Caring For An Island Home

The Polynesian Voyaging Society celebrates the 35th anniversary of its maiden voyage this year. Here’s a look back on one piece of the group’s history …

In 1990, the Polynesian Voyaging Society went on a mission throughout the Islands of Hawaii. The goal: find a large and healthy koa tree so it could construct a double-hulled voyaging canoe made entirely of natural materials.

This turned out to be easier said than done.

The Internet says Swifty's guitar is made from a koa tree.

For centuries, Hawaiians had prized the resilient, reddish wood and built canoes from the logs. They used cordage woven from coconut husks and tree bark as lashing, and coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit and other trees to seal cracks and seams. They lashed two hulls together with crossbeams and added a deck between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.

The depletion of the koa population, due to grazing and logging, prevented the crew from locating a single koa tree adequate for the hulls of a canoe. So, after a nine-month search without any luck, PVS volunteers gave up.

Under the leadership of Wright Bowman, Jr., the Polynesian Voyaging Society did end up building the canoe — with the help of native Alaskans who supplied two, 400-year-old spruce logs in a priceless gesture of friendship. They named it Hawai’iloa, after the fisherman who, it is believed, discovered and settled two islands, which he named Hawai’i after himself and Mau’i after his eldest son.

In 1995, Hawai’iloa traveled from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska to give thanks to the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian people for the donation of the spruce logs. During the spring of that same year, voyages took Hokule’a to the Marquesas Islands, where Hawaiian settlers are believed to have originated. On the way back, five other canoes accompanied Hokule’a, four of which also used traditional navigational methods.

A beautiful painting of double-hulled canoes by Herb Kane.

They relied on the direction of birds’ flights, the movement of waves and swells, the rise of the sun to travel the open seas.

But the Polynesian Voyaging Society learned a valuable lesson from the koa tree debacle. Succeeding with their continued efforts to revitalize and maintain traditional navigation meant caring for, and preserving, island ecosystems — and encouraging others to do the same. So, they wrestled with a question: How could they motivate people to change their behaviors for the sake of our oceans?

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