Look West, Old Man, Look West

This poster by National Geographic really struck me. The migration to Hawaii by Marquesas Islands sailors somewhere between 300-800 AD in open sailing canoes, along with plants and animals. When you look at this map of South Pacific Islands, you see what a feat that was. No GPS.

I had an interesting talk yesterday with my neighbor John Washington, who has sailed in this part of the world. How did these guys sail 2500 miles and land on the Hawaiian islands, which are way out in the ocean away from everything else? We concluded they combined many skills: astronomy, direction of swells, winds, birds and fish; intuition…

Somewhere I read that Polynesian navigation knowledge was passed along in oral tradition from navigator to apprentice, partly in song.

It caused me to reflect on my Euro-centric education. Western Civilization was required for Stanford freshmen when I went there. Nothing about China, India, the South Pacific, Buddhism, Zen, the great Khmer civilization, the Taoists, Chi Gung, the concept of chi… (Part of consciousness-expansion in the ’60s was discovery of the rest of the world’s civilizations and practices.)

So here I am looking westward. It caused me to take another look at Henrik and Ginni’s 6800-mile sailboat journey from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico across this archipelago of islands. It’s covered with lots of photos on 6 pages in Tiny Homes on the Move (pp. 156-61).

The Tahitians arrived around 1200 AD and things got brutal. Cook arrived in the 1700s.

It’s fascinating history.

“…The voyaging was all the more remarkable in that it was done in canoes built with tools of stone, bone, and coral. The canoes were navigated without instruments by expert seafarers who depended on their observations of the ocean and sky and traditional knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. The canoe hulls were dug out from tree trunks with adzes or made from planks sewn together with a cordage of coconut fiber twisted into strands and braided for strength. Cracks and seams were sealed with coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit or other trees.

An outrigger was attached to a single hull for greater stability on the ocean; two hulls were lashed together with crossbeams and a deck added between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.

The canoes were paddled when there was no wind and sailed when there was; the sails were woven from coconut or pandanus leaves. These vessels were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 2,000 miles along the longest sea roads of Polynesia, such as the one between Hawai‘i and Tahiti. And though these double-hulled canoes had less carrying capacity than the broad-beamed ships of the European explorers, the Polynesian canoes were faster: one of Captain Cook’s crew estimated a Tongan canoe could sail ‘three miles to our two.…'”

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

5 Responses to Look West, Old Man, Look West

  1. Hi Lloyd,

    If you can get hold of a book called "Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors" it's got lots and lots of information about both the history of Polynesia and the modern voyaging revival. Published by Auckland museum a few years ago, so I'm not sure how easy it would be to find in your part of the world. I got mine on sale at a local book shop…

  2. There was a recent movie on the subject, that is sort of a remake of the original documentary, called Kon-Tiki (2012). I think it gives a good feeling for the sort of disparity and hopelessness someone would face on that voyage.

    They make it sound like a one way trip because of the way the Pacific currents work. I'm no sailor by any means though. Although I think it's fair to assume that while some succeeded, many more probably died. I doubt there are any reliable statistics from the early trips, but I bet the numbers would be interesting.


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