Hawaii’s Glorious Voyaging Canoes

By Hawaii.com Team

The Hawaiian Archipelago is the most isolated landmass in the world. Yet, by 400 A.D.—more than 1,000 years before Columbus discovered America—the islands had been settled.

Hawaii’s first people arrived in double-hulled, voyaging canoes, which they sailed over vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean without the aid of navigational instruments. They came primarily from the Marquesas Islands and, by the 16th century when European explorers finally found Hawaii, most of the habitable islands had been settled for centuries.

Over time, the onslaught of deadly European diseases, the influence of missionaries and the demise of the Hawaiian monarchy diminished the proud heritage of Hawaii’s first people. There were those who believed the Islands were settled by accidental drifting from South America, and it had been years since a voyaging canoe had been built.

That all changed in 1976 when the Hokule’a, the first voyaging canoe to be built in Hawaii in more than 600 years, set forth on its maiden voyage to Tahiti. The Hokule’a reached Papeete in 33 days, navigating without instruments and sailing in a replica of the double-hulled, voyaging canoe used by ancient Polynesians to discover the Islands.

That first voyage—the beginning of many—ended speculation about Hawaii’s unique origins. It proved that ancient wayfinding is not a lost art, and that the Polynesian Triangle could have been purposefully settled in double-hulled, voyaging canoes without the use of navigational instruments.

The Hokule’a has become a beloved icon in Hawaii’s modern history and a moving force behind renewed interest in canoe building, sailing and navigation. Since the Polynesian Voyaging Society was established in 1973, six voyaging canoes have been built in the Islands and others are under construction, some have sailed with the Hokule’a.

The Iosepa—a voyaging canoe that draws its history from an unusual group of Polynesian settlers—is named for a pioneering band of Polynesians who first settled not in Hawaii, but in Skull Valley, Utah. There they established a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community. The community was called Iosepa, the Hawaiian name for Joseph F. Smith, a prominent missionary to Hawaii who later became the sixth president of the church. In the early 1900s, the group abandoned the Utah settlement and came to Oahu.

The Iosepa, hand-carved out of dakua wood transported from Fiji, is housed at the Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie and appears on the cover of this magazine. The 57-foot canoe was commissioned and built through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Construction of the vessel, overseen by master carvers, was largely accomplished by students in a Hawaiian studies program at BYU-Hawaii.

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