top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdmin

Preserving traditional navigation in the Pacific

Vaka, Va’a, Wa’a: Canoes of the Pacific at FestPac 2024


By Jan S.N. Furukawa

After switching out some crew members, the Cook Islands’ Vaka Marumaru Atua arrived home safely Friday from their 3,000-mile journey to Hawaii for last month’s 13th Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture.


The vaka and crew set sail on June 15 to return to Rarotonga, with “no schedule.”

Upon arriving at Kualoa Regional Beach Park in Oahu, Hawaii on June 4,

Captain Patai said that on their return voyage, the seafarers would “get there when we get there.” The master navigator reminded folks that their return to Rarotonga also could span 20 to 25 days, "weather permitting.”


The crew includes two women and seven men who replaced a first set of seven who gave up their spots on the vaka. Two younger men on the Marumaru Atua’s homecoming journey are from Hawaii and Rapa Nui.

The Marumaru Atua left the Cook Islands on May 14 with 16 seafarers, seven of whom hail from outer islands in the chain. The vaka, or canoe, is the anchor vessel of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. It is a double-hulled, 70-ft., 13-ton traditional oceangoing vessel.


Crew members had trained with Patai for this voyage for nearly a year. The captain had estimated 20-25 days at sea before reaching the Hawaiian islands. The Marumaru Atua reached its initial destination of Hawaii’s Big Island by June 1, sooner than anticipated.


Upon pulling into Hilo town on that island, Patai revealed that crossing the equator challenged his team. “It was a hard trip coming here,” he said.


A day after the vessel and crew pushed off from Rarotonga, Emile Kairua said he was confident that once the vaka cleared “the doldrums around the equator belt” and picked up momentum, it would cut through to the northern hemisphere “to the point where they’ll then need to come back down to Hawaii.” Kairua is the secretary of the Cook Islands Ministry of Culture. “Everyone is excited about the journey of the vaka,” he said.


Cook Islanders number about 17,000. The community sent the Marumaru Atua’s crew off to FestPac 2024 with a solemn traditional, yet colorful and joyful, dockside ceremony that marked the first ocean voyage in 50 years.


At the Wa’a ceremony on Oahu, Patai and the vaka delegation presented the host state with what was described as “a blessed, sacred stone” from their island nation. The stone had been given to the Marumaru Atua captain during the ceremony before the vessel and crew’s departure.


As members of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, the seafarers were received by Hawaii's Polynesian Voyaging Society. Patai and other seafarers had long been students of the PVS’s Nainoa Thompson of Hokule’a fame.

In a message delivered to FestPac delegates. Thompson proclaimed that he is “not a master navigator, but a student of navigation.”

 The Cook Islanders and their vaka had arrived earlier than anticipated, then sailed to Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay before the planned Wa’a ceremony. There, they joined other sailing vessels, which gathered in the expansive bay and off the shoreline at Kualoa Regional Beach Park.

Although the event was exclusive to delegates, families and friends, more than a thousand people made their presence known from the wee hours of the morning to night’s end.

The opening ceremony for FestPac was conducted the following day at the University of Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff Center.


The double-hulled, 72-foot traditional voyaging canoe from Tahiti built in 2009 is another story.

The Tahitians’ 2,600-mile journey to Hawaii in a traditional canoe sailed under the direction of Captain Titaua Teipoarii and co-captain Moeata Galenon. The Fa’afaite departed Pape’ete on May 12 and arrived at Kawaihae in Hilo, on the Big Island on May 28.

Using a star compass to guide them, the Fa’afaite sailed into Hilo after 16 days at sea. There, they passed Customs inspections, as did the Cook Islands vaka a couple of days later. They then made their way to Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay for the June 4 Wa’a ceremony.

The vessel’s actual name is Fa’afaite I Te Ao Maohi and Iosepa. It is one of seven vaka moana, or oceangoing canoes, operated by the Tahiti Voyaging Society.

Since the maiden arrival of the Hawaiian wa’a Hokulea in Tahiti 40 years ago, the islanders have also remained closely associated with Thompson and the Polynesian Voyaging Society. They have studied with him, trained and sailed with his organization, and set their sights on organizing their own club and reviving a tradition lost for 200 years.

The seafarers and wayfinders have revived using the knowledge of the stars, winds, ocean swells and currents to read and guide their routes.

The Fa’afaite’s return to Pape’ete cannot be confirmed at this time.

Four canoes from the 500 Sails organization of Saipan, in the Northern Marianas, had been shipped to Oahu a month before the start of FestPac. Crew members flew to the Hawaiian island and spent a week on the Waimanalo shoreline with helpful seafarers, fishermen and families before relocating to the Kualoa park wa’a hale, or canoe village, to prepare for the arrival ceremony.

Liko Hoe, a Hawaiian language and Hawaiian Studies lecturer, shared the excitement of May 31, the day the first canoes from Saipan appeared on the horizon. It was a FestPac first for the CNMI seafarers to present themselves as such. Then “one or two more canoes, day by day, some smaller, some bigger, would show up" on into the morning of the canoe arrival ceremony at Kualoa, Hoe said.


“These canoes are what connects us," Hoe said in a post-FestPac interview with Hawaii News Now. “They are the vessels that carried our language, our stories, traditions, practice, our arts.”

Hoe said he could “see some of that magic and that pride of the launch, the arrival."

"Our native knowledge matters. Our culture is relevant ‘til today. And all of the stories of the past are real," he added.

Subscribe to

out digital

monthly edition



bottom of page