Moana of the vaka: The teenager and the whale

Saturday June 15, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Helene Johnson, third from left, arriving at Avatiu harbour on Marumaru Atua. 19061428 Helene Johnson, third from left, arriving at Avatiu harbour on Marumaru Atua. 19061428

Returned home to the Cooks, vaka Maramaru Atua is to sail to the outer islands next – first port of call, Atiu.

Nineteen-year-old Helene Johnson was below decks when the call came. The Marumaru Atua was sailing north-east up the Kermadec Trench. The weather was calm.


Helene and others below deck dashed up top. A whole pod of whales, swimming beside them.

And then, the moment. Close on the port side of the vaka, a sperm whale rose out of the water. And for a moment, then, Helene felt as if she and the whale connected.

She gazed into its eye. “It was just amazing, and I actually saw the hole on top of its head and a bluey strip of colour which I’m sure was its mouth.”

Johnson was the youngest of the 14 crew and one of only four women aboard Marumaru Atua during the vaka’s 19 day journey back home from New Zealand.

When the opportunity was offered to join the crew and sail the vaka home, Johnson had been elated.

“I wanted to go, I was bit nervous,” she says. “It was good, such an amazing experience – I loved it; just like the movie Moana.”

Johnson is an experienced sailor usually found on a Opti, Laser Radial, 420s, and Hobie Cat; and she has represented the Cook Islands at 3 world youth sailing championships.

“I never felt scared, I’m used to it, I’m an ocean girl.”

She smoothly adapted to being part of a crew, “I’m quiet, but we got to know each other, you know, talking about our lives.”

Learning about the stars on clear nights was enlightening.

There were moments of joy, moments of laughter. On one occasion, Johnson dropped an important bucket over the side into the gentle ocean swell.

Racing to the back of the boat, in the nick of time, she hung over the edge and retrieved it with her feet!

Although no fish was caught on the entire trip, the beauty of the massive pods of dolphins and whales, clear starry nights, no massive swells and having rain for only a few days all counted towards a pleasant journey.

Now Marumaru Atua is back on Rarotonga, they are ready to reveal exciting new plans.

Next month Marumaru Atua will head Atiu, and after that, they hope to head north. “It’s about sharing the vaka especially with the Pa Enua, particularly the northern group,” says coastal captain Sam Timoko.

The crew have been enjoying showing off their vaka. This week, year 1 and 2 students from Apii Te Uki Ou paid a visit to the moored Marumaru Atua.

The children loved seeing what life would have been like voyaging on the vaka with most taking an inquisitive interest in the vessel’s sails.

Their focus this term is looking at how early settlers came to Rarotonga and where they travelled onto next, says principal Mark Harris – so what better way to learn?

Going on board the vaka to see what it was like with their own eyes brought it to life for the children; because it was quite choppy in the harbour, the children got a sense of how difficult it would be to walk around when it is at sea.

Timoko is one of those who has been showing visitors the vaka. A seasoned Marumaru Atua sailor since 2014, he is the leader of the crew but had to play second fiddle to another skipper on the voyage from New Zealand. “It was a good voyage, we were more than ready,” he says.

The Cook Islands has only two captains that meet insurance requirements to sail Marumaru Atua on a blue voyage – captains Peia Patai and Nick Henry – and both were unavailable this month.

Former captain of the vessel Peia Patai was engaged to his commitment as the vaka fleet commander of the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea; the organisation that built Marumaru Atua in 2009, gifting the vaka to the people of the Cook Islands in 2012 under the care of CIVS. 

For those who remember Marumaru Atua from before its fire, the vaka feels familiar. The refit has retained the original design, but for the addition of two bio-fuel engines that currently run on coconut oil.

Fortunately captain John-Reid Willison, of Vaka Haunui Te Toki Voyaging Trust, was available to able to navigate the rebuilt vaka home.

Of the 14 crew, six blue voyaged on Marumaru Atua for the first time.

Now, Timoko hopes to take the helm again for the trips north.

A chef by trade, Timoko grew up in different cities, settling on Rarotonga 10 years ago.

Voyaging is now his passion.

He is excited about other proposals too, like engaging with the Marae Moana project as a research vessel. Marumaru Atua is also scheduled to set sail for the Pacific Arts Festival in Hawaii next year.

“It’s a different experience with lots of opportunities, it’s the culture, the traditions, the connections to the past, and sharing this knowledge.” 

Profiles of the 2019 Marumaru Atua crew Auckland to Rarotonga.

Sam Timoko: A chef by trade, he has been an executive member of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society for the past 6 years.  Sam's first voyage was the MUA Voyage to the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney in 2014; he had an active role as captain and crew of Marumaru Atua for the past 4 years up until the fire. Sam will continue to maintain the vaka, engage with our youth and community, and promote voyaging and protection of our Marae Moana.

 Maurai Villa: Maurai's first voyage on Marumaru Atua was in 2014 from Rarotonga when he sailed with Captain Peia Patai from Rarotonga to Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Gold Coast, Sydney, Auckland for the IUCN World Parks Congress.  In 2015 he joined vaka Motu Rangi.  Since then he has been under the guidance of Peia with the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, working and sailing on the vaka motu project at Lloyd Stevenson’s and throughout the Pacific.  During the rebuild of Marumaru Atua, he volunteered in his spare time; he became a full time employee of CIVS in late March to help complete the project before the deadline of the end of April. Maurai's skills and experience are valued, CIVS are grateful to Okeanos for giving him the opportunity to learn and share his skills. 

Anna Bertram: Anna is a German/Hungarian national, CIVS made first contact in 2015 on Rarotonga.  In Samoa 2013 working for the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) she got involved with their vaka Gaualofa, as a crew member and secretary of the Samoan Voyaging Society.  In May last year, Anna voyaged from New Zealand to Tonga and Samoa following the Waka Odyssey held in Wellington, later in the year she moved to New Zealand to do her post graduate Diploma in Management and Sustainability and is sailing with the Te Toki Voyaging Trust 

Charlie Borrell: Charlie was born in Omoka, Penrhyn. A semi-retired Mechanical Engineer, his company Airppac sponsored some of the consumables needed for the vaka’s refit. Charlie had no previous sailing experience but was involved with the rebuild of Marumaru Atua at Lloyd Stevenson’s in East Tamaki. Through his church he brought many youth groups to participate in the rebuild. Charlie hopes that one day he can provide a programme to help and motivate our Cook Islands youth in Aotearoa to pick up some traditional skills in sailing and reconnect back to his home land.

Dickie Humphries: Dickie is of Mitiaro descent from the Tumuenua and Tutini families growing up in Mangere, South Auckland.  It has been his long held dream to sail under the traditions and techniques of our ancestors.  He is grateful to the crew for they are genuine and sincere people, and to Marumaru Atua, “who cares for us, and for all the spiritual protection that guides us and keeps us safe.”

Dale Dice: At the end of 2012, Dale had a conversation with a man named Tafale, a seasoned mariner who had a long career with the NZ navy, and has been in, on, or around water his entire life. This was when a seed was planted in his mind that it was possible to sail other countries. So to be selected for the team to return Marumaru Atua to her homeland of Rarotonga as his first Bluewater voyage, is both a huge honour and privilege, and a journey six years in the making.  When Dale is not sailing on Haunui, or volunteering as a Coastguard, he is running his own removal company business.

 Antony Sean Tekau-Ariki Vavia: Antony is a young graduate BSc (Honours) in Marine Biology.  He is of Cook Islands Fijian descent who grew up in South Auckland for most of his life.  He dreams of becoming the Kiwi-Pacific equivalent of Steve Irwin. Currently he is undertaking his PhD in Marine Biology at the Auckland University of Technology.  However, he also explores other ways to understand the ocean as well as to help educate others about the impact that it suffers.  Antony loves adventures, getting involved, developing life experiences and skills, learning, meeting others and connecting with culture which is why he applied to become a crew member on Marumaru Atua.  He was one of the many volunteers that gave up their time to help with the restoration of our vaka.

 Nga Roma Poa: Nga is a student, interested in learning first and foremost.  She is passionate about spatial design and inspired by traditional concepts of time, space and therefore understanding of the world.  Celestial Navigation and traditional way-finding is a way of learning through doing and being a part of the environment which are important traditions to uphold.  Every time she looks out across the sea she imagines the fleet our tupuna would have guided. 

Shane Warren: Shane is from the Arera Ariki, Maru Kura line Rarotonga, he also has ties to Mangaia and Aitutaki. He has been involved with Te Toki Voyaging Society for two years and was privileged to spend a few days on the rebuild of Marumaru Atua mainly laminating kiato's and then with the re-lashing of those kiato's to her hulls. 

Tony Marsters: Tony is a proud Cook Islander and a regular volunteer at Lloyd Stevenson's since the vaka arrived in New Zealand.  He is honoured to be part of the crew safely sailing the vaka home. home.  This year Tony is one of those volunteers who with no sailing experience were given the opportunity enabled CIVS to take on this once in a life time opportunity to be able to train and sail the vaka home. 

 Helene Johnson: Helene is the youngest crew member at 18 and a student at Tereora College, and hails from Manihiki, Aitutaki and Rarotonga. A former Cook Islands Junior Sportswoman of the Year, she has represented the Cook Islands many times in sailing and is usually found sailing on a Opti, Laser Radial, 420s, and Hobie Cat.  As a young Cook Islands Maori brought up on the ocean, it only seems right that she continues to explore her traditional connection and sail on the vaka.  She has a deep interest in sailing that has seen her travel internationally.  Helen was awarded a World Sailing scholarship for the World Youth championships in 2018 in the American city of Corpus Christi in Texas. 

 Helene is part of the Te Uki Ou kia Akamatutuia e kia Rangatira i te Teretere Moana, which translates into English as Developing Voyagers for Future Generations.   The heart of the program is teaching the youth about themselves. This includes teaching them about cultural connection, cultural pride, healthy lifestyles, leadership, peer mentorship, self-confidence, and caring for each other and the environment.   CIVS is appreciative to Internal Affairs for the Social Impact Funding grant that support Helene on this voyage.

Levi Ririnui: Levi is another young crew member at 22 years of age and a student at Waikato University.  He has previously sailed on Haunui and Hinemoana, this is his first "blue voyage".  His love for the ocean and sailing comes from his father Haki, who himself is a voyager.  “It's an awesome feeling to be on my first blue water voyage and I'm grateful to the Cook Islands Voyaging Society for allowing me to be a part Marumaru Atua's long-awaited return home to Rarotonga”.

Marama Mariu: Marama was born in Taumaranui, in the Central North Island.  Over the past 3 years, Rarotonga has been her second home.  Graduating with a Bachelor of Law from Waikato University, she spent time living and working in Rarotonga, during one of these visit she was introduced to Marumaru Atua. Marumaru Atua was the first traditional voyaging vaka she stood on and immediately felt a connection and still does every time she sees her.   During her time in Rarotonga she regularly volunteers at CIVS working bees. In New Zealand she joined in the working bees and learned how to sail.  Her intention is to help with this national treasure and to engage with our tamariki what she has learnt during her time volunteering.  Marama feels she is merely a caretaker of the knowledge, so she looks forward to sharing it with the people of the Cook Islands. To be part of the crew who will sail Marumaru Atua home is a dream come true, for Marama it is also like a homecoming.

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