Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

The Building of the Hokule‘a - 1973-75

[Photo below: Hokule‘a]

Hokule‘a was completed and launched by the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) in 1975.

The voyaging canoe was built in order to challenge the notion that Polynesians had discovered and settled the Pacific islands by accident. By building a replica of an ancient voyaging canoe and navigating it from Hawai'i to Tahiti and back without instrument in 1976, PVS showed how it would have been posssible for ancient Polynesians to sail and explore the Pacific ocean and settle its islands purposely, as a way of finding new homelands scattered over an oceanic area of ten million square miles, geographically the largest "nation" on earth--larger than Russia. (For a scholarly article on the founding of Polynesian Voyaging Society and the building of Hokule'a, see “The Founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society” by one of the co-founders, Ben Finney.)

Herb Kawainui Kane, another co-founder of PVS, came up with the conceptual design for the canoe, with Kenneth Emory. (For details on how Hokule‘a was designed, see Kane’s “In Search of the Ancient Polynesian Voyaging Canoe”). The canoe is maintained by hundreds of volunteers, with drydocking before each long voyage.

It has two 62-foot hulls; eight `iako, or crossbeams, joining the two hulls; pola, or decking, lashing to the crossbeams between the two hulls; rails along the decking; and two masts.


Large Color Drawing of Hokule‘a by Honolulu Star-Bulletin Artist David Swann (Appeared June 7, 1999).

Large Color Drawing of Hokule‘a with New Sails by Honolulu Advertiser Artist Greg Taylor (Appeared June 6, 1999).

Construction Drawings for Hokule‘a

Black and White Diagram of Hokule‘a, with Names of Each Part.

How the Canoe was Named: "This happened when the parts of the canoe were close to being completed. One day when I visited the building site, a large shed at Young Bros., one of the guys had chalked 'Da Boat' on the side of one of the hulls. When I asked the reason for the graffiti, they said it was to remind me that it was time to come up with a name.

"According to Kenneth Emory, in the old days a name would come to a canoe designer in a dream. Be that as it may, we tossed the question around at the board meeting a few days later. Several names were suggested, mostly compound names, each including several words; none seemed to be what everyone was looking for. Several weeks went by.

"One exceptionally clear night I stayed up quite late, star chart in hand, locating and memorizing stars and their relative positions. I think I turned in around midnight. Some time later, I dreamed of stars. My attention was attracted to Arcturus, our Hokule'a. It appeared to grow larger and brighter, so brilliant that I awoke.

"It's been a habit for many years to keep a pad and pen on my nightstand. When the body is at rest, the mind half-awake, thoughts range about freely, and ideas form which I've found are sometimes worth noting down. Some painting ideas have come to me that way. I turned on my reading light and wrote 'Hokule'a.'

"The next morning, I saw the notation, and immediately recognized it as a fitting name for the canoe. As a zenith star for Hawai'i it would be a star of gladness if it led to landfall. I phoned Paige Kawelo Barber; she thought it appropriate. I tried it on a few others and got a positive response. The name was proposed at the next board meeting and adopted." (e-mail from Herb, 2/20/99).

Hokule`a was launched on March 8, 1975 at Kualoa on the windward side of O`ahu. Ka`upena Wong organized the religious ceremonies for the launching, with Kalena Silva and Keli`i Tau`a assisting in the rituals. Kahu Kaupu gave the Chrisitan blessing. Hokule`a made its first voyage to and from Tahiti in 1976.

The 8-ton Hokule`a can be loaded with about 11,000 pounds, or 5.5 tons, including the weight of a crew of 12-16 people and equipment and supplies. It can make up to 10-12 knots sailing on a reach in strong winds.

Since Hawaiians had ceased long-distance, open-ocean voyaging eight centuries ago in the 12th century, no examples of actual ancient voyaging canoes were available as models for Hokule`a. Hawaiian artist Herb Kane based the design of Hokule`a on drawings of canoes made by artists and draftsmen employed by Captain Cook and other early explorers of the Pacific.

How close to an ancient voyaging canoe is Hokule`a? Hokule`a is considerably smaller than the 100-foot plus Polynesian canoes seen by early European visitors. Also, while the design of the hulls and upper parts of the canoe was based on what is known of the traditional Polynesian canoe, the design of the sail-rig departed from traditional precedents. The traditional Polynesian sprit sail was typically laced to two spars, one of which acted as the mast and the other as the boom. The rig Hokule`a consists of a sail attached to spar and boom plus a shorter mast on which the spar, boom and sail are raised and lowered. Hokule`a's rig, with the mast first raised and stayed, was used to facilitate the raising and lowering of the sail.

Although the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) wanted to use traditional materials (koa wood hulls, lauhala sails, sennit lashing) and traditional tools (adzes, bone gouges, coral files, and sharkskin for sanding) in building the canoe, the construction would have been too time-consuming as the builders tried to relearn the arts of working with such materials and tools. Instead, the hulls were constructed out of plywood, fiberglass, and resin, and the sails were made from canvas; the lashings were done with synthetic cordage. (For the story of the recent effort to build a canoe out of traditional native materials, see "The Building of Hawai'iloa").

Because of the use of modern materials, sailing the canoe could not tell PVS about the strength and durability of traditional canoes. However, the builders strove to approximate the shape and weight of a traditional canoe, avoiding such innovations as wider stance for the hulls for greater stability and a deeper keel for improved sailing capability; so the canoe was a "performance accurate" replica, handling much like the voyaging canoes that once sailed in Polynesian seas. 

[Sources: Ben Finney's "Voyaging into Polynesia's Past" in From Sea to Space, Palmerston North, New Zealand: Massey Press 1992 and Voyage of Rediscovery, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Notes from Herb Kawainui Kane on the early history of Hokule'a; also, David Lewis` The Voyaging Stars: Secrets of the Pacific Island Navigators, New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.]