Pacific Islanders Use Stars to Sail Canoes From New Zealand to California

Pacific Voyagers sail their Vakas into San Francisco Bay to complete their Pacific crossing. Photograph by Tanja Winkler.


Pacific sailors concerned about the great ocean’s future recently charted a course towards future healing by reaching back to the incredible voyages of their ancestors. Sailors on the Pacific Voyagers project steered a fleet of traditional Polynesian sailing canoes or vaka from New Zealand to San Francisco—guided only by the stars that once helped their ancestors settle the Pacific Islands.

Crew from islands across the Pacific came together on the five-month, 15,000 nautical-mile journey to put a human face on those most impacted by growing problems like overfishing, pollution, and ocean acidification that confront some 3 billion people in the Pacific Rim nations and Pan Pacific islands who depend on the ocean.

Peia Patai, from the Cook Islands, is the captain of the vaka Te Marumaru Atua and a patrol boat navigator with the Rarotongan police. He recently took a break from his continued cruise along the California coast to talk about the epic crossing and what he hopes is the beginning of a healing journey for the ocean itself.

What was the inspiration for this voyage?

People from the Pacific know that that we’re the ones who are going to be most affected by environmental changes so we’re using the canoes as a tool to promote awareness of how we can care for our oceans. There’s no better way of doing that than by actually going back and making a voyage the way our ancestors did, using the traditional ways.

We have crews from many different parts of the Pacific and we tried to (represent as many different areas) as we could on this trip so that voices can be heard from all the different countries that are going to be most affected by issues like ocean pollution.

This wasn’t a non-stop trip, but a journey from island to island where you directly spread the word to people in Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and many other places across the Pacific.

Yes we hoped to connect with people across the Pacific to make the trip more meaningful. Hopefully we’ve touched a lot of hearts along the way and if we’ve touched some than we think the voyage will be a success.

How did you learn to navigate across the ocean by the stars?

I actually learned from Mau Piailug, an elder from the Federated States of Micronesia who sadly has recently passed away. There are still a few people today who fish and sail using these traditional methods and as far as learning the art of traditional navigation the only way to learn is to do it with them.

We’ve learned and we’re starting to teach it also, so that this knowledge doesn’t disappear. I have three new guys on the canoe at the moment with me who are learning so this knowledge can just keep going.

So you didn’t utilize any modern navigational equipment between New Zealand and California?

We did carry modern equipment on board for a backup but we never had to use it. It really is a lot more meaningful when you hit land without using any modern navigation, just charting a course by the stars, the sun, the swells and the wind.

Daytime must have been the more challenging time to keep on course?

The only way to do it during the day is to go by the sun, and the wind and swells. For you to know where the swells are coming from it’s very important to determine your bearings in the morning. Then the swells may stay in a direction that you can hold during the day—but it’s a very hard technique. Navigation by the stars and the sun you can teach more easily but with the swells you just have to learn by experience.

Did using traditional navigation and canoes make you feel closer to your ancestors?

Yes it did and I think we were also a bit closer to the elements doing it this way. It lends a bit more feeling and more meaning to our relationship with the ocean itself.

A Vaka at sea is a graceful sight. Photograph by Magnus Danbolt.


What was the hardest part? Even though the boats were fiberglass some might assume that these traditional double-hulled Polynesian sailing canoes might not ride out rough weather as well as larger modern craft.

Actually we’d rather have the rough weather than the calm weather. When there’s no wind, and you’re just floating and not going anywhere, that’s the hardest part. In rough seas you’re at least moving all the time and these canoes were built to handle those seas pretty well.

Did you live off the ocean as your ancestors would have?

Mostly we did live from the ocean, by catching fresh fish every day, but we also carried tinned or dry foods.

What was the biggest surprise on this journey?

I was surprised to see how much rubbish is in the water—I couldn’t believe it. We passed floating debris, plastics, ropes, bottles. I don’t know where it all comes from but it seems that there is always rubbish passing by and I was surprised to see how much was out there

That kind of observation shows how big some of the Pacific’s problems really are—but you feel that a small group like yours can still make a difference?

I know we can’t change the whole world but I do hope that the trip we’re making can help. I hope that one person out of a hundred may see what we’re doing and try to help make a positive change. If that happens I’ll be happy and I know that this trip will be a success. The ocean indicates how healthy we are as a Pacific people. It’s very important that we protect our ocean for the benefit of our children and their children. I can’t do nothing. If I do nothing today, then my kids will blame me tomorrow for not trying to make a difference.

The fleet of Vakas under sail in San Francisco. Photograph by Mark Hoffman.


Changing Planet

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Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.