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Hokule’a Log: Voyage to Rapa Nui Part Two

by vrecinto on March 28th, 2014

Photo Courtesy of Sam Low

Photo Courtesy of Sam Low

Hokule’a Log: Voyage to Rapa Nui – Part Two

By Sam Low

In 1999 Hokule’a – a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe – set out from Mangareva to voyage to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).  Her Navigator, Nainoa Thompson, would find his way as his ancestors once did – without charts, compass or instruments of any kind. This is part two of a multipart series. Please feel free to share this. Aloha.

Part Two

Tuesday, September 14 – Rikitea, Mangareva, Gambier Islands, French Polynesia.

The Air Tahiti STOL aircraft sweeps in over Mangareva’s outer reef, flies low over a frothy turquoise sea stubbled with coral heads, and touches down on a cement strip laid like concrete frosting over the barrier reef. We disembark and collect 72 pieces of luggage shipped as cargo, 23 as baggage and 14 as hand carry – essential supplies for the voyage to Rapa Nui. After a short ride on the ferry, a forty foot converted fishing boat, we arrive in the harbor of Rikitea and moor alongside Hokule’a.

Expedition headquarters ashore is in a converted furniture workshop owned by our host Bruno Schmidt. As we unload our gear, heavy clouds scud across the mountain peaks above the village, bringing rain. We rig tarpaulins to shelter the crates of food and other supplies we have brought in from Tahiti. That night, after a Terry Hee dinner of soup, fish stew, teriyaki meat and rice, Chad Baybayan welcomes us to Mangareva. “I’m glad you are all here safely,” he tells us. “Once we have accomplished a few chores we will be ready to jump off for Rapa Nui.”

A lot had already been done. On the wall behind Chad, written on a large sheet of paper, is the work list:

Unload canoe and wash galley utensils, tupperware, water bottles

Clean foul weather gear

Wash compartments and air out

Inventory supplies and equipment from Tahiti

Repack and reload food

Fill water bottles and load

Many of the items have already been checked off.

After Chad’s welcome, it is Nainoa’s turn to speak. “I’m not going to kid you,” he tells us, “this is going to be a tough trip. But looking around at all the folks assembled here, I know that we are going to make it and do it well and safely. I’m not saying that we will find Rapa Nui because that would be arrogant, but I am sure that if anyone can do it, we as a group can do it.”

On the wall behind Nainoa are a series of weather maps from the French meteorological station on the hill overlooking the harbor. The maps show a succession of low-pressure systems that have moved in an orderly procession over the South Pacific in the last week. Today’s chart shows a long front has formed between a low to the south of the island and a high to the northeast. As he talks, Nainoa runs his finger along the front.

“Today, we flew into this weather on the way down from Tahiti,” he explains, “and we had turbulence and clouds most of the way. This front is causing the weather we are experiencing now.”

Nainoa pauses to examine the maps for the previous two days, mentally calculating the front’s direction and speed of motion.

“I think the system is moving east-southeast along the line defined by the front at about 16 knots,” he explains, “so that if it continues in that direction it might pass in about two or three days and be replaced by another low pressure system which may bring in westerly winds, just what we want. I’ve only been here two days, so I can’t be sure, but if that happens I think that we had better be ready to go on Friday. It’s too early to predict the weather accurately, but I can tell you one thing, when the wind is right, we’re going to leave.”

As the meeting breaks up, the crew who will sleep in the workshop lay out sleeping mats in nests they have created among crates, coolers and folded sails. The rest depart to bunks aboard Hokule’a or Kama Hele. A south wind sweeps in over the harbor of Rikitea stirring whitecaps. Rain slants across arc lights bathing the canoe and the escort boat as they pull against their mooring lines, bobbing and yawing in the choppy water of the harbor.

Thursday, September 16, Rikitea

In the last two days, the crew has been busy checking and packing gear and going over safety procedures aboard the canoe and the escort boat, preparing for possible heavy weather. Star maps have been laid out and the navigators – Shantell Ching, Nainoa, Bruce and Chad – have been rehearsing the star alignments they will use for determining the latitude of Rapa Nui.

Today, Hokule’a is brought alongside the pier so that gear can be loaded and Kama Hele, our escort boat, takes on water and fuel. Tonight, most of the crews will sleep aboard Kama Hele and Hokule’a to be ready for departure at short notice.

Today is also “Hokule’a Day” for the students of the Centre d’Education au Developpement – a vocational/technical school established by The Brothers of the Sacred Heart, a religious order from Canada. Chad conducts class for the sixty students at the school, after which Tava Taupu leads a tour of the canoe. The students, eighteen from Rikitea and the rest from the outer islands, learn the basics of steering by the stars and what life will be like aboard the canoe on the voyage to Rapa Nui.

The most frequently asked questions: “Where do you sleep?” “Where do you go to the bathroom?” “How do you steer the canoe?” And, “How does the man overboard beacon work?

Nainoa, Chad and Bruce have been making regular trips up to the weather station to analyze the daily weather maps. We have experienced fairly steady southern winds, heavy clouds and occasional torrential rain. The prediction for yesterday was that the rain would stop today (which seems to be happening) and the wind will begin to back around to the east, then northeast – beginning its journey around the compass to the west, just what we want, perhaps by Friday or Saturday. But no one can be sure. It’s also possible that a high-pressure system may join with a stationary high over Rapa Nui, establishing trade winds over the entire route to the island, which will mean constant tacking. And there is a weak low-pressure system forming to the east, in the path of the front, which may cause it to stall over Mangareva. This might delay the wind shift that we need to sail to Rapa Nui without tacking. The situation remains uncertain.

“So, what else is new,” says Nainoa, who has seen this kind of uncertainty dozens of times before.

The Story of Anua-Motua

Later in the day, our island host – Bruno Schmidt – arrives to take us to the other side of the island to speak with a man who knows many ancient Mangarevan legends. We find Teakarotu Barthelemy at his home amidst a grove of orange trees near the beach. A man of ample girth and impressive dignity, he sits on his lanai overlooking the ocean and tells the story of a great Mangarevan navigator who set out to find Rapa Nui, just as we will do when the weather clears.

“Anua-Motua chose his crew and set out,” Teakarotu explains. “He arrived at an island that is called Makatea and gave it the name of Pua Pua Moku and he left his daughter and her husband there along with some of his crew and sailed on to the island now called Elizabeth and also gave it the name of Pua Pua Moku. After that they sailed on to Pitcairn Island, which he gave the name of He Rangi. During the voyage they searched for Rapa Nui but they passed it by mistake and found themselves in a cold place which they called Tai Koko. This place is called Cape Horn today. They realized that they were not at a good place so they turned back and sailed by the stars in the direction they came to try and find Rapa Nui.

“Te Angi Angi was now the navigator and captain. When they finally arrived at Rapa Nui they gave the island the name of Mata Ki Te Rangi which means “the eyes look at the heavens,” and another name of Kairangi which means “eating the sky'” and they also called the island Pourangi which means “pole eating the sky.”

“To understand the reason for the names,” Bruno explains, “you must think what the island looked like to them as they approached from the sea. They saw a tall mountain thrusting up into the sky as if it were eating the sky and their eyes, following the mountain, were looking at the heavens.”

Teakarotu learned the legend from his grandmother Toaatakiore Karara who was a famous singer and kahu of ancient traditions. Toaatakiore helped Sir Peter Buck, when the famous anthropologist visited the islands in the 1930s with a Bishop Museum expedition, by singing over 160 songs for him.

Oral traditions are subject to a great deal of change over the years and it is probable that the legend, as told by Teakarotu, is not as accurate today as it was in the days of his grandmother. The islands listed, for example, cannot be identified today. According to Bruno, Maka Tea means “elevated atoll,” and Tai Koko, which Teakarotu identified as Cape Horn means “place of heavy seas.” But the legend is interesting because it suggests the great difficulty that even the ancient navigators experienced when trying to find Rapa Nui. It also suggests that at least one canoe may have strayed past Rapa Nui and discovered the great continent of South America.



Author Sam Low has recently published a book about Hokule’a called Hawaiki Rising – Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance.




This is a logbook and Sam takes all responsibility for errors in spelling and any other kind.

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