Across the Pacific, the voyaging canoe is said to represent genealogy. Pacific Islanders trace their origins to certain canoes, for each is a sacred and living treasure that connects people to their ancestry. The canoe is origin and possibility, heritage and story, and a poetic, powerful metaphor of planet Earth, reminding us that we are an island of finite resources, floating in the sea of space. As she voyages, the canoe embodies balance, harmony, teamwork, and respect. If one of her hulls is damaged, we take actions to repair it and prevent sinking. So too is our responsibility for the Earth, to care for our home as though the planet is on loan to us from future generations yet to be born.
The art of celestial navigation requires us to listen to nature as our guide and contains powerful lessons for the present. Traditional Navigators are attuned to the world around them, from the heavens down to the water drop, constantly noticing the shape of the sea and the character of light through the clouds. In recent times, the ancient art of wayfinding was nearly extinct until one of its last keepers, master navigator Mau Piailug from Micronesia, on the island of Sattawal, chose to teach. He mentored Nainoa Thompson, who then became the first Hawaiian and Polynesian since the 14th century to practice the art of wayfinding on long-distance ocean voyages. In 1976, they successfully navigated Hōkūle`a across 2,500 miles on her first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. A double-hulled voyaging canoe, Hōkūle`a was first imagined to fruition by visionary artist Herb Kawainui Kane, but her soul is centuries old. Her voyages have inspired an extraordinary cultural revival and renewal of pride that continues to empower and inspire future leadership.
Searching for the best way to convey an urgent message of marine protection, Dieter Paulmann, with his foundation Okeanos for the Sea, was inspired by Pacific Island culture and their stories of voyaging. He found strength in the Pacific people, a cultural heritage and value system that serve as an inspiring model. As an oceanic people, Pacific Islanders have a history of navigating without instruments across vast distances to discover far-flung islands. They sailed by acute observation, educated intuition and intricate observation of the stars, sun, moon, wildlife and ocean swells. This art is being revived, with voyaging canoes and Pacific voyagers serving as powerful messengers to raise awareness of our imperiled oceans.
Our journey has grown from one man’s inspiration into an ever-expanding fleet of seven vaka moanas, or ocean going canoes, sailing across the Pacific, fueled by the wind and sun, and supported by Okeanos Foundation for the Sea. The vaka are crewed by Indigenous people of many Pacific nations, sailing as one, reconnecting with cultural heritage and raising awareness about contemporary threats to the ocean. Our family of vakas has grown to include the vaka motu, or inter-island canoes, designed for sustainable inter-island transport, and the vaka hapua, designed for lagoon and short distance traveling. New initiatives are also emerging to inspire a self-reliant, fossil fuel free future for the Pacific and for generations to come.
As the largest of Earth’s living systems, the ocean is our breath, our very survival, and yet we are witnessing the rapid decline of a once healthy ecosystem. Both modern and Indigenous science alert us to the visible issues of over-fishing, sea level rise and marine debris, including the abundance of plastics in the sea. Yet the ocean also harbors the more hidden threats of noise pollution, expanding dead zones, and ocean acidification. To translate this knowledge of an imperiled ocean into an initiative for change, we engage the heart. It is often through storytelling that we evoke emotion, stir inspiration and empower change. By drawing on the stories of our past and by perpetuating our heritage we shape the possibilities of our future. We create a new narrative, a new sail plan for Island Earth, drawing on the ancient island wisdom of sustainability to guide us. Our ancestors lived in a reciprocal relationship with nature. Their model of interconnectedness of life on small islands is more valuable today than ever before.
The Pacific Ocean is larger than all of Earth’s land masses combined. The first explorers of this vast expanse relied upon universal traits of the human spirit; the courage, curiosity and sense of vision that continually urges us to always be learning, exploring and discovering. Their great migration began by setting sail from Southeast Asia and Taiwan to the East. Thousands of years later and, in an extraordinary feat of ocean exploration, our ancestors ventured into the farthest reaches of the Pacific Ocean; a vast expanse nearly twice the size of the United States, spanning from Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the southwest and Hawaii in the north. These ancient seafarers traveled on double-hulled voyaging canoes for thousands of miles, carrying everything they would need, from root crops and seeds to domestic animals, to thrive in a new land.
Today we continue to voyage, recognizing the Earth as a planet of finite resources and our only home. The vaka is a microcosm of our Pacific Islands, but also of our larger island that is planet Earth. It is a window in time, connecting us with our mana – our spirit- of collective consciousness, ancient knowledge, harmony and teamwork. Bridging ancestral wisdom and renewable energy, the vaka tells a universal story of hope. The voyaging canoe is a powerful model of intergenerational learning and cross-cultural legacy, with tremendous potential to inspire pride in our common heritage, and motivate change as we navigate towards a world of ecological sustainability.