Voyaging across the Pacific Ocean is a gnarly way to travel. Crewing a waka hourua, a double-hulled voyaging vessel takes serious courage – up to twelve people on board, in an endless 24-hour watch, navigating across the largest open expanse of water in the world. Days spent salty-skinned, harnessed to the boat at all times when above deck, often wet in your clothes, braving storms, sea swells and the sweltering sun. Using thousands of years of knowledge and the sky to navigate home.
Would you be up for it?
There are no passengers while on a waka. Waka first, crew second, self last. When selecting his crew, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, tohunga ahurewa (waka guardian) knows exactly what makes a good voyager. He says “they have to listen, they’ll do what we ask them to straight away, they’ll think of new ways of doing things. They need to be compassionate, and ready and willing to go beyond and above. I need people with the right mental space, because I can train someone to be fit and strong but it’s really hard to train someone who doesn’t understand what it means to be good to people and become compassionate and nice. You can’t train that in a short amount of time.”
He has spent his life wayfinding around the Pacific, and now is committed to upskilling the next generation and teaching them the knowledge of their tupuna (ancestors).
“It’s part of a massive resurgence in voyaging culture that has been building across the Pacific over the past forty years.”
Despite being born and raised in Tainui iwi, in the Waikato, with a river to learn on, he has now travelled a staggering number of nautical miles. His second home is the ocean. He became hooked after watching a video about the building of Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled vessel completed in Hawaii in 1976. It was the first voyaging canoe to be built in the traditional method in 600 years. Hotu was inspired by key figures such as Mau Piailug (Papa Mau), a master navigator from Satawal, who shared his wayfinding knowledge with the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii in an effort to preserve the skill, before his people grew accustomed to the sextants and compasses of Western navigational methods. Papa Mau then successfully navigated the Hōkūleʻa to Tahiti with no instruments in 1976, proving intentional two-way Pacific voyaging is possible. This also shows the settlement of New Zealand may not have been accidental.
It dawned on young Hoturoa, “‘this is the canoe that brought my ancestors across the great ocean.’ I told my parents, ‘someday I am going to go to Hawaii to learn how to do this.’” Hoturoa, joined by figures such as Hekenukumai Puhipi (Hector) Busby, Stanley Conrad, Shorty Bertelman and Clay Bertelman, began working on the voyaging resurgence. Skills such as waka hourua building and celestial navigation were revived for the first time in centuries. In Aotearoa, Hoturoa built his own ocean-going waka hourua, Haunui, which he navigates with trusted crew members he knows are up to the gritty task of being at sea. Haunui was later the first waka hourua to sail the South Island in 800 years.
Back on land, Hoturoa’s work centres around recovering centuries of voyaging knowledge, including waka-building and celestial navigation. Making these skills accessible to a new generation is the primary focus of the large community of waka trusts and organisations across New Zealand and the Pacific, in which Hoturoa plays a key role. He is a figure of great mana, passionate about the way this knowledge is being recovered and taught in the 21st century.
Ancient voyaging knowledge was all but lost in the colonisation of the Pacific by missionaries and settlers, and he knows its resurgence is imperative to understanding and appreciating our Pacific world view, and how to combat climate change to save the island environments. He believes voyaging connects rangatahi with their ancestral roots, to discover their connection to their earth and tupuna.
Hoturoa says a key reason for the decrease in waka culture is the way “traditional knowledge has always been oppressed. A [Western] scientific view of the world has always been the default view of the world.” Hotu hopes to raise this cultural bias in a national conversation. He wants to show New Zealand wasn’t discovered accidentally by Kupe while aimlessly sailing across the Pacific. “We were described as ‘orphans of the storm’… but people don’t go fishing and then get blown off course with pigs and chickens and their family. You know, it doesn’t happen.”
Celestial navigation is a vital part of Pacific culture, a skill Hoturoa teaches to youth sailing programs. “When I take kids out to go sailing and tell them to figure out how fast they’re going, I take them through a process and they say ‘well, that’s actually physics’.” Well, it is – if you use Western terminology to describe it. Hoturoa himself learnt celestial navigation through staying with Papa Mau Piailug and his family, and learnt how these concepts are a part of day-to-day Pacific culture when the only mode of transport is by boat.
Hoturoa says people often have a hard time believing the discovery and settlement of New Zealand by Pacific peoples is a true account. This is largely due to the way the history is told. The story of Kupe’s expedition to Aotearoa is carved into the walls of marae all over the country, not in the books, as colonial settlers were accustomed to. As a result, a narrative that New Zealand was an “accidental discovery” gradually became commonplace. As Hoturoa says: “They become cultural bias, and people had a hard time believing that you can pass along a story without a book… because it’s not in a western framework, it’s devalued or classified as myth or legend.”
In 2011, Hoturoa and Haunui were one of seven waka hourua to traverse 20,000 nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean, travelling between Aotearoa to Fakarava, Hawaii, America, Mexico, Tahiti and the Solomons as part of the Te Mana O Te Moana voyage. The voyage raised awareness of the current condition of the marine environment due to climate change and pollution, carrying a message of stewardship for the Pacific Ocean and teaching the new generation about waka knowledge and culture. An epic journey of this scale had not been seen since the voyages of Kupe, Tamatea and Nukutawhiti. A film of the voyage, directed by Anna Marbrook and Mike Single was released to worldwide acclaim, further spreading the awareness of voyaging culture.
Hoturoa later paired up again with Anna Marbrook, television and theatre director, to film the reality television series Waka Warriors. The series features three young people learning the skills of voyaging on Haunui as they circumnavigated the North Island of Aotearoa, and screened on Maori Television in 2015.
Now, Hoturoa the navigator and waka expert for the 2018 New Zealand Festival opening event A Waka Odyssey. The epic theatrical event will use the waters of Wellington Harbour as a stage to tell the story of Kupe and officially open Aotearoa’s largest arts festival. Hoturoa is one third of the creative team—Anna Marbrook is directing the piece, and Kasia Pol is the designer. Anna describes waka as a magnet for the arts. “They activate the arts, everywhere they go. Artists are drawn to them. They’re places of art, they attract filmmakers… carvers… storytellers… people fascinated with history and whakapapa.” The event will bring together waka hourua from Pacific Islands and waka ama from throughout New Zealand, on a historical scale never before seen in living memory in Aotearoa.
These events are an effort to open conversation and raise awareness on a national level of the importance of voyaging. For those who cannot experience the raw experience of navigating a waka hourua across the open Pacific Ocean, Hoturua sees events such as Te Mana O te Moana and A Waka Odyssey as a way to “demythdefy” voyaging. It takes the experience out of the past, out of films like Moana and brings “these kinds of stories into mainstream discussion and understanding. People are still having a hard time believing that this can happen.” To be able to walk amongst people who have traversed such epic ocean and revived the skills of their tupuna will be a remarkable experience come 23rd February, when the Waka Odyssey sails into Wellington. It’s something Hoturoa knows will awaken the interest of the New Zealand public. “To have the people who have done that walking around makes it all the more real. There’s a real person walking around you who has done that.”
The Waka Odyssey is a free public event taking place on the Wellington waterfront on 23 February. It kicks off almost of week of related events. More information can be found here: https://www.festival.co.nz/2018/events/a-waka-odyssey/