Ancient voyage

19:33, Feb 21 2013

I’m wondering which will be the easiest death. Either I go above deck and get bucked or blown into the churning waters of the Pacific Ocean. Or I lie in my dark, coffin-like bunk and wait because it sounds like any minute the water is going to crash through the tissue thin wall of the hull and drag us to the ocean floor.

Sailing through the tropics is nothing like the brochures make out. But then, this is no ordinary trip. I am taking part in the recreation of an ancient voyaging tradition — Te Mana o Te Moana, the spirit of the sea — traditional double hulled sailing canoes (waka), using celestial navigation skills to traverse the ocean and raise awareness of the plight of the seas.

I am on Haunui — one of seven waka that left San Diego in the US in January 2012 and making a 10,000 nautical mile journey past the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, Rarotonga, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu before stopping briefly in the Solomon Islands for the Festival of Pacific Arts before finishing the journey in Auckland. The trip has stirred a renaissance in Polynesian sailing culture and was made possible by German philanthropist and billionaire Dieter Paulmann. A man who describes himself as a “retired independent entrepreneur”, Paulmann experienced an epiphany several years ago when he found himself diving with a white sperm whale. In interviews shortly after, he said the experience made him realise how much trouble sound pollution and rising acid levels were causing the ocean. “The ocean seems so large that it’s almost out of our imagination, but once it reaches the tipping point, it will be too late."

He went on to found the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea and looked for a visual way to tell the story of a suffering ocean. He settled on the tradition of the sailing canoes ancient Polynesians used to explore the ocean. “The wakas are a metaphor to bring back values we had in the past, to help people be proud of what they had, and start to make a change,” he told Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill.

Costing around $575,000 each to build, the boats were based on a traditional Tahitian design, with 22m long hulls made from E-glass fibre and foam, and lashed together with wooden beams and ropes. A small deck house sits on the wooden platform and houses a kitchen, captain’s table and a separate toilet cubicle. Twin 13m masts rise above the decks and a 10m long steering paddle, or hoe, extends back between the hulls. The boats’ only nod to the 21st century are GPS, a VHF radio and solar panels that feed an electric engine to provide auxiliary propulsion and aid harbour entries. 

I joined the boats in Rarotonga for the week-long leg to Samoa. Each boat represents a Pacific nation and carries between 12 and 16 crew. Haunui is pan-Pacific so the crew is a mix of Hawaiian, New Zealanders and a lone sailor from Papua New Guinea. As the boats drift slowly away from Rarotonga, a farewell haka echoes from the shore and the answering call of the conch shell from on board make time stand still. Like the sailors of old, we’re heading west using the stars, sun and moon to find our way. 


What do we look for first, I ask.

“The GPS,” comes the droll reply. Unlike the ancients, we’re on a schedule. We have to be in Samoa in five days because we are guests of honour at the island nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations for which 11 pigs have been slaughtered. 

Minutes from Rarotonga, a storm system that’s blanketed New Zealand with snow catches up with us, bringing torrential rain and heaving seas.

Wet and scary don’t begin to describe being tossed around on 6m waves in blinding, torrential rain. “Can you just imagine how brave those early sailors must have been to do this?,” I muse. 

“Don’t be silly. They would never have left shore in this weather,” I’m told.

Our safety briefing is brief. When it gets dark everyone wears a lifejacket. Not that it would make much difference. 

Fall overboard in this weather and there is not the slightest chance you will be found.

We ride the storm west to Samoa. The days are punctuated by feasts of rice, pancakes and tinned fruit for breakfast; rice, corned beef and cabbage for lunch; and rice, tinned tuna and cabbage for dinner. It's all eaten swathed in wet weather gear, each mouthful sodden with rain. Our Hawaiian chef handles sliding pots and pans and rain, working bent over in a cupboard, with the air of a consummate professional.

In sight of Samoa the storm breaks, the sun shines and the wind dies. We have 60 miles to go, but it might well have been another 600. We are going nowhere very slowly. The minutes tick by and stretch into hours as we drift slowly towards Apia.

In the days of the ancients, the islanders probably would have waited for the sailors before starting the feasting. But now there’s a schedule so when, thanks to a little help from the solar powered engine, we finally arrive a day late, the crowds come back to cheer, but all the suckling pigs have been eaten.