In Tahiti, The Ancient Polynesian Style Of Way-Finding Is Making A Comeback

From the middle cockpit of a sailing canoe slicing through the waters of Matavai Bay in Tahiti, the swells all look the same to my novice eyes: turquoise with fringes of frothing white rippling to the horizon, as evenly spaced as rows of crops. Now and then, a flying fish bursts up from below, whizzing low across the water. Without the deep green hills of Moorea rising in the distance, I’d lose my bearings entirely.

Thankfully, I’m not in charge of navigation on this sunny afternoon. From the seat behind me, the cheerful Teiva Veronique digs his paddle into the water and steers our bullet-shaped boat toward a line of breaking waves. That rough surf marks the edge of a passageway through the reef, like an entry ramp into the open ocean.

“Just imagine that the only things you have to help you sail are the natural things around you,” Veronique says as we make our way through the gap and down the coast a few miles.

We’re sailing on a clear day, but Veronique—who runs the Traditional Sailing Canoe School (École de Pirogue à Voile Traditionnelle) in Arue, just outside Papeete, and races holopuni va’a, traditional double outrigger canoes, around the region—can traverse long distances among the Tahitian islands at night without the help of modern equipment. The position of the stars in the sky, along with other clues from nature—like birds that hover near land, clouds that bubble up behind distant mountains, and currents that swirl around atolls and islands—offers hints that help him determine exactly where he is among what looks to me like an endless expanse of blue, green, and white. To think of Veronique sailing the open ocean at night, reading cues that most people would never notice, blew my mind. But Polynesians have been sailing this way for centuries.

More than 2,000 years ago, ancestors of those who now live in the South Pacific set out from Southeast Asia in canoes, fanning out to populate Samoa and Tonga. From there, later generations pressed on to the Marquesas and eventually Tahiti and Hawaii. As the islands modernized in the 20th century, though, and modern technology evolved, the art of celestial way-finding faded. Global Positioning Systems and computers took its place.

Then, in 1976, the Hawaii-based Polynesian Voyaging Society enlisted Mau Piailug, a navigator from Micronesia, to guide a double-hulled sailing boat from Hawaii to Tahiti. It had been hundreds of years since such distances were sailed this way, and the society wanted to prove that it was possible. On June 4, after a 34-day voyage, Hōkūle‘a pulled ashore in Papeete to a cheering crowd. “For us, that’s an important date—the rebirth of traditional sailing,” Veronique says as a good breeze fills our sail. I hold on tight as the canoe leans onto one of its two outriggers, and with a few more dips of Veronique’s wooden paddle, we surge forward.

Today, French Polynesia is seeing a resurgence of interest in celestial navigation, sparked by the relaunch of races like the solo-sailing Golden Globe. Even the U.S. military, recognizing that modern technology can sometimes fail, has implemented some of the basics of the art into its training programs.

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