Awakened by whales, we climb out of hatches and into a perfect day: blue skies, calm turquoise sea, birds the colour of clean paper overhead, and a view of a pristine uninhabited island, Takutea, on the immediate horizon.
There’s no evidence of the storm we sailed through in the night.
Sheets of rain had fallen parallel to the deck and gusts of wind came like blows. We huddled together for warmth, our wet weather gear soaked through, beneath a sky black as tar. We squinted at a miniature compass and shouted degree variations to the two men on the oe, who struggled together to steer the canoe.
And then the watch ended and another crew replaced us, and when we emerge in the bright of morning there are whales next to the vaka and it’s too hot to wear pants.
“Last night was wild,” I say to Shane, the captain of my watch. Shane was a member of the crew that sailed Marumaru Atua home from a wintry Auckland, where she had been repaired after a fire.
“Not really,” he says, shrugging. “The seas were pretty flat.”
He then schools me with stories of mast-high waves, temperatures colder than freezing, broken bones, and ligaments torn by the oe in rough seas. He long before discovered the thrill and spiritual swelling of voyaging, and the temporary miseries too.
In this moment, and in many others afterward on a weeklong voyage aboard Marumaru Atua, a few things felt true: nature commands our respect, seafaring is deeply instructive, and crossing unknown oceans to find islands was, and remains, the single greatest adventure in the history of humankind.
It’s been 20 centuries since the world’s most daring sailors navigated their way to the islands we now know as the Cook Islands, seven decades since a Norwegian researcher told the world that the Polynesians landed in Polynesia by accident, and 40 years since Hawaiian canoe Hokuleʻa proved him undeniably wrong.
I’ve been reporting for a decade on the new wave of voyaging in the Cook Islands, which began in 1990s when German philanthropist Dieter Paulmann and the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea funded a fleet of canoes, including Marumaru Atua, to be built and sailed through the Pacific as a means of highlighting the plight of the oceans.
My interviews with voyagers were exuberant but always they hinted at something beyond the limits of language. One of my stories ran under the headline: Words inadequate for vaka journey.
Celestial navigator Tua Pittman talked about “the camaraderie, you know, taokotai e te kopu tangata”. Teresa Tararo spoke of the pride: “You can really know and appreciate yourself as a Cook Islander, but it’s not until you’re on that ocean and you get a sense of what our ancestors went through that you really get a sense of … what intelligent, courageous people they were.” Jamaal Pakoti said that while voyaging he found peace.
It wasn’t until I was invited to sail on Marumaru Atua two weeks ago, as part of a Ministry of Marine Resources team funded by UNDP’s Ridge to Reef programme, that I could truly appreciate the fortitude it took to leave a land-rich world for the vast unknown.
Sailing on Marumaru Atua isn’t glamorous. When it rains, everything gets and remains wet, including towels and the tiny bunk where you sleep. (Voyagers will tell you to pack baby powder.) If you’re under sail, bringing up buckets of saltwater for a shower seems arduous. (They’ll tell you to pack baby wipes.) Doing the dishes in a pitching hull is gross. (They’ll tell you that you still have to do the dishes.)
But to imagine leaving the shore with no baby powder, no compass, no two-burner stove, and no possibility of being rescued should something go awry is to feel a fresh sense of awe at the stamina and spirit of the people who settled these islands.
“I always think about how they did it,” Terii Pittman, a crew member since 2012, says to me as we sat, shivering, in our wet weather gear. “They wouldn’t have had wet weathers.”
Sailing imparts lessons about living, including how to share space with other people, how to occupy yourself when there’s no internet and no TV and nowhere else to go, and how to get by with less.
You learn the hierarchy, and you listen to the people in charge. You follow a rhythm – four, five, maybe six hours on watch, followed by the same amount of time in bed. Everyone’s on the same schedule; no one pities you if you’re tired.
Responsibilities – steering, rigging, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes – are diligently shared.
You have no choice but to make your own fun; you sing and play cards and tell jokes so unfunny they make people laugh. You watch the stars and imagine generations past that watched them, too.
And on a traditional sailing canoe like Marumaru Atua, you learn to pay attention to the winds and waves, to look for signposts in the sky. There was no navigator on board our voyage so we carried a compass, but even learning to stay a course by finding reference points in the map of the world and using a giant paddle to make corrections felt like a sample of something old and deep.
Voyaging is both; while European sailors were hugging coastlines for fear of the sea, navigators in the Pacific were following the instructions they knew and trusted: the position of a cloud, the colours surrounding stars, the tint of a sunset, the edges of the moon. They had studied and intimately understood wind, water, clouds, stars, and the behaviours of animals above and inside the sea. They knew how to follow migrating birds to land.
“Indeed,” wrote Wade Davis in The Wayfinders, “if you took all of the genius that has allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia.”
Part of Marumaru Atua’s mission is to encourage (re)connection with the environment, which happens on purpose, when you’re paying attention. Another closely related part is to promote a sustainable lifestyle. The canoe’s new engines can be run on diesel or coconut oil. Her solar panels generate a little power. Her crew produces minimal waste. (Imagine how your consumption would change if you had to carry your rubbish around with you in your car for days or weeks.)
On board Marumaru Atua, your only option is to conserve and appreciate your resources. Rain is an exciting event; the deck becomes a flurry of people running around in search of containers to catch it.
“This is our island,” says Sam Timoko, who captained our voyage to Manuae and Takutea. “Our little island.”
Islands are microcosms of larger places. On islands it’s easier to see how modern living is impacting our health and environment and it’s also easier to reverse the damage.
Cecile Marten, who joined the Cook Islands Voyaging Society in 2012 and has since handled much of its accounting and administrative work, is enthusiastic when she talks about the canoe’s untapped potential to teach lessons about culture, identity, and sustainability.
The voyage chartered by the Ministry of Marine Resources two weeks ago buoyed her hopes, dashed temporarily by a fire that cost more than $500,000 and repeatedly by the ongoing challenge of operating and maintaining a vessel with no regular funding stream.
“The end of every month is pretty stressful,” she says.
The Cook Islands Voyaging Society relies on volunteers, donations, and small grants to fund maintenance, repairs, provisions, and insurance; recently money has come from Okeanos Foundation (which gifted Marumaru Atua to the Cook Islands in 2012), the Cook Islands Government’s Social Impact Fund, New Zealand High Commission, Nia Tero, and a couple of visiting bird lovers. Insurance – a new expense, justified by the fire – costs $4500 a month.
But the primary challenge, Cecile explains, is a lack of committed and available crewmembers. A handful of society members help out with cleaning and maintenance on Saturdays but Cecile envisions a core crew, of sailors and captains and navigators in training, on call for charters and to take paying tourists sailing.
She notes Fiji’s voyaging society has enough grant money to pay a manager, a captain, and three full-time crewmembers, and Te Toki Voyaging Trust in New Zealand has so many volunteers they have to be rostered.
“We have so many challenges,” Cecile says, “but we’re just really lucky because we have some passionate people helping out. We’re so lucky we got this gift. We have to look after it and share it.”
She hopes for more partnerships with researchers and groups interested in conservation, such as the Ministry of Marine Resources team that chartered the canoe this month, because their mandate aligns with the vaka’s.
She dreams about taking prison inmates and “at-risk youth” voyaging, recalling a third-generation gang member who was, through a friend, invited to sail with Te Mana O Te Moana ahead of a planned initiation.
“It just changed his life,” she recalls. “When there are kids getting into a lot of trouble, it’s because they don’t have any family support, and when you’re on the vaka you become family. You gain a family. And structure, and discipline, and all those kinds of lessons too.”
Perhaps most of all, Cecile envisages kids throughout the Cook Islands reconnecting to their voyaging heritage through the vaka and being transformed by the experience. Since Marumaru Atua returned from Auckland in June, several groups of students have visited her. Environmental non-profit Kōrero o te ʻŌrauran a programme during the school holidays that incorporated time on the vaka and watching the stars.
Takitumu School did an eight-week study on navigation and voyaging and performed a peʻe in honour of the canoe. Recently a leadership course run for college students in New Zealand and the Cook Islands went on board for a tour.
“But there are still schoolkids who have no idea how amazing their ancestors were,” Cecile says. “Our main goal is just to get people on the vaka, and especially kids.”
At the end of our voyage, we hold hands and Cook Islands Voyaging Society president Ian Karika reads scriptures from Psalm 144 that seem to land with new resonance.
“O Lord, what is man that you care for him, the son of man that you think of him?” he reads, and I think of the vastness of the universe, articulated by skies of untold stars.
“Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow,” he continues, and I think of warming sea temperatures, coral bleaching, plastic pollution, the impermanence of human life, and the lasting impact of human behaviour.
“Deliver me and rescue me from the mighty waters,” he says, and I think about a storm in the middle of the sea and the lesson that we are not in control.
“Deliver me and rescue me from the hands of foreigners whose mouths are full of lies, whose right hands are deceitful,” he reads, and though a Bible scholar might have a different reaction, what I think about are the tragic misconceptions that have landed us in this modern situation: the idea that natural resources are expendable in the pursuit of progress, for example, or that certain forms of knowledge are superior to others.
Navigator Tua Pittman calls voyagers storytellers, whose achievements confirm for the world that Pacific Islanders come from some of the most brilliant scientists, astronomers, innovators, and wayfinders of all time, and that the embers of their knowledge still burn.
The stories are for the next generations, for young islanders who pay more attention to social media than the stars, and for the rest of the world, especially those among us who have forgotten how to respect our resources. The stories are resonating.
“It is a blessing to say I have followed, and will continue to follow, the footsteps of my ancestors sailing the path that was once journeyed with ease, like a freeway on water,” says 18-year-old Charlee McLean, a member of my watch who joined the Marumaru Atua crew the year after she finished school.
Journeying with ease comes from paying attention, and paying attention is a lot easier when you are at sea, and a lot more urgent when the success of your voyage depends on it.
Paying attention, whether to the signals your body sends your brain or the workings of the natural world, is the beginning of understanding that we are not divorced from our environment but sustained by it.
In his book Kamaʻatu: Verses of Wisdom, Dr Jon Jonassen quotes Teina Lily Napa, who shares a proverb that articulates the connection between observation and knowledge: Akamata taʻau apiʻi ʻi toʻou pō mua. Naʻau rā e ʻākara ki te au ʻetu. Or, as he translates it: Your education began on your very first night. But it is up to you to look to the stars.