Recently, there has been renewed interest in understanding how Polynesian peoples navigated the Pacific. Teams of people have built waka (canoes) using traditional designs and sailed them long distances using early Polynesian navigation techniques. Dr Te Taka Keegan helped to rig and sail the waka Te Aurere from Hawaii to Rarotonga in 1995 – a distance of 2,700 nautical miles with no stops on land!
How the waka project began
In 1985, a group of Hawaiians (the Polynesian Voyaging Society) sailed a fibreglass canoe they had built to Northland, New Zealand, to try to recapture past navigation technologies. Hekenukumai Puhipi (usually known as Hector Busby) was there with some others when the canoe landed, and they decided that they were going to do the same thing. This was the start of a series of waka designs, trials and voyages in the Far North in the late 1980s.
Waka design: dimples and string
To design the waka, Hector got ideas from the Hawaiians, gleaned information from Māori traditional stories and experimented with his own ideas. The waka was double-hulled (ocean voyages need a double-hull canoe for stability as a single-hull canoe can tip over easily). Hulls were used for storage, and there was a platform between them for the sailors to stand on. The waka also had a steering paddle, although the main steering was done using the sails.
The canoe had dimpled surfaces like a golf ball. The builders did not at first believe this feature of the traditional design was important, so they made their canoe surfaces smooth and tested how it sailed. Then they took chunks off the sides with their axes to make dimples. This time it sailed a lot better! It’s thought that dimples create small air pockets on the surface between the water and the waka, reducing friction and allowing faster travel.
The other unusual feature was that string was used instead of nails to put the wood together to build the waka. The advantage of this was that, when confronted by heavy waves in the ocean, the waka flexed with the waves and absorbed the pressure.
Life on board: shift work and navigating
There were 12 sailors divided into two crew groups – while one group rested and slept, the other worked. Under storm conditions, all the crew were on hand to lash the sails and mast to the deck. They would stop navigating and ride out the storm. Once the storm was over, they would get their bearing again and set up the mast and sails.
Every voyage needs a navigator on board the waka who does not work in shifts. The navigator needs to know always where the waka is and where it is going.
According to Te Taka, a traditional navigator had three key attributes:
- They could read the waves.
- They could deduce direction.
- They could do the whole journey without sleeping (catnaps only!).
Navigation clues from ocean swells
The swells in the ocean can tell an experienced navigator a lot. Ocean waves (swells) are formed by the wind, and there are some swells that are always on the ocean, such as a main westerly swell. Swells can interact and form interference patterns and can reflect off islands. Experienced seafarers can identify many different swells in the ocean and deduce direction from them. They will also know that an island is near.
How position, direction and speed were measured
Traditionally, position and direction would be worked out by watching the stars rising up above the horizon, and the waka team aimed to do this too. The team used vector diagrams to calculate direction and distance covered, and they also used GPS to keep track of their actual position. At one point, GPS showed that the waka was too far out from the desired route, so they stopped sailing and spent 2 days recalculating. From then on, the predicted position was very accurate.
Speed was measured by studying the time for froth on the water to move the length of the waka. At morning and night, the new position of the waka was calculated by using speed and the number of hours elapsed to work out the distance covered. The total distance covered was 2,700 nautical miles in 30 days.
Differences between Te Taka’s voyage and a traditional Māori voyage
- They had a GPS to confirm their calculations about position.
- They had a motor on board their waka (only used to get in and out of harbours).
- They had a gas stove (traditionally sailors would have had rocks and a way of starting a fire).
- They had sunglasses!
Te Taka thinks everything else about the voyage echoed the traditional voyages. He described how they even took off their watches and told time by the Sun’s rising and setting. What an unforgettable experience!
Watch this video clip in which Mau Piailug, who navigated Te Aurere on its trip from Rarotonga to New Zealand, explains how he used traditional methods to extricate the waka from a storm.
Five traditional waka departed Auckland in April 2011 for a voyage across the Pacific. Read about it online and track their progress.
Listen to this RNZ interview with Hekenukumai Busby, master waka carver.
News story on a 600 year old waka that has caused a scientific sensation.
In this article, from the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Atholl Anderson discusses how perspectives of Māori voyaging technologies have changed since the 19th century, and current views and theories.