Psychological Effects of Long Ocean Voyages
Benjamin B.C. Young, M.D.
[Ben was a crew member on the first voyage in 1976 (Tahiti to Hawai‘i leg). This article appear in Polynesian Seafaring Heritage (Honolulu: PVS and Kamehameha Schools, 1980)]
Many years ago our ancestors discovered these beautiful islands of Hawai'i. On magnificent double-hulled canoes like Hokule‘a, they set forth to face the danger of unknown seas, high winds, huge waves, fierce tropical storms, monotonous days at sea, and blistering effects of the equatorial sun. Many of the conditions the early voyagers faced caused various psychological effects in the crew. The recent voyage of Hikale'a enabled us to rediscover some of these.
First there was the limitation of space. Scientists know that every human being needs a certain amount of "territory." This is true not only for humans but also for animals. To feel comfortable we need a certain amount of space in which to move around. We call this "territoriality,"' a place we can call home, where we can go to be alone, a place where no one else can intrude. If we don't have this space, we can begin to feel angry or even depressed (a feeling very similar to being sad). This doesn't have to be a large amount of space, but we have to know that it is ours and that no one else can come there without our permission. A canoe is very small and after many days at sea, problems can arise when there is no place one can go to be alone.
A second psychological effect of long voyages on the crew is the weather. Whenever it rains it is nice to go inside our homes for shelter. However, on H5kiile'a there is only one hale or house, and when it rains, half the crew is inside of the hale sleeping. Therefore, there is nowhere to go, and if you have the responsibility of steering and sailing, you have to be exposed for hours and hours to the cold drenching rain. On the other hand it can get extremely hot. There are days upon days with cloudless skies, when the sun burns down on the backs of each crew member. You have to be sure that you are protected from the harsh rays of the sun, otherwise it is easy to get badly burned; burns can cause infections that are difficult to heal at sea. The weather affects your body, and this in turn affects how you react from day to day.
A third psychological effect of a long voyage is the change of eating habits. On land you can drink as much water as you want and can usually eat the foods of your choice. At sea you have to eat only enough to survive, as it might take you longer than expected to reach land, and there is every possibility of running out of food and water. You have to learn well this sense of survival, for it was this sense of survival that enabled our ancestors to make long voyages from Tahiti to Hawai'i. Try and change your habits of eating and drinking, and you will see that it can make you very irritable.
A fourth psychological effect is the change you must make within yourself because you live in very close quarters with others. This relates to differences in personalities. You must learn to be patient and tolerant even of small things. Snoring, failing to brush your teeth, even not getting up on time can be irritating to others. The crew must be able to work together, and each crew member must be tolerant of the personalities and habits of others.
Though a voyage on a double-hulled canoe appears exciting, many days are routine and monotonous. Boredom, the fifth psychological effect, is very important. If you were isolated in a room all by yourself for days and days with nothing, or only routine things to do, you would become easily bored. To fight the effect of boredom, your mind and hands should be kept busy. Reading books, carving wood, playing instruments and singing songs help keep you from being bored.
A sixth psychological effect of a voyage is the sense of danger. The anticipation of danger often brings about psychological effects on the human body. Some of these are nausea and vomiting, nightmares, skin rashes, and actual shaking of the hands or nervousness. It is true, however, that once the danger presents itself, the human body can adjust and react much better than it did while waiting for the danger. One always anticipates danger on a voyage, but once the voyage begins, the tensions lessen.
If these psychological effects are not recognized and planned for, many problems can emerge. Sometimes individuals can get very aggressive and argue (or even fight). They may become depressed, not want to talk or eat, and have problems sleeping. They may even start to question life and begin thinking of death. If all these psychological effects can be anticipated, there are many positive ways to deal with them.
We are always amazed at how our ancestors were able to journey across the Pacific and still face the ef f ects of long voyages. The voyage of Hokule‘a taught us a lot, and we hope to learn more from future voyages.