Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low

Hawaiki Rising is a fascinating book. Its accurate subitle is "Hokule'a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance," and author Sam Low tells all three stories: Hokule'a, canoe's creation, mishap, and ultimate success; how Nainoa Thompson learned to navigate the Pacific; and canoe's the effect on Hawaiian culture.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl floated on a balsa raft from Peru to the Tuamotu island in the south Pacific to show that Polynesians who settle the Pacific islands came from South America. An interesting theory, but wrong. Modern research has show that the Polynesians share a genetic heritage with the peoples of southeast Asia. So how did they get to these dots of land scattered over thousands of square miles of ocean?

Early Western explorers in their square riggers discovered native canoes, some 100-feet long, that could sail circles around their ships. They had fore-and-aft rigged sails that allowed them to sail upwind. But of course they had no compass, sextant, chronometer, or chart, the western tools of navigation. Nevertheless, in 1973 a group of men and women on Hawaii decided to build and learn to sail a 60-foot-long version of one of the early ocean-going canoes—the Hokule'a. To sail it, they recruited one of the last native navigators in the world, Mau Piailug from the island of Satawal.

The author, Sam Low, who has sailed on three voyages on the Hokule'a, does a fine job of explaining to the layman (this layman, anyway), how Pialug and later Nainoa Thompson find their way from Hawaii to Tahiti using nothing but their knowledge of the stars, ocean currents, weather, and the natural world. If you see birds, you are within 100 miles of land. The book is illustrated with photographs, maps, and drawings to help clarify the principles. (When distance between the star Edasich and Pherkad is the same as between Pherkad and the horizon, you are a 5 degrees south latitude. There will be a test later.)

In 1976, the Hokule'a sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, Mau Piailug navigating. There was so much tension and dissension between the white and native Hawaiian crew members that Piailug quit the project and flew home to his native island. This voyage was documented by a National Geographic film crew in a chase boat, which had to have changed the dynamics of the trip somewhat. Nainoa joined the Hokule'a for the return trip to Hawaii and in time resolved learned to navigate as Piailug had learned.

The canoe became a symbol of Polynesian skill and intelligence. In the 1980, archeologists discovered the ruins of a 1,300-year-old village on Hawaii, including pig bones—those people brought their animals with them and planned to settle. Low sketches the baleful effect the missionaries followed by the white traders had on native Polynesian culture. "The old ceremonies were stopped when the church came," Mau is quoted as saying. "That's why I don't like the church, because when the church come, when Christians come, everything is gone. Missing. The people follow the Christians. That's no good. Why are we going to follow customs from outside? Why we throw away our own customs? They throw away medicine, they throw away magic and now it's too late to try to pick them up again. Everybody who knew the old customs has passed away."

At the beginning of a second voyage to Tahiti, the Hokule'a capsized in a storm and one of the crew was lost at sea attempting to swim to one of the Hawaiian island. The canoe was almost lost, but was towed back to O'ahu, refitted and—under Coast Guard pressure—slightly redesigned to be safer. In other words, Low's book is not a report of one bright moment following another. The Epilogue does report however that in the years between 1980 when Hokule'a sailed successfully from Hawaii to Tahiti with Nainoa as navigator, and 2007 five more ocean-going canoes were built and 16 men had been trained as navigators.

Hawaiki Rising is a fascinating history, biography, and adventure story that describes a culture and way of life that was almost lost.

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