How to characterize the Polynesian people? One word comes immediately to mind: navigators. Polynesians are known to have colonized large numbers of Pacific Islands before modern way-finding instruments, such as the compass and sextant, existed. The generally accepted scientific theory has these adventurers first leaving Southeast Asia around 6,000 years ago. These navigator-farmers cast off from Indonesia, between 3,500 and 4,000 years B.C., in order to colonize the islands of Oceania, today French Polynesia, the Hawaiian Islands, Easter Island and New Zealand… How were they able to achieve such feats, traversing such great distances across the largest ocean on the planet?
It was clearly thanks to their exceptional knowledge and technical skills, a familiarity with their environment, acquired through observation and experience. Their primary means of transport: the double-hulled voyaging canoe, a vessel that was simultaneously pioneering and also a precursor of things to come.
Polynesian people : inventing the multihull
It was the Polynesians who invented the multihull, boats with two or three hulls. Inversely, the first Westerners arrived in the Pacific Islands at the end of the 18th century on singlehulled ships; most notable amongst them was the famous English navigator James Cook. They discovered to their astonishment, the magnificent double-hull Polynesian canoes, they described them in great detail, fascinated by the quality of the workmanship and ocean-going capacity. The multihull is in fact distinguished by its rapidity, because of its low draught. For Cook, uncontestably one of the greatest navigators of all times, the size was another source of amazement, as well as the navigation techniques used by the islanders on board their unusual craft… No map, no compass, no sextant for the Polynesians, who instead were able to “read” the natural elements to find their way.
Tupaia, the renowned Polynesian navigator who embarked with Captain Cook, had the reputation of always being able to point towards the Sacred Island, Raiatea, his birthplace, wherever he was in the South Pacific. Thus, it is clear that Polynesians not only knew where they were going, but were also able to return to where they came from, if there was a problem. Polynesians departed on voyages carrying everything they needed on board, in order to colonize any new lands they might find.
The end of the double-hull canoe era
With the arrival of the modern era, Polynesians progressively and profoundly altered their way of life, losing their ability to navigate on the Pacific Ocean, and sail their multihulls. Sailing canoes were still in use in the 19th century but the large double-hulled canoes were gradually abandoned. The motorboat made its appearance in Europe during the 19th century, and soon became the preferred means of water transport in French Polynesia. Paradoxically, it is also around this same sort of time that Europeans first developped the multihull, powered by sail or by steam. The founder of the New York Yacht Club John Cox Stevens dreamed up the multihull, in 1820. This same person was also the skipper of the schooner called America that won the first transatlantic trophy in 1851, a race that would later become the infamous America’s Cup. The multihull would be gradually refined, to become an ultra-rapid racing craft, however beforehand, in the previous decades, Western racing yachts had always been single-hulled.
From the end of the 19th century, different innovative experimental designs created what is today the “modern” multihulls. Americans, Irish, Australians, French, Hawaiians… all played a role in the process. Some of the biggest include Gilbert Iwamoto, Rudy Choy and Alfred Kumalea, a trio who met in Hawai’i, and, inspired by the ancient Polynesian canoe, built Manu Kai in 1947, the first “modern multihull”. In 1969, Alain Colas’ multihull the Pen Duick IV made history. It was not officially allowed to compete in a transpacific race from Los Angeles-Honolulu, but it still joined along with the competitors and came in 19 hours before the leading single-hull.
This catamaran went on to finally win the famous single-handed transatlantic race the OSTAR in 1972. It is a race between Plymouth in the United Kingdom and Newport, in the United States of America, won in twenty days, thirteen hours and fifteen minutes, obliterating the course record and beating the favorite, a single-hulled yacht. This same boat was renamed Manureva, and beat the single-handed round the world record set by Sir Francis Chichester in a singlehulled yacht. The ultimate in racing multihulls would be the AC72, a 22-meter racing catamaran that literally flies above the water at more than 45 knots (80 km/hour !) thanks to its retractable foils… Every three or four years, during the America’s Cup, the world holds its breathe watching these impressive ocean giants, flying the flags of Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and the United States’, battling it out during spectacular coastal skirmishes ...
Polynesian ouble-hull canoe : a return to their roots...
But it isn’t just about the ocean “Grand Prix”. In Polynesia, trimaran (double-outrigger) sailing canoes of the Holopuni kind are enjoying ever greater popularity, the inter-island races have now been organized into a championship. There are also competitions organized for Hobie Cat type catamarans, or more recently the Diam 24 type, they have even become Olympic disciplines. In 2017, the Diam 24 team, Trésors de Tahiti, captained by Teva Plichart, came second in the sailing Tour de France. Originally from French Polynesia, Teva made a deal with one of his Tahitian friends, who was a potī mārara fisherman, a small motorboat, and had lost all contact with sailing, a sport that is generally inaccessible to many Polynesians. “You teach me to fish, and I’ll teach you to sail”. And this is how Manutea Mahai became part of the elite Trésors de Tahiti team. He is now a devoted fan of sailing and has even got his cousin Teahio involved in the adventure. “ Sometimes, at night, it is a beautiful experience. I think to myself that my ancestors were excellent navigators, this is something we must not forget, our connection with sailing. I encourage all our youth to get involved”.
And this is not the end of it, the ancient Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe has also seen a beautiful renaissance. In 2011, seven double-hulled canoes coming from various Pacific archipelagos, including the Tahitian canoe Faafaite, gathered in Hawai’i to recreate the past. Since then Faafaite has been travelling the Pacific, and participates in all important cultural events. It allows Polynesians to reconnect with the ocean’s mana, re-learning the navigation skills of their ancestors. The association, created in 2009, is part of a network that links twenty or more associations… On a mission to “develop traditional navigation skills, promote mä’ohi cultural values, protect the marine environment, organize and manage journeys on the high seas and run a school of navigation”.
In Tahitian “Faafaite” means reconciliation. It is reconciling Polynesians with the natural environment, with their culture, and their ancestral roots. Let the voyage continue…
Source : Reva Tahiti Magazine
Text : Simone Forges-Davanzati
Pictures : Danee Hazama, Keystone Press, Chris Cameron, Jonathan Eastland (Alamy Stock Photo)