Voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa comes to the museum

Hōkūleʻa at sea

Hōkūleʻa. Photographer: Scott Kanda. Copyright: OiWi TV.

Hōkūleʻa is a traditional voyaging canoe carrying with it a rich traditional culture from a point where it had almost been lost. Now, as it sails across the Tasman Sea to Australia, where it will berth at the Australian National Maritime Museum from 18 May, it is testing itself and building new strength by taking its crew and their culture into waters it has not travelled before.

Hōkūleʻa is a wa’a kauluia from Hawai’i – a traditional double-hulled canoe 62 feet (18.9 metres) long and 17 feet (5.2 metres) wide with twin sails. It is a true ocean-going craft developed from the type used centuries ago by Polynesian sailors and navigators as they moved eastward through the Pacific, eventually extending their reach to Tahiti and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the south Pacific and Hawai’i in the north.

Mālama Honua  - worldwide voyage. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Hōkūleʻa’s Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The Hawaiian name Hōkūleʻa means ‘Star of Gladness’ or ‘Star of Joy’, and it’s the name for Arcturus, part of the constellation Boötes and the fourth-brightest star in the night sky. From Sydney, on a clear night Arcturus appears in the northeast portion of the sky as one of the brighter stars a bit lower down to the horizon. Directly underneath it sits Hawaii, where Hōkūleʻa’s voyage began.

Knowing this, the star Hōkūleʻa is a key navigational aid for Polynesian navigators. Heading north at the right time of year from Tahiti, the Tuamoto Archipelago or the Marquesas, and using Hōkūleʻa and other stars as guides, the navigators know when they have reached Hawaii’s latitude. Then, by keeping the star Hōkūleʻa overhead, they can confidently head directly west with the trade winds and ‘raise Hawaiki’ from the sea’s horizon as they approach the island chain’s southeastern shores.

This short story encapsulates Hōkūleʻa’s cultural significance as a canoe that is realising and maintaining the Hawai’ian people’s traditional skills as navigators, sailors and proud explorers, and confirming a foundation of their way of life and their relationship with the sea and the sky. Its crew uses traditional navigation techniques that are much more detailed than just star observations. There is information from the sun, moon and clouds; there are signs in the waves and swell of the sea; the wind has a voice; and observation of the birds and sea life will reveal many things too. Learning all this requires a lifetime’s education.

Hōkūleʻa in action

Hōkūleʻa. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Hōkūleʻa is also carrying a message to the world – that we are all one island, with Earth sitting in the ocean of the universe, and we must find a way to live in balance with our island, and that this is a responsibility we have for our children and all future generations. In sailing by traditional methods, Hōkūleʻa’ is doing more than just restoring a lost craft and knowledge; it’s reminding us that there are many ways we can work in harmony with what the environment offers without exploiting and wasting its precious resources.

Hōkūleʻa belongs to the Polynesian Voyaging Society and since 1976 it has crossed the Pacific Ocean many times, under navigators learning and using traditional methods for navigation. It is now continuing on a major voyage around the world, taking it into oceans and regions never documented to have been visited by Polynesian craft. Sydney is the official port in Australia. Hōkūleʻa left Aotearoa (New Zealand) on 30 April, and ‘raised Australia’ in early May.

Vakas at the welcoming ceremony at the Australian National Maritime Museum, November 2014.

Vakas at the welcoming ceremony at the Australian National Maritime Museum, November 2014. Photographer: Andrew Frolows/ANMM

It will be a colourful sight when it ties up at the museum. Hōkūleʻa will be carrying on from last year, when four vakas came to open the IUCN Worlds Parks Conference in Sydney in November. Hōkūleʻa is visiting for a week, and the vessel will be on display. During this time a special program is also being run through the Bill Lane Fellowship, which is sponsored by our USA Gallery. Three secondary students from Hawai’i will be visiting Australia to join Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander secondary school students in an Indigenous knowledge and cross-cultural exchange program.

Among other things, they will make Indigenous watercraft models, tour the harbour to learn of its Aboriginal heritage, and visit Sydney Observatory to see how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders used the night sky as their key navigational tool. Arcturus/Hōkūleʻa is known here by the Wotjobaluk Koori people of south-eastern Australia as Marpean-kurrk, mother of Djuit (the star Antares). The Wailwun clan of northern New South Wales knew Arcturus as Guembila, a word for red – the colour it has in its current life-cycle phase.

Hōkūleʻa will be met at the museum with a traditional smoking and welcoming ceremony and will be led into the basin by a traditional Aboriginal nawi bark canoe; they too are watercraft bringing a culture back to its home, here on the Eora nation’s waters of the harbour.

The Sydney Observatory night sky map will help you locate Arcturus/Hōkūleʻa in Sydney during May.

– David Payne and Donna Carstens 

Hōkūleʻa will be open to the public at the Australian National Maritime Museum from 18 May  23 May. See Hōkūleʻa’s full program of events.

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