The Founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

(This account of the founding of PVS has been adapted from Ben Finney's "Voyaging into Polynesia's Past" in From Sea to Space, Palmerston North, New Zealand: Massey Press 1992; and from "History of Hokule`a" by Wally Froiseth, et al, in Polynesian Seafaring Heritage, Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, 1980.)

The Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) was founded in 1973 to carry out an experiment that would help answer a question that had been asked by Captain Cook: how did the Polynesians settle the far-flung islands of the mid-Pacific-by accident or by design? Did their canoes and their knowledge of navigation enable them to sail purposefully over the vast sea distances between Pacific islands?

In 1956, New Zealand historian Andrew Sharp claimed that the Polynesians could not have intentionally set out to explore and settle their island realm because their canoes were too flimsy and unseaworthy, their wayfinding methods too imprecise, and their seamanship skills too lacking for the task of sailing east against the easterly Pacific trade winds, from Indonesia and Melanesia to the Polynesian archipelagos. Sharp believed that the islands had been settled by accident-by the crews of canoes that had been blown off course during storms or that had simply went off course due to navigational incompetence or to cloudy weather hiding their navigational stars. He believed that the stories of long-distance, open-ocean voyaging found in the traditions of the Pacific islands were pure fantasy.

Could the ancient Polynesians have been limited to intentional voyages of 300 nautical miles, as Sharp claimed? Or could they have purposely sailed longer distances, for example, the 2,250 nautical miles between Hawai`i and Tahiti, as the legendary voyagers Mo`ikeha and Pa`ao were said to have done?

In the mid-60's, David Lewis, a scholar who had grown up in Rarotonga of the Cook Islands, made an experimental voyage from Tahiti to New Zealand, navigating without instruments. He used methods of navigating by the stars, sun, and ocean swells which he had learned from traditional navigators in Micronesia. About the same time, Ben Finney built and tested a replica of a 40-foot traditional Hawaiian double-hulled sailing canoe called Nalehia to show that such a canoe was capable of sailing downwind and across the wind, and could be tacked slowly to windward.

These two experiments led Finney to believe that the Polynesians had played an active, seafaring role in the discovery and settlement of their islands. He, along with Tommy Holmes and Herb Kawainui Kane, decided to reconstruct a long-distance voyaging canoe and to navigate it from Hawai`i to Tahiti and back using traditional wayfinding. To carry out this project, the three men formed Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS).

PVS has successfully carried out the project, building the voyaging canoe Hokule`a and sailing it to Tahiti in 1976, without the use of navigational instruments; it extended the experiment even further by sailing Hokule`a to Tahiti and back in 1980 and as far as Aotearoa and back in 1985-7, again without the use of navigational instruments. These voyages proved that a canoe of Polynesian design could be sailed windward, making easting against the easterly trades, and maintain a course over long distances, by orienting the canoe to celestial bodies and ocean swells.

Hokule`a has played an important part in an ongoing revival of Polynesian cultural. Several communities, like Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and the Cook Islands have built or are building their own double-hulled canoes. Hokule`a has become a symbol of the Hawaiian people, the fulfillment of dreams and a joy to share. It has generated interest in Hawaiian language, arts, dance, music, navigational skills, social and religious practices and other aspects of Hawaiian culture.

Although the majority of the members of PVS are from Hawai`i, it also has members from Poland, Finland, Ireland, France, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Martinique, Turkey, many of the Pacific Islands, and the continental United States.

1976: Tahiti

1980: Tahiti

1985-87: Aotearoa (New Zealand)

1992: Rarotonga

1995: Marquesas

1995: West Coast, British Columbia, & Alaska

1999-2000: Rapanui




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