It’s in the stars: ‘Hawaiki Rising’ by Sam Low

Photos courtesy of Sam Low

“Hawaiki Rising” by Sam Low, Island Heritage Publishing, May 2013. 344 pages.

Sam Low of Harthaven has written a remarkable book, “Hawaiki Rising,” the story of a random collection of dreamers who sailed 2,400 miles across the Pacific Ocean — from Hawaii to Tahiti — in a primitive craft without modern navigational aids, not even a compass. The product of a lifetime of research, it is a forceful reminder that the demands of modern life make it ever more difficult to retain, let alone honor, our cultural heritage — wherever we come from. It’s also a great adventure story.

Next Wednesday, August 20, at 5 pm, Mr. Low will speak about his book at the West Tisbury Library.

In the 1970s, 200 years after Hawaii had been “discovered” by Capt. James Cook, very few native Hawaiians knew much about their history, their culture heritage, or cared about it. But a few embers remained, widespread and unconnected. One of them glowed in the soul of part-Hawaiian Herb Kawainui Kane in Chicago.

Mr. Kane sailed catamarans on Lake Michigan and in Hawaii, which he often visited. In time he became curious about ancient sea-going canoes and how they were able to sail incredible distances from one speck of an island to another — and back — in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Experts had long known that Polynesia (which includes Hawaii) had been settled from the west  — not the east, as Thor Heyerdahl had dramatically but mistakenly “proved” in 1947 aboard Kon-Tiki. Still, common wisdom held that Hawaii had been discovered by accident.

Ben Finney, an anthropologist who had caught the south sea islands bug as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, wasn’t so sure. “Was Polynesia settled by competent sailors on purposeful voyages of discovery, or by accident — by storm-tossed castaways?” he told Mr. Low. “So the obvious idea occurred, ‘Well, we have to rebuild an ancient canoe, relearn how to navigate and sail her on some of the legendary voyages.’”

A successful voyage might also help boost a gradual reawakening among native Hawaiians of curiosity and pride in their cultural ancestry.

With the help of two naval architects and a surfer, in 1973 Kane and Finney started to design a double-hulled canoe connected by arched crossbeams — a catamaran, essentially — with high bow and stern pieces.

Running thus far on financial fumes, they formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a nonprofit fundraising mechanism. They decided to call the canoe Hokule’a — Star of Joy — the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, a star directly over Hawaii at its zenith.

Construction of the canoe began in late 1974. Lured by the audacity of the project and the possibility of adventure, a random selection of surfers, wharf rats, and experienced bluewater sailors — male and female, Hawaiian and mainlander, skilled or just willing — turned up to help build Hokule’a. Some of them ended up on her first major voyage, from Hawaii to Tahiti, in 1976.

Building and learning to sail the canoe was a significant undertaking, but nothing compared to the challenge of navigating across 2,400 miles of open ocean in an open boat with no navigational aids. Shortly before the canoe was launched, a Micronesian navigator named Mau Piailug, who was in Hawaii visiting family, happened onto the project and, eventually, agreed to navigate the canoe in the traditional way, as it had been taught to him by his forebears while he sat on the beach watching the weather and lying on his back studying the stars.

For the project to have lasting power, to fulfill the tradition of passing knowledge forward, one more ingredient was needed — a young person smart and patient and curious enough to learn ancient navigation from Mau.

Nainoa Thompson was 20 years old when Herb Kane met him, but his wisdom belied his years. A true waterman —  surfer, fisherman, diver, canoe paddler  — Nainoa was struggling with his maturing identity as a native Hawaiian.

“I was trying to understand my place in the larger society where Hawaiians were considered second-rate,” he told Mr. Low after he described cliff diving and swimming out past the reef into truly deep water with sharks nearby  — at night. “I had a tough time dealing with that. The ocean gave me peace…”

Fortunately, Nainoa soon trained his daring on learning how to navigate, without instruments, a huge leap for someone who had been educated in the modern, first-world system.

With the critical pieces in place, loosely, the Polynesian Voyaging Society had found its footing. As had the compelling story Mr. Low proceeds to tell of two voyages from Hawaii to Tahiti, including triumph and tragedy, dissension and ultimate success. He provides compelling portraits of the major players, he describes the art of sailing a truly unconventional craft across the largest ocean on the planet, and, above all, he offers a primer in celestial navigation at its purest.

Though the specifics of ancient navigation are easy to grasp, it seems almost magical that a young person in today’s world can learn to rely on senses that came naturally, over the generations and across the centuries, to those whose only way of learning about incredibly complex calculations was by direct observation.

Mr. Low makes it sound simple at times, as in this caption that accompanies a simple sketch of the four stars in the Southern Cross: “When the distance between Gacrux and Acrux is equal to the distance between Acrux and the horizon – the observer is at 21 degrees North latitude.” But that is just one of thousands of facts that Nainoa had to memorize to stay on the path to Tahiti, an infinitesimal target, given its great distance from the starting point, Hawaii.

Now, 40 years later, the Polynesian Voyaging Society is roaring along like Hokule’a in a following sea with a strong breeze on her quarter. With 150,000 miles under her twin hulls, Hokule’a is currently one year into a three-year around-the-world tour that will include a stop here, on Martha’s Vineyard. What a wild, wonderful counterpoint to the recent visit of the Charles W. Morgan.

The book was, still is, a labor of love for Mr. Low, who summered on the Vineyard as a boy and who now lives here full-time. Part-Hawaiian himself, he learned to sail and fish in Nantucket Sound, before taking up diving as his preferred activity in or on the water.

Several publishers were interested in the book, but Mr. Low decided to publish it himself. He felt that the story deserved to be told thoroughly, meticulously, and that to do any less would be slighting the individuals who made Hokule’a, those who sailed her, and those who needed to believe in her as a living symbol of a culture that was almost lost.

Because there is so much to it, the book would benefit from an index, but otherwise it is thorough, exciting success. In the year that it’s been out, “Hawaiki Rising” has won numerous awards, and it deserves them all.

The book should appeal to anyone who has stared out at the ocean and wondered what’s over the horizon — and how to get there.

Author’s Talk with Sam Low, Wednesday, August 20, 5 pm, West Tisbury Library. For more information, call 508-693-3366.