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Voyaging Canoes: Before European Exploration


Before European open ocean exploration began, Eastern Polynesia had been explored and settled.  (Herb Kane)


More than three thousand years ago, the uninhabited islands of Samoa and Tonga were discovered by an ancient people. With them were plants, animals and a language with origins in Southeast Asia; and along the way they had become a seafaring people.

Arriving in probably a few small groups, and living in isolation for centuries, they evolved distinctive physical and cultural traits. Samoa and Tonga became the cradle of Polynesia, and the center of what is now Western Polynesia.  (Herb Kane)


By the time European explorers entered the Pacific in the 15th century almost all of the habitable islands had been settled for hundreds of years and oral traditions told of explorations, migrations and travels across this immense watery world.  (Kawaharada)

Because of the great distances, these must have been sailing double-hulled canoes, with paddling as auxiliary power used only for brief periods-to launch or land canoes, or keep off a dangerous lee shore. Changes in the primary power mode of the larger canoes of the Hawaiian Islands from sail to paddling, followed by a return to sail.


Voyaging vessels were double-hull; hulls were deep enough to track well while sailing across the wind or on a close reach into the wind. The round-sided V hulls provided lateral resistance to the water while under sail.  (Herb Kane)


The most widely distributed and presumably most ancient sail was a triangle made up of strips of fine matting sewn together and mounted to two spars, one serving as a mast; the other, as a boom, usually more slender and either straight or slightly curved.


Throughout Eastern Polynesia, the same basic design probably persisted throughout the era of long distance two-way voyaging. (Herb Kane)


The double-hulled voyaging canoes were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 2,000 miles along the longest sea roads of Polynesia, like the one between Hawai‘i and Tahiti.

And though these double-hulled canoes had less carrying capacity than the broad-beamed ships of the European explorers, the Polynesian canoes were faster: one of Captain Cook’s crew estimated one could sail “three miles to our two.”  (Kawaharada)


Voyaging between Hawaiʻi and the South Pacific appears to have ceased several centuries before European arrival. No explanation is found in the traditions.  (Herb Kane)


As long distance voyaging declined, the need shifted from voyaging canoes to large canoes for chiefly visits and warfare within the Hawaiian Islands, resulting in changes in canoe design.

For these short coastal and inter-island trips, paddling replaced sailing as the dominant power mode. Never certain when hospitality might turn sour, chiefs prudently traveled with bodyguards.  (Herb Kane)


Throughout the years of late-prehistory, AD 1400s – 1700s, and through much of the 1800s, the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi.  Canoes were used for interisland and inter-village coastal travel.


Most permanent villages initially were near the ocean and at sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds, as well as facilitating convenient canoe travel.

In the 1970s the Polynesian Voyaging Society built and launched a Polynesian voyaging canoe with the intention of sailing it from Hawai‘i to Tahiti using only traditional techniques. The canoe, christened Hōkūle‘a, was piloted by Mau Piailug, a navigator from the Caroline Islands.


The goal of the project was to show that, although no such voyage had been made for hundreds of years, ancient Polynesian voyagers had been able to navigate distances of more than 2,500 miles using nothing more than their knowledge of the wind, sea, and stars.

On May 1, 1976, the Hōkūle‘a set sail from the island of Maui. Just before their departure, Mau addressed the crew, telling them how to behave while they were at sea.


“Before we leave,” he told them, “throw away all the things that are worrying you. Leave all your problems on land.” On the ocean, he said, “everything we do is different.”


At all times, the crew would be under the captain’s command: “When he says eat, we eat. When he says drink, we drink.” For three, maybe four weeks, they would be out of sight of land. “All we have to survive on are the things we bring with us…. Remember, all of you, these things,” he concluded, “and we will see that place we are going to.” (PopularScience)

Almost 50-years later, the Hōkūle‘a sailed on the Moananuiākea Voyage. (Moananuiākea refers to the vast waters of the earth’s largest ocean.) (MauiNow) (Art of Voyaging Canoe by Herb Kane.)


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