Changing Planet

Seeing a 600-Year-Old Voyaging Canoe Up Close

By Captain and Pwo Navigator, Kālepa Baybayan

Tucked away along a hillside in Porohara, South Island, New Zealand, is Onetahua Marae.

Onetahua means the “Gathering Sands,” and is named for the spit of land that juts out into the Tasman Sea at the northwestern edge of South Island. Here sperm whales annually beach themselves, and the iwi (bones) of the whales are cultural property of the three iwi (tribes) that reside in Mohua Bay.

Our voyaging canoe, Hōkūleʻa, taking a break from the long journeys involved in our multi-year worldwide voyage, is berthed on a floating pier nearby in a very small marina.

On the other side of the harbor is a warehouse that holds the remains of a 600-year-old waka hourua (voyaging canoe) that have been suspended in a solution to preserve them since they were rediscovered in 2012. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity to be connected to the navigators, voyagers, and artisans who went so long before us and made the journey we are making now possible.

Hōkūleʻa crew members visit an ancient carved waka in South Island, Aotearoa.   A controlled scientific process called wet organic conservation, is being used to preserve the wood. Photo by ʻĀina Paikia.
Hōkūleʻa crew members visit an ancient carved waka in South Island, Aotearoa. A controlled scientific process called wet organic conservation is being used to preserve the wood. (Photo by ʻĀina Paikia)

I would agree with Māori navigator Hotu Kerr’s interpretation that the waka’s remains indicate she is from a very early settlement phase, showing more oceanic features.

This is substantiated by findings from researchers at the University of Auckland, who have used the discovery of this ancient vessel as an opportunity to investigate the maritime technologies used to explore and settle eastern Polynesia. Based on archaeological, ethnohistoric, and radiocarbon dating information, anthropologists believe the waka is from the early days when the first voyagers arrived in Aotearoa.

This ancient voyaging canoe has another three years to go before she can be removed from the solution and re-enter the world of the living. I believe the preserved section is of the stern starboard quarter of a planked vessel. It has lashing holes for gunnels, a stern manu piece, and a keel section where the waka would be joined to the next section in the middle.

Hōkūleʻa crew members visit an ancient carved waka in South Island, Aotearoa.   A controlled scientific process called wet organic conservation, is being used to preserve the wood. Photo by ʻĀina Paikia.
A closer view reveals both the craftsmanship of the waka and the impressive state of its preservation. (Photo by ʻĀina Paikia)

A carved turtle is in relief on the hull of the waka. It is positioned on the stern with its head swimming towards the bow. I estimate the length of the turtle to be around 10 to 12 inches. Mid-ribs have also been roughed into the actual super structure, and the interior rails have holes for what may be standing rigging or interior lash points. Before we leave the waka, the crew offers an oli.

This is the furthest south that Hōkūleʻa has sailed in her four decades and 145,000 nautical miles of voyaging, and it was appropriate that we come here to Aotearoa to connect with this important reminder of the courage and wisdom of our ancestors who came before us.

Read All Hōkūleʻa’s Worldwide Voyage Posts

Marisa Hayase works with the Polynesian Voyaging Society to support Hōkūleʻa’s journey around the world. While sailing 47,000 nautical miles, Hōkūle'a and her sister canoe Hikianalia work to string together a “lei” of stories--big and small--that bring people together and inspire a new pathway forward for the health of our oceans and planet. The Polynesian Voyaging Society preserves and strengthens the traditions, values and knowledge behind one of the greatest feats in human history. Thousands of years ago, Polynesians found and settled islands scattered over 10 million square miles of ocean, exploring unchartered waters and using only the stars, waves, and marine birds and animals to guide them. Hōkūle'a was built 600 years after the last of the Hawaiian sailing canoes had disappeared from sight but not memory. Hōkūle'a brought traditional Pacific exploration back to life and helped spark a revival of Hawaiian language, culture and knowledge. She is more than a voyaging canoe—she represents the hope shared by people of Hawai’i, the Pacific, and the world that we can protect our most cherished values and places from disappearance. Marisa has worked with nonprofit and government organizations nationally and internationally, conducting research in South America, Japan, México, and Europe. She graduated from Williams College with a B.A. and has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Harvard University. A resident of Kailua, Hawaiʻi, Marisa is happiest when learning new things, building community, and spending time outdoors with her husband, son, and daughter.

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