Way out in the middle of the Pacific, untethered to any continent or pole, is a vast region known as the Polynesian Triangle. Covering 10 million square miles of open sea and sprinkled with over 1,000 archipelagos, its corners are staked by three main island groups: New Zealand to the south, Easter Island to the east, and to the north: Hawaii.
It was from these “Islands of Wonder” (as Polynesia is so often called) that a culture of people who shared a common ancestry and common language grew. And though these people and their palm-studded lands and ancient traditions have long held the fascination of the West—ever since Captain Cook and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville first sent word back to Europe in the 1770s—one of these peoples’ most important traditions was, for a long time, largely misunderstood.?For until fairly recently, most of the world barely knew that the early Polynesians were the greatest explorers on earth.
In massive wooden outrigger canoes called waka moana, they navigated the open seas using little more than simple charts and ancient way-finding techniques—the particular position of certain stars in the sky, the directional roil of the ocean swell, a cluster of clouds at the horizon, the specific species of birds who circled overhead—knowledge that was passed down mostly through song and lore. And though there’s some debate over exactly how far the early Polynesians traveled, most agree that they certainly sailed outside the Triangle—and some even claim they landed in places as distant as Chile and Peru.
For nearly 400 years, these wayfinding traditions?of the Polynesians were all but forgotten, lost to colonialism and technology and the blurry passage of time.?That is until the 1970s, when, amid a cultural Hawaiian renaissance, a small group called the Polynesian Voyaging Society set out to connect the dots.?Using drawings and museum replicas, they built Hōkūle?a, the first deep-voyaging canoe to hit the water in centuries.
In 1976, Hōkūle?a launched,?an inaugural voyage that took her from?Hawaii to Tahiti and back,?helmed by a man named Papa Mau—one of just six surviving traditional navigators left in the world. And 40 years later she’s still sailing on. Just three years ago, she left on her biggest mission yet: a wayfinding-navigated voyage around the world, a trip meant to prove that the Polynesians were, in fact, the original masters of the sea.
But as photographer and crew member Brendan George Ko is quick to point out, the story of Hōkūle?a and her recent return to Hawaii is really not about sailing—nor is it about the romance of the sea. It’s about connection.
“I remember the first time I stepped foot on one of these sacred canoes, it felt like I sank deep into the ocean and entered a world without time,” Ko, who crewed one of the smaller canoes that accompanied Hōkūle?a home this summer, explains. “My time on the canoe lasted for three weeks and during that time our crew became closer, along with the crews from other canoes. It made me understand the concept of ‘ohana wa’a—the family of the canoe. Even though many of us come from all sorts of backgrounds—Kānaka Maoli, Maori, Fijian, Rarotongan, Samoan, or hapa, like myself—we were all there because we deeply loved these canoes and?the perpetuation of this tradition of wayfinding and voyaging.?The voyage made me feel like I belonged to something for the first time in my life.”