Tag Archives: Polynesia

Rarotonga to Rangitahua

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Rarotonga and the Cook Islands

All boats bound for New Zealand went via Rarotonga; this was how the Polynesians negotiated their way around the Pacific. Directions to destinations were known from a small number of ‘hubs’. From these hubs it was known how to get to the individual islands.

To find your island of choice, you first went to the hub that it could be reached from.

Diary: Rarotonga

We didn’t stay long in Rarotonga, just long enough to re-stock our water and food and take the advice of their navigator tohunga. Some of us had relatives there, so there were hello’s to make, and then again more painful partings.

The people at Avura were friendly, but they wanted us to move on; they have enough of their own people to feed without having to look after us as well. They were pleased to help us, but also wanted us to be on our way. We were not the only ones who have stopped here on the way to Kupe’s land.

While in Rarotonga we needed to confirm our intended course. What we had heard was the words of Kupe, who had said “Kinsmen, I discovered a land at the setting place of the sun”. That meant south-west… but how far? The ocean is big, and land is small; we needed a better description if there was one to be had.

Our men spent a long time talking to the old tohunga, and he confirmed that our intention was correct. He had never made the journey himself, but he had learned the course from his tohunga, who in turn had learned it from his.

The old man told them there was another island on the way where we could get water. ‘Rangitahua’, was about three weeks away from here in fair conditions. From there we should follow the same course for another week or so, and we would find Kupe’s big and misty land.

The old man gave them the directions that had been given to him, and our men repeated it until it was firmly remembered; ‘lay the bows of the waka to the cloud pillar that lies to the south west. At nightfall steer towards the star Atua-tahi. Hold to the left of Mango-roa and at day break continue towards the cloud pillar’.

These were the exact words of Kupe.

Though we got little more than basic provisions, the Gods smiled on us in Rarotonga. We are now joined by another; Te Awe, a local navigator. He will be our guide to New Zealand.

So we set out on the ocean again, but this time we do so with a new emotion; trepidation.

We now know where we were going, but it is a very long way. We have never met anyone that has done this before. None of us has ever been South-West of Rarotonga… there is nothing South-West of Rarotonga unless you go really, really far.

None of us has ever been on a voyage so long, and none of the men has held ever a single course for so long.

As Rarotonga disappears into the haze, we forever leave behind all that we have ever known, and for the first time we fear for what will become of us.

May the gods be with us.”



The famous Polynesian navigator Kupe had said “Kinsmen, I discovered a land at the setting place of the sun “.

If the crew of the Kurahaupo had applied that instruction “the place of the setting sun” to their departure point, Raiatea, then the next land they would have encountered would have been very white, and very very cold. In Polynesian navigation, the point of departure was crucial.

When Kupe spoke his instructions, he was in Rarotonga, so to get to New Zealand, you sailed from Rarotonga.

Whilst nothing is remembered of the leg to Rarotonga, what happened after they left is recorded in multiple independent tribal histories.

The Kurahaupo became remembered as ‘Te Waka Pakaru ki te moana’… ‘the waka broken at sea’.

Diary: Rangitahua bound.

“We were on the sea for many days. We were still a long, long way from Kupe’s land… we couldn’t be close to that yet, but we could be close to Rangitahua… we had to be.

The Kurahaupo was in trouble, and so were we. The bindings holding the hulls together were loosening, and water was gushing in. We were bailing constantly, but the steersmen still urged us to try harder, they could barely keep her facing the right direction, and with all the extra weight of the water we were scarcely moving forward at all.

Whilst we had plenty of food; the Gods were kind, our catches were good, we had nearly no water left. We were conserving what we had, staying in the shelter out of the, and drinking as little as we could. We still had to drink something every day, but our needs were secondary. The men on the steering oars, standing out in the sun, had to have water… everything depended on them.

We didn’t talk about it, but we all knew how precarious our position had become. We had to find land (water) soon… or perish.

From dawn to dusk, but especially at dusk, we scanned the ocean and the sky looking for the land signs. Then, miraculously they were seen; bird and cloud, twig, branch and seal.

We turned, directed by the signs… and land came into sight.

May the Gods be praised.”

beyond rarotonga

Beyond Rarotonga

As the Kurahaupo was on the most hazardous stretch of their passage, they met with near disaster.

The ocean going waka’s were over twenty metres long. This meant that the hulls couldn’t be made from a single trunk.

The longest piece they could find was used as the keel and formed centre hull. To this they added ‘haumi’… extension pieces. On the Kurahaupo, the ties binding these haumi worked loose.

Ocean-going waka’s always leaked, and bailing was a continuous and normal activity, but on the Kurahaupo the water was rushing in, and the hulls flooded. This made her extremely heavy to steer, and very slow through the water, and speed was a critical factor for their survival. They could not stay on the ocean forever; they would die of thirst.

They had to reach land to find water.

The scale of their endeavour was incredible. From Rarotonga, already a thousand kilometres from home, they were sailing to New Zealand, 3,000 km away. 3,000 km is the distance from London to Rome… and back again.

Between Rarotonga and New Zealand is virtually uninterrupted ocean. The only possible respite is ‘Rangitahua’, or Raoul Island as we know it… and that is 2,000 km away.



They left Rarotonga seeking their target; a tiny island, 6km wide by 8km long… and approximately 20 sailing days distant.

Incredibly, they found it.

Under way

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In days following the launch preparations gathered pace. People began to say their goodbyes and important items for the voyage and subsequent settlement were moved towards the beach. Voyaging time, was nigh, and they would leave soon. The best time for voyaging was November to February, when the wind was most reliable and the sky was clear. A long voyage would be started at the beginning of the season.

There was a lot to take. Of course, they needed food and water for the voyage, but they also had to prepare for survival in a new land.

The men would have taken whatever tools they had; knives, adzes, hatchets, chisels, drills and hammers, and things that would help them catch food; spears, fishing lines, hooks and lures. They would use these on the journey as well as when they arrived.

They also took plants to cultivate on their arrival. We don’t know exactly what they took, we only know of the ones that succeeded in New Zealand; Gourd, Kumara, Taro, Yam, and Aute (Paper Mulberry). We know that they also brought dogs with them, as dog bones are found in archaeological excavations, and their pelts made the most valued cloaks… which still exist. It is inconceivable that they did not also bring pigs and chickens; the only large source of meat in East Polynesia. But when Cook arrived in New Zealand he noted the complete absence of domesticated animals, seeing only dogs and rats.

The men and women that would go on the voyage had been carefully chosen. In the new land they would create a new population, so they must not all come from one family, or the population would fail. The Kurahaupo carried people originating from more than one island. They were selected to include a wide range of unrelated people, and encompass all important skills and knowledge. Their personal skills, and those of their Tohunga would encompass knowledge of; the Gods and ritual, their oral history, navigation, astronomy, horticulture, fishing, sailing, hunting, healing, meteorology, wood working and stone working.

The last piece of cargo loaded prior to setting sail was their Gods. For a safe voyage, their Gods would go with them. The Kurahaupo carried ‘papa-tatau’; a sacred inscribed stone, and icons representing three deities; Ruamano, Tunuiateika and Maru.

Diary. Leaving home.

“Today was finally it… ‘the’ day.

The Kurahaupo sat on her anchor in the lagoon. We have been busy for days collecting things together; packing, and then loading. We ferried everything out in the canoes and then we sat on board… and waited.

Everyone was tense and quiet, even the animals were quiet. We’ve all been looking forward to this for a long time, but the goodbyes were awful… mothers, sisters, grandparents, friends and family. The lines of people saying their last few words moved oh, so slowly… some were inconsolable.

As we waited on the final preparations we could still hear the wailing on the beach. The reality of what we were about to do hit home hard.

At last, the Gods were brought out. Mahonga, our Tohunga, took charge of them for the voyage. We have four icons with us; Raumano, the shark will protect us on the ocean and Maru will provide us with water.

Then, when the Gods were properly secured in their positions, it was time. The men moved to their thwarts and took up the paddles. The steersmen took their places, the anchor was lifted and we moved out of the lagoon.

Past the reef we sailed around the island until the markers lined up, showing us our course for Rarotonga. There we turned. The Kurahaupo picked up speed, and the island slowly drifted away from us. The motion of the boat changed from the bouncy chop of the inshore waters to the slow roll of the ocean.

Without the chanting of the paddlers the boat fell into a reflective silence. Water sloshing past the hulls, and the occasional cluck from the chickens were the only sounds. No-one wanted to talk.

At sunset we could still just see the flat top of Mt Temehani, then as the first guiding star of the night came up over the horizon, our island slipped away into the darkness.

I don’t expect to ever see it again, or the family I have left behind.

May the Gods be kind to us…”

We don’t know exactly which island the Kurahaupo originally set out from. It is remembered as leaving from ‘Hawai-iki’, which isn’t the name of a single island; rather it means ‘homeland’. Hawai-iki could have been an Island in the French Polynesian Tahiti group, or in the Marquesa’s group; we don’t know for certain. We do know however that the Kurahaupo finally left from Rangiatea, 200 km to the west-north-west of Tahiti. From Rangiatea, the Kurahaupo sailed to Rarotonga.

Leaving Rangiatea

Leaving Rangiatea, Society Islands

Rangiatea to Rarotonga is just over 1,000 km. That’s further than the distance between London and Rome, and apart from a couple of Islands close to their destination, it is all open and featureless ocean. However, this would not have been an alarming journey for the crew of the Kurahaupo. They had been on the ocean since they were born, and they knew this route well. Even if they hadn’t personally made this journey before, they knew others that had. Certainly, some aboard the Kurahaupo would have traveled this route before.

On leaving they would pass through the reef break, then follow it around to the South until the correct course markers came into sight. These markers were two features, one behind the other, that, when lined up, indicated the precise direction that they must sail to reach Rarotonga. They would follow this line for as long as the markers remained visible. Once these markers fell out of sight they were entirely in the hands of the navigator, who would then direct their passage using only the sun and stars.

James Cook was intrigued by the Polynesians ability to sail long distances without any assistance from what he regarded as essential navigational aids. On leaving French Polynesia in 1769 he recorded this about the navigation of the people of ‘Ulietea’ (aka ‘Rangiatea’, where the Kurahaupo sailed from);

“…from all the accounts we can learn, these people sail in those Seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them for a Compass by day, and the Moon and Stars by night. When this comes to be proved, we shall be no longer at a loss to know how the Islands lying in those Seas came to be peopled; for if the inhabitants of Ulietea have been at Islands laying 2 or 300 Leagues to the Westward of them, it cannot be doubted but that the inhabitants of those Western Islands may have been at others as far to Westward of them, and so we may trace them from Island to Island quite to the East Indies.”

[A ‘league’ is about 5 ½ km, or 3 ½ miles; 100 leagues is about 550 km, or 350 miles]

Cook showed remarkable insight; Polynesia was populated by seafarers originating from South East Asia.

The Kurahaupo sailed west, 180 leagues.

Depending on the weather it would have taken about 10 days for the Kurahaupo to reach Rarotonga. The return leg, back to Rangiatea, and into the wind, took about 30 days, but the crew of the Kurahaupo weren’t going back.

Nothing is remembered of the journey to Rarotonga, but they would most likely have stopped at either Mitiaro or Mauke, depending on how far north or south their course ran. Here they could refresh their water before continuing; an essential prudence on long voyages.

From Rarotonga they would take a route that none of them had sailed before. This route was not only new to them, it was very, very long.

Beyond Rarotonga

From Rarotonga, out into the unknown

The leg to Rarotonga was 1,000 km and familiar.

The remaining 3,000 km to New Zealand was out into the unknown.

Wakas: Part 1

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Oxford English dictionary definition of ‘waka’:
Waka (n) A traditional Maori canoe.

Model Waka

Model waka.

The Maori use the word ‘waka’ to describe all types of boat. Whilst ‘canoe’ might be appropriate to describe most contemporary Maori boats, which are used for inshore purposes, it is very misleading when used to describe the type vessel employed to settle New Zealand. The boats the Polynesians arrived in were large catamarans, they had sails, and they could transport up to seventy people… none of this suggests ‘canoe’. The Polynesians did not paddle here.

The Polynesians settled the Islands of the Central and Eastern Pacific in quick succession from about 100 AD onwards. They had developed the navigational skills that allowed them to find their destinations from enormous distances, and they had boats that could carry significant numbers of people for weeks at a time. But what did these vessels actually look like?

We have no direct record of the nature of the vessels that the Polynesians traveled to New Zealand in. Polynesian and Maori alike had no written language, and left us no drawings. Also, in the times they were discovering the Eastern Pacific, and eventually New Zealand, there were no Europeans around to observe them. By the time Europeans entered the Pacific, the great Polynesian migration and expansion period had ended.

The first Europeans in the Pacific did not record much about the natives, and certainly did not dwell on the detail of the manner of their living. In 1521 Magellan crossed the Pacific from California to Guam, encountering nothing in between. He called Guam ‘the island of sails’, but left us no description of the vessels themselves.

Successive voyagers traversed the Pacific moving progressively southwards. In 1595 Mendana reached the Marquesas Islands, and while he recorded shooting over 200 natives, no description is given of the vessels he encountered.

However, in 1616 the Pacific was crossed for just the 7th time by Willem Schouten, and during that crossing something remarkable occurred… in the middle of the ocean, Schouten came across a boat full of people.

Schouten, in contravention of the Dutch Monopoly, was sailing to the Indies in search of great profits. Wanting to be un-detected, he avoided going past the Dutch Colony at the Cape of Good Hope, and instead took the route around Cape Horn. (The name Cape Horn comes from his voyage. He named it ‘Cap Hoorn’, after his home town).

Schouten Pacific course

Schouten’s chart and course overlaid on a Google map of the Pacific. The red dot indicates where the Polynesian vessel was sighted.

Schouten crossed the Pacific, East to West, at the Latitude of 15°S. This course took him through the Tuamoto Islands and to the North of the Society Islands. There, somewhere to the North West of the Society Islands he came across a boatful of Polynesians, and recorded the event in his journal. The text describing the event is rather lengthy, but contains so much of interest about the vessel and the people in it, that it is included here in full.

8th May, 1616.

“At noon, immediately after dinner, we saw a sail, which we took to be a barque, coming out of the south and running to the north across us. We at once headed for her, and when she got close to us we fired a shot from Our bows over her starboard to get her to haul down, but she would not do it, wherefore we fired another shot, but still she would not haul down. We therefore launched our shallop with ten musketeers to take her, and whilst these were rowing towards her we again-sent a shot abaft her, but all without intention of striking or damaging her, but still she would not haul down, seeking rather to outsail us as much as possible. She got to the luff of us, but the shallop, which was too smart for her, overtook her, and when our men were about half a musket shot off they fired four times with a musket.

When we approached her, and before our men boarded her, some of her crew sprang overboard from fright; amongst others there was one with an infant and another who was wounded, having three holes in his back, but not very deep, for they were caused by a grazing shot, and this man we got out of the water again. They also threw many things overboard, which were small mats, and amongst other things, three hens.

Our men sprang on board the little vessel and brought her alongside of us without the least resistance on the part of her crew, as indeed they had no arms. When she was alongside of us we took on board two men who had remained in her and these immediately fell down at our feet, kissing our feet and hands. One was a very old grey man, the other a young fellow, but we could not understand them, though we treated them well.

And the shallop immediately rowed back to the aforesaid men who had jumped overboard, in order to rescue them, but they got only two who were floating on one of their oars and who pointed with their hands to the bottom, wishing to say that the others were already drowned. One of these two, who was the wounded man, and whose wounds we bound up, had rather long yellow hair.

In the vessel were some eight women and three young children, still at the breast, as well as some who were perhaps nine or ten years old, so that we thought they must have been in all quite twenty-five strong; both men and women were entirely naked and wore only a bagatelle over their privy parts.

Towards the evening we put the men on board their vessel again; they received a hearty welcome from their wives, who kissed them. We gave them beads (which they hung around their neck) and some knives, and showed them every kindness, as they likewise did in turn to us, giving us two handsome finely-made mats and two coker nuts, for they had not many of them. This was all they had to eat and drink, indeed, they had already drunk the milk out of the nuts, so that they had nothing more to drink. We also saw them drink salt water from the sea, and give it, too, to their infants to drink, which we thought to be contrary to Nature. They had certain small cloths of curious colour, which they wore over their privy parts and also as a protection against the heat of the sun. They were red folk who smeared themselves with oil, and all the women had short hair like the men in Holland, whilst the men’s hair was long and painted very black.

Mid-Pacific Polynesians

Schouten’s depiction of finding a Polynesian vessel in mid-Pacific. The Legend for item “D” reads. “D. Is one of the ships of the savages which they know well how to handle.”

Their little vessel was in shape as it is depicted in the drawing herewith, very wonderful to behold. It consisted of two long handsome canoes, between which was a fairly good space. On each canoe, at about the middle, two very wide planks of bright red wood had been placed to keep out the water, and on these they had placed other planks, running from one canoe to the other and firmly bound together. Both fore and aft the canoes still protruded a good length, and this was closed in on top very tightly in order to keep out the water. In the forepart of one canoe, on the starboard side, a mast stood at the prow, having a forked branch supporting a rod with the mizzen sail. This was of matting, and from whatever quarter the wind blew they were nearly always ready to sail; they had no compasses or any nautical instruments, but plenty of fish-hooks, the top of which was of stone, the bottom part of black bone or tortoiseshell ; some hooks, too, were of mother-of-pearl. Their ropes were of bright colours and as thick as a cable, made of such material as the fish-baskets in Spain.

When they left us they shaped their course towards the South-East.”

This description and accompanying drawing is the earliest record we have of the ocean-going vessels used in Polynesia. At the end of the journal entry, Schouten notes that the Polynesians departed to the South East. That is the direction of the Society Islands.

A few days later Schouten came across more similar canoes, and recorded these extra details.

“These vessels were the same shape as has been mentioned above, are well provided with sails, and sail, too, so swiftly that there are few ships in Holland which would outdo them. They navigate them from the stern with two oars, a man standing aft upon each canoe, and sometimes they run forward, too, with their oars when they wish to turn; the canoe would also turn itself if they only took the oars out of the water and let it go, or only let the wind carry it along.”

The 1616 Schouten journal gives us a magnificent description of a voyaging Waka. What is even more remarkable is that by the time he saw it, New Zealand was completely settled.

Tasman in Tonga

Depiction of Tasman’s arrival in Tonga. The Legend for item ‘C’ reads “C. A sailing vessel consisting of two prows placed side by side, and united by a floor covering both of them”.

The next depiction of Polynesian boats comes from Abel Tasman. During his 1642 voyage he saw similar vessels in Tonga, and again we have a wonderful record in the form of an illustration.

These illustrations both depict a similar vessel. It is a vessel that is a double ended catamaran; indicating that the boat is sailed in both directions. The hulls are hollow with wooden covers to keep the water out. There is a simple triangular sail supported by a forked prop. The prop is stabilised by ropes attached to a cross spar amidships which, extends beyond the hulls. There are two steering oars, and a low, round roofed cabin. In the case of the Schouten report, we are also told that it was carrying 25 people. Those people included men and women, though they were mostly women, and young and old, both infant and elderly. They were also carrying domestic goods (mats and chickens). The people in this boat were not on the ocean on a fishing expedition; they were journeying purposefully from one distant island to another.

These illustrations, and Schouten’s additional note allow us to understand how the vessel was sailed.

The Pacific could only be explored and settled when the seafarers developed vessels that could sail upwind. The sailing manoeuvre ‘tacking’ is the key to this… sailing the boat as close towards the direction of the wind as it will go, and then turning so that the wind comes from the opposite side of the boat and again, sailing as close to the direction of the wind as you can. Upwind progress is achieved by alternating from one ‘tack’ to the other.

Schouten revealed how this manoeuvre was performed in these vessels. The boats would be turned directly to the direction of the wind, and the sail loosed so it it flapped aimlessly. The sail was lowered, the prop moved to the other side, and raised again. They would ‘row’ the front end of the boat around, until the sail again caught the wind. Once under way the boat was steered back up towards the direction of the wind. It is a cumbersome but effective technique. Modern windsurfers ‘tack’ in exactly the same way. To sail up towards the wind, the sail is tilted backwards. To sail downwind the sail is tilted upright.

Moving sail rig

Depiction of vessels in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, 1777

Little more exists by way of description or illustration until Cook’s Voyages, but from those we find a lot more detail. This picture, drawn in Tahiti on Cook’s third voyage, by James Clevely, gives us a more detailed picture of this type of vessel.

Was this the type of vessel that the Polynesians had sailed to New Zealand in? We can’t be certain.

Cook and his party were describing the vessels they saw fully three hundred years after the Polynesian migration to New Zealand had ended. We have no way of knowing what innovations had occurred between the end of that voyaging period, which ended in the 1400’s, and the time that Cook visited.

The other issue in this regard is that Cook and his party also described another, completely different, type of sail arrangement.

There was definitely a marked advance in sailing technology evident in some of the Cook era illustrations and texts. The sail configuration described in Joseph Bank’s Journal, and painted by William Hodge, indicates vessels of far superior performance to the ones drawn by Schouten, Tasman and Clevely.