Living Link to Ancient Polynesian Navigation

Posted By on January 26, 2011

Kimokeo is his name. It’s the Hawaiian version of Timothy (Timoteo), as many Hawaiians were christened with biblical names. Members of the Kihei Canoe Club on Sugar Beach in Maui call him a “living legend.” He was part of a team that paddled the length of the Hawaiian archipelago. He speaks the language, carries the knowledge of his seafaring people, and delights in instructing club members, tourists, and young Hawaiians in the techniques and traditions of the outrigger canoe.

He’s a paddler, not a sailor, he says, as his uncle and grandfather were. The great Thor Heyerdahl came to see Kimokeo’s uncle in Tahiti in 1976 to research the Polynesian sailing canoes and knowledge of navigation. This post includes a picture (below) we took in Lahaina, Maui, of a small version of an ocean-going sailing canoe.

Who was Thor Heyerdahl? In 1947, Heyerdahl shocked the Western world when his Kon-Tiki balsa raft managed 4,300 miles of the Pacific Ocean from Peru to an atoll near Tahiti. Such a “stunt” was supposed to be impossible and “crazy.” Then his second Ra reed boat successfully navigated 3,270 miles of the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados in 57 days in 1970. [The first almost made it in 1969.] Following his visit with Kimokeo’s uncle, Heyerdahl went on to successfully complete another reed boat trip from Mesopotamia to Africa — 4200 miles — in 1977.

The point of these “crazy stunts”? To defy the “conventional expert” viewpoint that the oceans had always been barriers and that only “modern” people with “new technology” could navigate from continent to continent, or distant island to distant island. The “ancients,” whether Polynesian or Phoenician, were quite skilled and knowledgeable, and capable of crossing oceans at will — the evidence is there, as we talked about in the 1994 publication of They Came From Babel.

The week following Thanksgiving 2010, Kimokeo drew my attention to a boat in Maalaea Bay as we stood on Sugar Beach in Maui. “Straight south of that boat is Tahiti,” he pointed. Then he started back to the southeast and pointed out the exact directions of a whole list of well-known, faraway South Pacific islands. The best navigation, he said, is in the morning as it goes from dark to light. The skilled Polynesian navigators drew on a number of “tools,” including the stars, the Sun, the currents, the winds, the birds, and the fish.

The Kihei outrigger canoe club is a recreational as well as a racing club. It’s mission is to perpetuate Hawaiian traditions, especially through its educational and competitive youth program. It reaches out to any Maui resident and welcomes guests (including us tourists) two mornings a week.

What a thrill it was to paddle in sync with a canoe crew across the glassy morning waters of Maalaea Bay, while listening to Hawaiian traditions, in mixed Hawaiian and English, from a living link to ancient Polynesian ocean navigation.

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