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Two-Year Pacific Sail Bringing Together Indigenous Cultures

Story about a sailing trip around the Pacific Ocean that is bringing together indigenous cultures.

It’s a cool, almost windless gray summer day as a fleet of unusual looking sailboats slowly enters the Dana Point Harbor. I hear the sound of someone on the lead boat blowing a conch shell as, one by one, the vessels drop anchor in the middle of the harbor’s small inlet at the end of the jetty, which is surrounded by rocky cliffs and a sandy beach, boat docks moored with yachts and boats of all kinds. As daylight fades and the boats are all safely lashed together, a man standing in the water up to his knees is reciting—no, yelling—a traditional greeting to the boats that is part chant, part dance. He has a paddle in his hands and moves as though he is paddling a canoe. He is performing an ancient Maori welcoming ritual, called a haka, and as I listen and watch, I get chicken skin knowing that I am witnessing an ancient ceremonial warrior ritual. When the paddler is finished, crew members on the boats answer back in similar haka form. The visitors from afar have officially arrived in Southern California.

The boats are known as vaka moana, the Polynesian term for their traditional canoes. They are modern boats designed after traditional Polynesian sailing vessels, incorporating elements of the old with the new. The hulls of these catamaran-type boats are made of fiberglass but have the traditional double-masted, inverted-triangle sail configurations. There are seven of them, and they are on an epic journey that has taken them from their starting point in Aotearoa (New Zealand) on April 19, 2011 to the Hawaiian Islands, and now to the West Coast of Turtle Island. This unprecedented voyage has a dual purpose: to raise the public’s awareness of the environmental degradation occurring in the Pacific Ocean, while giving voice to the wisdom of the Indigenous Peoples of the South Pacific and the West Coast of Turtle Island in an intercultural exchange, the likes of which has never been done before to anyone’s knowledge.

On the mainland, their first port of call was San Francisco on August 2; from there they sailed down the California coast, stopping at various points along the way. By August 29 they were in Dana Point, the second to last stop in California before they participated in the Festival of Sail Tall Ship Parade in San Diego. At many of their stops in Hawaii and California, they were given traditional, often very elaborate ceremonial greetings by the Native people of the various regions.

After the stop in San Diego, the fleet docked for the winter. In January 2012, the vakas will resume their voyage from Baja California to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of northern South America, back across the Pacific to the Marquesas, into Fakarava in French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and end their journey in the Solomon Islands.

Five of the seven vakas represent the island nations of Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tahiti and Aotearoa, and Hawaii, while the other two represent a pan-Pacific coalition of nations and peoples. There are 16 island nations represented. Each vaka is uniquely decorated with traditional designs, and holds a crew of 16 people—the insides of the hulls are equipped with small bunks, and each hull can sleep six or seven people. On the deck of the vaka is a small Quonset hut–shaped structure made out of woven plant fiber, which contains a couple more bunks, the boat’s galley (kitchen), and a small table.

The voyage is a project of Okeanos, a foundation founded by German philanthropist Dieter Paulmann that funds scientific research projects related to ocean conservation. Paulmann is said to have had an epiphany after encountering a rare white whale more than 30 years ago, and the result was his dedication to doing what he could to preserve the Pacific Ocean and assist in the revival of ancient Polynesian traditions. As the story goes, in 2008 Paulmann traveled to American Samoa and attended the Festival of the Pacific Arts and there encountered the Cook Islands vaka Te Au O Tonga, and met master navigators Nainoa Thompson of Hawaii and Micronesian Papa Mau Piailug. Inspired by what he learned about the ancient Polynesians’ ability to navigate by the stars and their holistic knowledge of the Earth and sea, Paulmann set out to share that knowledge with the world by building the seven vakas and sharing the story of the epic journey through the making of a documentary film. The film, called Our Blue Canoe, is intended to tell a story of the environment through the lives and experiences of the voyagers. It is entirely fitting that the troubling tale of the environmental degradation of the Pacific Ocean be told through indigenous eyes, given that Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by the negative effects of industrialization, including toxic pollution from extractive industries, nuclear testing and waste dumping, and loss of land as a result of global warming. Particularly striking in this regard are the impacts of the rising sea levels and the sorry legacy of the nuclear industry in the South Pacific.

Entire islands have become submerged in the past 20 years, including the island of Bikeman in Tarawa, which was once a place where people went to pay homage to the gods for good luck in their fishing. The island of Majuro in the Marshall Islands is reported to have lost up to 20 percent of its beachfront due to extremes in tides and storms. The Marshall Islands are best known for the nuclear testing done by the United States that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, which initially forced the removal of the indigenous inhabitants to make way for the testing. In later years, islanders were forced to abandon their homes because of radioactive contamination from that testing and have been plagued ever since by an alarming rate of stillbirths, miscarriages and cancer for Marshall Islanders.

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Despite the unspeakable suffering endured by some Pacific Islanders, they reaffirm the beauty of their cultures by drawing on what sustains them. True to their indigenous ways, the sailors are perpetuating their cultures by using the sailing techniques practiced by their ancestors—guided on their journey by the stars and all the elements of nature, including the sun, the wind and even the wildlife. The voyage and the vakas themselves are meant to be metaphors for environmental sustainability, as the only sources of energy the vessels use are natural gas for cooking, and electricity generated by an array of solar panels mounted to the rear of the boats that provide up to eight hours of electricity per day. The electricity powers modern devices like satellite phones and computers, through which their journey can be tracked via the Internet uploads through the sat phones. As much as possible the crews consume organic and whole foods, even baking their own bread.

The morning after the vakas arrived in Dana Point, I went back to the harbor to speak with one of the crew members. It was still overcast and not very

windy, but the vakas were scheduled to set sail for San Diego at 10 a.m., so I was there bright and early. I was taken aboard the Uto Ni Yalo (“Heart of Spirit”), the boat representing Fiji, and introduced to Mausio Mafai, who I am told is the most appropriate person to talk with because he is the eldest crew member. He greeted me with an easy handshake and a warm smile. We sat down cross-legged on the hand-woven mat that covered the vaka’s deck, and I am allowed to share a breakfast feast of Portuguese sausage and eggs, and an assortment of cheeses, bread, fresh fruits, organic milk and other yummy treats. (Mausio tells me that the crew was up drinking kava—a traditional tea common among Pacific Islanders—till three a.m., which is why some of them were getting a slow start this morning.) Mausio is a retired educator and school principal who told me he had been on the voyage since March, when the vaka left Fiji and met up with the others in Aotearoa in April, after it had endured four weeks of very bad weather and 30-foot waves.

He said it took three weeks to cross the Pacific to get to San Francisco. “The sad part in that leg [of the journey] was when we came across an ocean of rubbish—just trash—for seven days, and you know, it really hurts us. It was a really sad sight. We lost count of whatever the items might be…fishing nets, ropes, plastic, lighters, gas cylinders and so forth. We were warned that between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii it’s like a dumping area.”

He spoke of the importance not only of the message that the voyagers bring with them, but the exchange of culture, language, customs and traditions, and I asked him about how the journey has touched him. “Especially in the Northern Hemisphere, in the Hawaiian Islands and the U.S. mainland, with the First Nations people—especially the older people, those who have experienced the loss of their own heritage, their language, their culture, their traditions—you can tell that it is sad for them,” he said. “I think our being here has given them something new, [a reason] for them to carry on what they believe in. Despite our smallness and you know, dividedness—because our leaders have not come together to be one voice—there’s still hope. Just like there’s still hope for the ocean.… The sailing canoes are a symbol of hope, of life, of connecting people. After all, our ancestors have been connected by the ocean, by the winds, and as we come to a new place, we are the sailing canoes on land.”

As we spoke, I felt part of that connection. As far as I was concerned, the crews of the vaka moana have already accomplished what they set out to do, as Mausio so eloquently stated their mission: to spread a message of hope, life and connection. And with almost a year of traveling still ahead of them, there’s a lot more hope to be spread.

You can follow the path of the voyage by logging on to For more information on the work of Okeanos, go to