PVS Newsletter / Makali‘i (November-December) 1994
North to Hawai'i
The Marquesas Connection
From Voyage of Rediscovery by Dr. Ben Finney et al.
[The Polynesian Voyaging Society was planning to sail Hokule‘a and Hawai‘iloa from Hawai‘i to Tahiti to the Marquesas and back in 1995. The voyage known as “Na Ohana Holo Moana: The Voyaging Families of the Vast Ocean,” was a success.]
Once the Polynesian had settled the archipelagos along the eastern frontier of central Eat Polynesia, no more island groups lay directly to the eastonly, way off to the southeast, the sprinkhng of tiny islands from Pitcairn to Rapa Nui. Exploratory parties that may have kept probing eastward for still more archipelagos would therefore have been sorely disappointed by the empty seas they found. The strategy of eastward expansion which had brought their ancestors so far across the Pacific had run out of islands. Since the eastern frontier of their island universe had been reached, and they knew that the islands "below" them to the west were already settled, might some particularly daring sailors have set out to explore unknown seas to the north?
This is not conjecture. Polynesians did temporarily occupy some dry and barren atolls of the Northern Line Islands located just north of the equator, and of course colonized the Hawaiian Islands, over 1,800 miles northwest by north of the Marquesas. Although Tahiti was long thought to have been the source for d-ic migrants who first settled Hawai'i, comparative analyses of Hawaiian and other central East Polynesian languages which indicate that Hawaiian is basically a Marquesic language has led to the hypothesis that the first people to settle Hawai'i came from the Marquesas Islands. Although this hypothesis may be challenged on the basis of a more complicated settlement scenario involving initial colonization from the Cooks or Societies followed by the repeated arrival of canoe-loads of Marquesans that gave the resultant language its Marquesan character, let us here assume that the language connection points to the initial settlement of Hawai'i from the Marquesas. What, then, can be said about the voyaging conditions between the two groups?
Despite the vast stretch of open ocean that lies between the two archipelagos, the sail fiom the Marquesas to Hawai'i looks relatively straightforward because of the favorable alignment of the route in relation to the trade winds as well as the large navigational target presented by the long Hawaiian chain. This is not to say, however, that canoes could easily have drifted to Hawai'i from the Marquesas. Neither computer simulation studies nor our own experience in sailing from Tahiti to Hawai'i supports such a scenario; in ordinary conditions a canoe departing the Marquesas would have to be intentionally sailed to Hawai'i. In good weather the passage would be relatively fast, however. As the Marquesas group lies well to the windward of Hawai'i, a canoe could sail there on a broad reach, the most favorable sailing angle for a double canoe. Assuming fairly steady trades such as those enjoyed during the 1976 and 1980 return voyages of Hokule‘a from Tahiti to Hawai'i, and a relatively direct heading, a canoe should be able to cover the 1,800-plus miles between the two archipelagos in some fifteen to twenty days, although extended doldrum conditions, adverse winds along the way, or a meandering course could easily add a week or two to that time.
The 1995 reference course and sail from Nukuhiva to Hawai‘i
Why, however, would Marquesan voyagers have sailed so far from their islands, angling slightly downwind on a course that would be dffficult to retrace toward islands they had never seen? We know from the independent testimony of two English beachcombers-Edward Robarts and a man known only as "Wilson"- who jumped ship in the Marquesas and lived there during the first years of the nineteenth century that even at that late date Marquesans were setting out to find and settle new lands and that they seem to have left without intending to return. In his diary, Edward Robarts wrote about Marquesan families setting off in canoes to find fertile and uninhabited lands, while Wilson told the visiting American naval commander David Porter that during his stay in these islands some 800 men, women, and children had left in search of islands on which to settle. Although Robarts did not state in which direction the canoes sailed, Wilson specified that canoes set off downwind in search of land to the northwest.
Some of these early nineteenth-century Marquesan emigrants are described as having been forced to leave their valleys by population pressure, war, and drought-induced famine to search desperately for new islands on which to settle. Yet the first people to reach Hawai'i from the Marquesas may not have been driven to flee their islands by such dire circumstances, for they settled Hawai'i almost 2,000 years ago, presumably before the Marquesas would have become so crowded and conflict-ridden. Perhaps just the lure of new lands lying over the horizon may have been incentive enough for the more adventurous to set sad. The English beachcombers described how the tau'a, the shamanistic priests of the tribes, would exhort their people to take to their canoes by recounting the visions they had received of fertile, wefl-watered, and uninhabited islands lying over the horizon. If such exhortations were anywhere near as common in the past as they seem to have been in the early 1800s, it seems likely that over the previous centuries many a canoc-ioad of the adventurous would have been willing to commit themselves to a one-way, downwind voyage to the northwest-particularly if previous efforts to explore the seas to the east had found them to be empty of archipelagos.
Were any signs available to the Marquesans that land might lie far over the northern horizon, or was the discovery of Hawai'i the result of a lucky landfall by seafarers searching randomly in the unknown northwest quadrant? That the sight of Polaris might have led the first settlers to Hawai'i is an intriguing suggestion made by Hokule‘a designer Herb Kme and Abe Pi'ianai-a, the veteran seaman who sailed on the canoe from Tahiti to Rarotonga. Although in the Southern Hemisphere Polaris lies out of sight below the horizon, it can be seen soon after crossing the equator. Kane and Pi'ianai'a accordingly imagine that voyagers who had headed off to the northwest would, after safling over the equator, have become transfixed by the sight of a star low on the northern horizon they had never seen before, one that remained almost stationary in the sky, inscribing around the north celestial pole a tiny little circle that was only slightly larger 2,000 years ago. They further speculate that the fascinated voyagers would have taken this star, known in Hawaiian as Hoku-pa'a, or “immovable star,” as a sign that land lay in that direction and would therefore have headed directly toward it on a northerly course that led them inevitably to the Hawaiian chain. If the great volcanic peak of Mauna Loa on the island of Hawai'i was in eruption at the time, its fiery glow might even have provided a homing beacon for any such voyagers.
Another possibility is that seafarers set a course for Hawai'i by watching the flight path of migratory shorebirds that each year, after sojourning during the Northern Hemisphere winter in the Marquesas, set off for their breeding grounds in Alaska. Three such migratory species are of particular interest: the Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulda, Kolea in Hawaiian); the bristle-thighed curlew (Numenius tahitiensis; Kioea); and the ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres, ‘Akekeke). The golden plover is especially well known in Hawai'i where they can be seen to flock together just before the annual migration and then, after wheeling around in the air, to head off en masse toward the north. Although parallel observations have not yet been made in the Marquesas, it seems likely that the plover or one or both of the other species may exhibit the same behavior there. If so, observant Marquesans could have converted the flight direction of departing flocks into a star bearing toward the land they knew must lie somewhere over the northern horizon.
A direct course from the Marquesas to Alaska would, however, pass to the east of Hawai'i, probably too far away for detecting land, unless strong northeast trades and accompanying ocean currents north of the doldrums forced an exploring canoe far enough to the west to bring it within sight of Hawai'i-or within range of the daily flight patterns of terns or other land birds flying out each day from the islands to fish at sea. Alternatively, if migratory birds regularly fly from the Marquesas to Hawai'i before turning due north for Alaska, a possibility that has yet to be investigated, their heading from the Marquesas mi'ght have given the islanders a direct bearing to Hawai'i.
A return voyage from Hawai'i to the Marquesas looks much more dffficult than one from Hawai'i to Tahiti because the Marquesas group lies so far to the east of Hawai'i. A canoe sailing from Hawai'i would have to make almost 900 miles of easting to reach the Marquesas. Sleek, weatherly yachts have to be pushed hard against the wind to make it to the Marquesas; during the attempts to gain maximum easting while on the way to Tahiti in 1976, 1980, and 1985 the closest Hokule‘a has been able to get to the Marquesas was in 1985 when she passed about 375 miles to the west of the islands. Fach time the track of the canoe in the northeast trades was headed almost directly for the Marquesas, but then curved off to the south-southwest when Hokule‘a encountered the southcast trade winds. This situation, plus the apparent lack of any Hawaiian traditions of return voyaging to the Marquesas, has discouraged speculation that there might have been any two-way voyaging between the two archipelagos.
Nonetheless, in Hawai'i we have recently been wracking our brains to come up with a viable strategy for safling to the Marquesas for a very practical reason. Nainoa is now directing a new project to sail Hawai‘i-Loa, a reconstructed canoe launched in 1993 that was made as much as possible from native materials, from the Marquesas to Hawai'i in order to recreate a "discovery voyage." Since Hawai‘i-Loa was built in Hawai'i, some way must be found to get her to the Marquesas in order to be in position for the run to Hawai'i. Discussions for sailing the new canoe to the Marquesas have focused on three main options: using spells of southerly and westerly winds that occur periodically in Hawaiian waters during the winter to try and gain a thousand or so miles of easting before turning south for the Marquesas; leaving Hawai'i during a speff of strong, winter trade winds, in hopes of encountering northeast instead of southeast winds south of the equator, as sometimes occurs that time of year or sailing directly to the Tuamotus, and then using westerly wind shifts to work north-northeast to the Marquesas. All these strategies have their problems, however: the spells of southerly and westerly winds that occur during the Hawaiian winter are unpredictable, often short-lived, and sometimes dangerously stormy; we know of no way to predict when the winds would be northeast in the vicinity of the Marquesas; and, as we learned in 1987, sailing from the Tuamotus to the Marquesas would be highly dependent on getting just the right wind shifts.
Just recently, a fourth option has emerged from an encounter with southerly winds during Hokule‘a’s fourth crossing to Tahiti while sailing to Rarotonga to take part in the Pacific Festival of Arts that was held there in 1992. As the southeast trade winds flow across the equator toward the doldrums trough, they become more southerly, typically blowing from south-southeast. When Hokule‘a encountered these south-southeasterlies on previous crossings, except for brief tacks to the east the canoe was kept sailing to the west of south to make maximum southing in order to reach as quickly as possible the more easterly winds to be found south of the equator. In 1992, however, the steady, light winds encountered just below the doldrums came almost directly from the south, a direction which, if the canoe had been kept on the port tack, would have quickly driven it far to the west. Accordingly, it was decided to use these southerlies to go over on the starboard tack and sail east in order to gain additional easting. This tactic brought the canoe almost to the longitude of the Marquesas before she was put back onto the port tack to sail westsouthwest until more easterly trade winds could be reached. Since ≈could probably have continued to sail due east across these southerlies until she had made enough easting to make a direct slant across the southeast trades to the Marquesas, this experience suggests that whenever such subdoldrum southerlies occurred in the past it might have been possible for resourcefid sailors from Hawai'i to have used them to reach the Marquesas.
Of course, at present we do not know whether homesick Marquesans, or adventurous Hawaiians, were ever able to exploit these subdoldrum southerlies, or any other wind conditions, to sail to the Marquesas. Given, however, the difficulty of the route and the lack of any obvious evidence for two-way communication between the archipelagos, at this point of time it is perhaps advisable to stay on the skeptical side about this issue. A successful, two-way experimental voyage between Hawai'i and the Marquesas, particularly if accompanied by newly discovered linguistic, archaeological, or traditional evidence of back and forth movement, would, of course, force a reconsideration of the possibility that Hawai'i may have once been in two-way communication with the Marquesas as well as Tahiti.
1995 Voyage to Nukuhiva
[All dates subject to change; call the PVS office before making plans to attend or participate.]
Jan. 2, 1995: Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a will be relaunchwd after modifications and maintenance work are completed for the 1995 voyage; Pier 36, Honolulu.
Jan. 2-Feb. 3: Preparation and loading of Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a for the 1995 voyage, Pier 36, Honaltdu.
Feb. 3 -6, 1995: Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a will sail from Honolulu to Hilo.
Feb. 8-Mar. 17: Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a will sail from Hilo to Ra‘iatea; they will meet four other Polynesian canoes (Hawaikii-nui from Tahiti; Te Aurere from Aotearoa; Takitumu & one other canoe from the Cook Islands) for the re-dedication of Taputapuatea Marae in the district of Opoa.
Mar. 20-22: Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a will sail from Ra‘iatea to Tautira, Tahiti, with the four other Polynesian canoes.
Mar. 29-ApL 12: Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a wiill sail from Tautira to Taiohae, Nukuhiva, with the four other Polynesian canoes.
Apr. 17-May 12: Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a will sail ftom Taiohae, Nukuhiva, to Kualoa, O‘ahu, with the four other Polynesian canoes.
May 13: Welcome Home for Hawai‘iloa and Hokule‘a / Welcome to Hawai'i for the Polynesian Canoes; Ke'ehi Lagoon.
PVS Officers and Board of Directors
Officers: Myron "Pinky" Thompson, President; Kapua Lindo, Vice President; Virginia Elliott, Treasurer
Directors: Gilbert Ane, Moku Froiseth, Wally Froiseth, Harry Ho, Rey Jonsson, Eric Martinson, Jerry Muller, Laura Thompson, Michael Tongg, Nathan Wong, Bob Worthington, August Yee
Consultant: Ben Finney