Waka Power

Islands Magazine – September/October 2007

Captain Stan has spoken. It’s time to open the sails as we shove off from Doubtless Bay on a waka horua, a traditional Polynesian catamaran, built from two massive dugout canoes lashed together and bridged by an expansive deck. Opening its sails requires coordinated effort from all 14 on board. The masts are heavy, shaped from one piece of solid timber. We push and pull and seconds later, with the masts secured, the sails unfurl.

This is my first taste of sailing as the Polynesian settlers, ancestors of New Zealand’s Maori people, did centuries ago. And this moment of accomplishment would have been one to cherish, if the sails weren’t so damn limp.

“Don’t worry, the breeze will kick up off these hills,” says the stoic Conrad, a 42 year-old veteran seaman, as he points to the coast. The ancient Maori probably wouldn’t have had time to linger on the landscape but I do. Its bluffs are velvety and jade colored, typical of New Zealand’s beauty. White caps roll in from shore, and as if on cue, the sails bloom, the craft heaves and we accelerate, as the wind thrusts our waka, the 57-foot Te Aurere, 240 nautical miles south toward Harauki Gulf in Auckland.

“You’ve been in New Zealand for one day, and you’re already on a waka,” notices Waikerere, a Maori artist and fellow crew member who sits next to me on one of the ship’s large hammocks. I nod as waves slosh against the hulls. She smiles. “Lucky. Some people wait their whole lives for this.”

While Waikerere is one of many selected from a pool of volunteers to be crew – so they can connect with their ancestors’ traditions – I boarded the Te Aurere  for a taste of Maori culture and a bit of adventure.  A couple months ago, I had read how a boat in New Zealand eschews modern navigation equipment in favor of the wind, waves and stars. I was intrigued, but when I arrived I still didn’t know what to expect exactly. When I boarded, members of the all-Maori crew greeted me with a traditional Maori salutation — the hongi — touching their foreheads and noses to mine in an intimate energetic exchange. Immediately, I felt like part of a family, and I knew I had chosen well.

Soon after boarding I met another volunteer, Wati, a lawyer with New Zealand’s Department of Fisheries and one of Conrad’s first mates. That evening, after we had sailed down the coast for about 9 hours, past sheer bluffs, circling sea eagles and the wide mouth of the Bay of Islands – a sheltered horseshoe bay dotted with hundreds of unpopulated isles, and one of New Zealand’s most popular sailing destinations, we ended up on the night shift together. While others are lulled to sleep on cots located in the sunken hulls, Wati and I steer with a giant hoe, a paddle that is shaped like a penis to underscore the anthropomorphized way of traditional Polynesian sailing.  To the ancestors, Wati tells me, this craft was indeed considered a relative who would give them safe passage.

According to Maori tradition, humans are related to all aspects of nature, including the trees, sea and the wind, which explains why Wati also feels intimately connected to the ship. “What are we really sitting on?” He ask rhetorically. “Kauri trees from the forest, whose brothers and sisters are the sea and wind. Their parents are the earth and sky, so this ship connects us to our relatives but also to the creator of all things.”

He lets go of the hoe, giving me control. I can only manage to keep the ship straight for a few minutes at a time before it veers. Wati laughs. Hemmie, the burly, deadpan navigator, also on the night shift says, “It’s like holding thunder in your hands, isn’t it?”

I release the rod to Wati and sit beside Hemmie who is seated in the rear to the right of the hoe. We look up and I see what seems like infinite galaxies spread across a black dome sky. Hemmie sees a compass. It was by these stars that 52 waka, filled with Polynesian homesteaders, found their way from Tahiti to the crisp, abundant waters of deserted Aotearoa (New Zealand in Maori) in the 12th century. To make directional sense out of a densely populated night sky, they chose 21 of the brightest stars to guide them.

“Take Agena,” says Hemmie as he points toward the bright star at ten o’clock, “and the staff of Mahuto Nga [the Southern Cross].” He extends his other arm toward the cross, then claps them together and brings his hands down to the horizon. “That’s due south,” he says. “And we have other meridians that do exactly the same thing for north, east and west.”

As night deepens, activity on deck mellows to a whisper. On Te Aurere there are no walls and no shelter. This is how ancient Maori lived their entire lives. At sea and exposed to nature, but forever connected to it. And now, through the Te Aurere, I, too, feel that soul-soothing thrill of life on the edge. As I sit on the deck utterly exposed to the swirling black ocean, I can feel the rhythm of the waves as they rock the waka, I inhale the salty air and can tell with absolute certainty from which direction the wind is blowing, and after some time with Hemmie I can even make directional sense of the twinkling stars. On the Te Aurere, we are tuned in, and our senses have become our best navigational tools.

We dock the next day, among modern luxury yachts and industrial fishing boats, and I don’t want to leave. No one does. We just sit in Auckland harbor, absorbing the sweet power of the waka.