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All aboard the H?k?le?a: Traditional Polynesian canoe docks in Cape Town

All aboard the H?k?le?a: Traditional Polynesian canoe docks in Cape Town

Cape Town’s Waterfront is playing host at the moment to an extraordinary Hawaiian voyaging canoe, on an journey around the world with a message of interconnectedness and environmental care. Its crew have none of the normal technology available to guide their trip. REBECCA DAVIS finds out how they navigate the oceans.

It is a sunny Monday at Cape Town’s Waterfront, and a group of people are busily scrubbing out bottles and crates on the quayside next to a vessel. At first glance, you might not think twice about it; some sort of catamaran or yacht, perhaps. Look at the boat closely, though, and you start to realize that all is not as it seems. What exactly is it? And why is it attracting so much interest from passers-by?

Welcome on board the H?k?le?a (pronounced Hock-oo-LAY-uh), or “Star of Gladness”, where visitors are greeted on arrival and departure with “Aloha!”.

As you can see, we’re just doing some clearing,” crew member Daniel Lin says, surveying the activity below him on the dock. Lin is one of 13 crew members who have travelled more than 19, 000 kilometres from their home in Honolulu to Cape Town. Their journey started in May 2014. The H?k?le?a is expected back in Hawaii in June 2017.

History has the answer to what it is that the H?k?le?a’s crew hopes to achieve. Early Polynesians were some of the greatest seafarers in history, covering an estimated 10 million square miles in their wa’a kaulua (voyaging canoes). These simple crafts fell out of use in the 1400s – and stayed that way until 1973, when a Hawaiian artist called Herb Kane was seized with the dream to build one again. What came out of Kane’s vision was a group called the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), which built the H?k?le?a based on the design of ancient double-hulled Pacific canoes shown on old sketches. While it has closely followed ancient designs, certain elements of its build were updated for safety. The hulls are made of fibreglass, for instance, and the sails from canvas; both elements that the original Polynesian seafarers would not have had access to. But there are still many aspects of the 19 metre-long, 6 metre-wide H?k?le?a which would seem alien (and possibly frightening) to high-tech modern sailors.

Structurally, it’s lashed together with rope,” Lin points out. “Its structural integrity relies on 9.5 kilometres of rope. Its sails are designed in a crab-claw shape unique to Polynesia. We don’t have a motor.”

The desire for authenticity does not stop with the vessel’s build. The PVS wanted to replicate as many aspects of traditional Polynesian seafaring as possible. What that meant was finding someone who knew how to navigate in the old Polynesian way, using only elements of nature.

From a tiny Micronesian island called Satawal, a traditional navigator called Mau Piailug agreed to steer the H?k?le?a on its maiden voyage, and later to teach the secrets of traditional navigation to others. Without him, members of the PVS say, none of their adventures could have taken place.

In 1975, its inaugural voyage saw the canoe travel from the island of O?ahu to Tahiti. Almost half of Tahiti’s population turned out to the beach to greet H?k?le?a. That was the first of many trips, and not all have been so successful. Three years later, the H?k?le?a set out for Tahiti again, but capsized in stormy seas. A crew member, Eddie Aikau, left on a canoe to get help. The crew was rescued from the H?k?le?a. Aikau was never seen again.

This year marks the H?k?le?a’s 40th year at sea. Over the past four decades, it has travelled more than 140, 000 miles. All of them have been accomplished without any use of navigation instruments – including the current voyage to Cape Town.

We use what we call ‘wayfinding’,” Lin explains. “So we look to our natural environment to guide us: the position of the stars, sun and moon; what kind of marine life is around; the presence of sea birds; and swell patterns.”

So far, he says, the navigators have never been wrong. The trip to Cape Town has been especially challenging, however, because it marked the H?k?le?a first foray on to the Indian Ocean.

This is the leg we’ve been preparing for the most, because this whole coast is a safety concern,” says Lin. The stickiest situation they have had to face thus far was a storm in Maputo, which saw lightning hitting the ocean. Some of the crew members on H?k?le?a have been sailing on the canoe for the 40 years since it was built, so experience is not a problem. The H?k?le?a is also travelling with sister vessel the Hikianalia, which is equipped with modern GPS capabilities and an electric motor. It is only used for safety and support when coming into port, Lin says, and its navigation system is never drawn on – despite the occasional concerns from those on board the Hikianalia.

“We have to put them in their place,” grunts a grizzled sailor passing by, who looks like he might be one of the crew members who have been sailing on the H?k?le?a for four decades. “They’re always chiming in.”

Lin’s crewmates on the canoe all take on different roles: captain, navigator, education specialist, fisherman. What they share is that they are all volunteers. Back home in Hawaii, Lin is a photographer who also works on climate change policy. He points out thin yellow foam mats on which the crew sleeps. When they need to relieve themselves, they hang off the side of the canoe in a harness. Showers consist of buckets of water thrown over themselves.

“This life isn’t always the easiest or most comfortable,” Lin concedes. “But it’s an experience you could never get anywhere else, and it honours our traditional way of life.”

One admirer of the H?k?le?a and its message of care for the environment, is South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Arch sailed on the H?k?le?a in 2012 on a visit to Hawaii, and invited them to come to South Africa.

“So we’re upholding the promise,” says Lin. Tutu’s improved health allowed him to greet the canoe when it arrived in Cape Town last Saturday, and participate in a “Ceremony of Friendship” hosted by the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

The H?k?le?a will remain in Cape Town for just over a month, before it departs on the next leg of its voyage to Brazil.

H?k?le?a is more than a voyaging canoe,” the PVS says. “She represents a desire shared by the people of Hawaii, the Pacific, and the world, to protect our most cherished values and places from disappearing.” DM


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