hawaiian outrigger experience: canoe culture on maui

“We’re asking that you leave the modern world behind for a time, and enter the ancient world,” says Vene Chun, Hawaiian Outrigger Experience guide. As we stand barefoot on Wailea Beach’s sparkling white sand, already warm from the morning sun, guide Mike Manu blows the pu (conch shell) first towards the east, then west, north, and south. The resonant tones signal the beginning of what is to be a profoundly enriching cultural canoe voyage.

Mike intones an oli (chant) asking permission for us to enter the ocean. Then it’s time to learn canoe paddling commands. Mike teaches us that when the captain says “ho‘omakaukau,” which means “get ready,” we are to respond with “‘ae,” which means “yes.” “Hoe hapai,” means we lift our paddles overhead and prepare to begin paddling. Finally, “imua,” is the command to begin paddling, or “go forward.”

We learn about proper paddling technique: sit slightly forward on the seat with weight on the legs—brace the leg on your paddling side against the canoe; grasp the top of the paddle firmly in one hand; wrap the fingers of the other hand five to six inches above the blade. To enter the canoe, Mike tells us to first sit on our ‘okoles, then swing our legs around.

As a group, we slide our canoe, which is named “Honua‘ula,” into the water and our voyage begins. Mike introduces us to the concept of lokahi—everyone working together—which is an integral part of the art and sport of canoe paddling. After we establish our rhythm, Mike declares us maka‘i (all good).

As Wailea Beach fades into the background, Vene begins a paddling oli. We repeat each phrase as accurately as possible. We’re all paddling on the same side of the canoe for fourteen to twenty strokes, then we switch. It’s not long before we reach a beautiful cove next to Wailea Point. While we rest a bit atop the turquoise water, Mike teaches us about an important endemic plant found on the shore. The hala tree, he says, was used by native Hawaiians in a variety of ways: the leaves were woven into hats, mats, and roofing materials; the fruits were used for food; the wood of the tree was used to create water pipes, posts, and calabashes; and the pollen of the sweet-smelling male hala flower was used to preserve feathers and leis.

As we leave the cove, Mike points out a large lava rock formation called “kiha” (supernatural lizard) which, with its rough, segmented “body,” actually does remarkably resemble a reptile. We begin to paddle in a staggered formation, and follow Vene’s commands when it’s time to switch sides. The ocean is like glass, and I find myself falling into a trance-like state, lulled by the rhythm of the paddling. A huge honu glides effortlessly by the canoe as we reach the moana, the deep, dark, blue ocean.

We stop for another rest when we’re approximately a mile offshore. Mike tells us about the ancient art of wayfinding (see sidebar), and his participation in 1995 of the maiden voyage of the Makali‘i, a double-hull voyaging canoe he helped construct. He and his team members traveled 2,800 nautical miles in 28 days to Tahiti and back. Mike says a voyaging canoe’s navigator has a huge job—making about 3,000 observations and 200 decisions per day. He must stay awake during nearly all of the voyage, observing the sunrise to determine the day’s weather, then the ocean currents, sun, moon, and stars to guide the journey.

As our group paddles back towards Wailea Beach, Vene leads us in a “cooperation chant,” the meaning of which is to never give up on the person in front of you or the person behind you. When we’re halfway back, we stop for a swim. I’ve worked up quite a sweat, and the refreshing ocean waters quickly cool my body.

Vene tells us about the mythology surrounding the formation of the Hawaiian Islands, taro, and human beings. It all began, he says, with a love affair between the sky and the sea. Hawaiians view taro as our “older brother.” When it’s time to complete our voyage, Vene helps us back into the canoe by offering up a knee to use as a step to hoist ourselves back into our seats. We resume paddling according to Vene’s commands.

As we approach the shore, Mike blows the pu to announce our return, and we’re given instruction on how to disembark. Back on dry land, I feel changed somehow—as though I’ve truly experienced a small slice of ancient Hawai‘i by leaving the modern world behind, as Vene had suggested at the beginning of the experience. I’ve also discovered that paddling works up an intense thirst and appetite, leading me to ponder how incredible were the lengthy sea voyages embarked upon by the ancient Polynesians, and admire the commitment by those who today follow their traditions by completing similar journeys.

–heidi pool

The Wayfinders:
Ancient Polynesian Voyagers

The first settlers of the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have sailed from the Marquesas Islands using Polynesian navigation methods. The early Polynesians were an adventurous seafaring people with highly developed navigational skills. Polynesian navigators employed a variety of techniques including stars, movement of ocean currents and wave patterns, flights of birds, winds, and weather. They even created maps of wave patterns by binding sticks together. Bird flight paths and cloud patterns were used to discern where islands were located.

Ancient tribal Polynesians arrived in what is today known as Hawai‘i after long, amazing sea voyages in double-hulled canoes. Entire villages ventured onto the ocean to discover unsettled lands. They brought their crops, pets, and some stowaways that settled the Islands along with them, like geckos. The ancient Polynesians’ motivation seems to have been population pressures, and their legends refer to their great explorers as discoverers, not conquerors. By 850 AD, the seven main Hawaiian Islands were settled. A second wave of migrations may have arrived around 1100 AD from Tahiti. The settlers had progressively less and less contact with the rest of the Polynesian world and developed their own distinct Hawaiian culture, which was well established by 1400 AD.

In 1973, a group of Polynesian specialists and canoe enthusiasts formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society to build a large voyaging canoe. Their goal was to attempt a Hawai’i-Tahiti roundtrip voyage guided solely by traditional navigation. Archaeologists, maritime historians, and anthropologists collaborated on the design of a vessel that would simulate an ancient craft in shape, weight, and performance. The canoe, christened Hokule‘a, Hawaiian for the bright star Arcturus that passes directly over the island of Hawai‘i, was launched in l975. The fact that the canoe sailed from Hawai’i to Tahiti and back, and that they had been able to navigate to Tahiti without instruments, effectively demonstrated how Polynesian canoes and traditional navigational methods were up to the task of planned, long-distance voyaging. The Hokule‘a project spawned a veritable renaissance in Hawaiian sailing canoes, and also inspired Tahitians and New Zealand Maori to reconstruct their own voyaging canoes and sail them over legendary routes. -Sources: pbs.org; mythichawaii.com; Wikipedia

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