carvings of the vessels were partnered by modern electric solar panels on the back which produce the energy for on-board electronics including, most importantly, the radio and music player! Food variety was mentioned as a downside (tins of spam are a diet staple) but crew camaraderie, shared goals and democratic practice on board seem to keep spirits up. Guitars and other instruments were also strewn around the boats along with gifts that the voyagers had received along the way.
We asked the voyagers about the use of traditional Wayfinding techniques which the ancient Polyniesians used to navigate, the methods for which were passed down to many modern voyagers by the famous Micronesian Mau Piailug or ‘Papa Mau’.
‘The art of celestial navigation requires us to listen to nature as our guide and contains powerful lessons for the present. Traditional Navigators are attuned to the world around them, from the heavens down to the water drop, constantly noticing the shape of the sea and the character of light through the clouds’.
Traditional techniques include using the Sidereal ‘star’ compass and the Southern Cross to determine latitude; utilising the taste, temperature and direction of the water and the sunrise/set as position indicators; and maintaining an awareness of the birds, fish and animals around. Certain species of bird, dolphin and fish feed out at sea at dusk before returning to lagoons near land at nightfall – Mahi Mahi, Red-Footed Boobies, Terns and Frigate birds are some examples – and so following them or at least observing their direction of travel can lead a sailor to land. More recently, some of the sailors reported seeing ‘green clouds’ for the first time which are known as “atoll clouds” in wayfinding because they indicate that an atoll is over the visible horizon:
‘The sun during awakea (noonish) will shine straight down onto the light green shallows, and reflect that up onto the bottoms of the clouds. I had only seen drawings, but when we were at Mokupāpapa — there it was!’
The Pacific Voyagers were journeying out of the South Pacific so while trying their hand at traditional Wayfinding they also had GPS, AIS and other modern equipment on board as backup, which is only sensible when travelling across a vast ocean.
We found the voyagers and their journey really inspiring and the project doesn’t stop here as there are some interesting spin-off schemes in the works. One which might be of particular relevance to those interested in sustainable travel is the ‘Vaka Motu’ collaboration which aims to provide as many Pacific Islands as possible (particularly the smaller ones) with a vaka of their own. The idea is that each island community will be in charge of assembling, maintaining and operating their own vessel which can then be used as a form of sustainable, zero-carbon transport from island to island. It is hoped that this will especially benefit the more remote island communities by opening up new employment and economic opportunities through tourism via a sustainable means.
The project is still at the prototype stage so sadly wasn’t up and running in time for us to benefit from this form of low-carbon travel but anyone interested in finding out more or donating to the project can contact: email@example.com.
All quotes in italics are from the Pacific Voyagers website (http://www.pacificvoyagers.org/) where you can also find all their latest voyaging information. A film of the voyage titled ‘Our Blue Canoe‘ is also due for release in 2013.