Voyage To Rapanui: 5,000 Miles Down With No GPS, Maps Or Compass

waka tapu voyage to rapanuiHow would you feel about sailing 10,000 nautical miles from Auckland, New Zealand, to Easter Island and back on a double-hulled canoe with no GPS or navigational equipment? In August, after reading a story my colleague wrote on the Waku Tapu Voyage to Rapanui Expedition, I resolved to check back on these intrepid explorers to see if they made it to Rapanui (Easter Island) in one piece.

I’m happy to report that 22 male and female New Zealanders did indeed complete the first half of their epic journey, arriving in Rapanui safe and sound on December 5. Traveling on two traditional waka (double-hulled sailing canoes) they retraced a historic route across the Pacific Ocean using only the stars, sun, moon, ocean currents, birds and other marine life to guide them, just as their Maori ancestors did. They are now en route back to New Zealand and are due to arrive home in late March. The goal of the journey was to “close the final corner of the Polynesian Triangle defined by Hawaii in the North, New Zealand in the South and Rapanui in the East.”
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I caught up with Karl Johnstone, Director of the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute, which organized the expedition, to find out more about this remarkable journey.

Tell us a little about this historic voyage?

It landed on the 5th of December in Rapanui (Easter Island) and they left Auckland on the 17th of August. There were two stopovers, one in Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia, and then one in Mangareva, to the east of French Polynesia. We had about 22 people on board at any one time, 11 per waka (canoe). These are traditional double-hulled sailing canoes.





waka tapuThe two traditional elements of the voyage are the waka themselves, which are made of indigenous trees from New Zealand and have traditional composition modern rigging and traditional, non-instrument navigation, using environmental tools, habits of the sun, moon and stars and so on.

So there was no GPS or other type of navigational equipment used?

That’s right. This hasn’t been done in modern day times. There are GPS locators on board, and they had a satellite phone, which emits a GPS signal every half an hour back to our waka tracker, so we knew where they were at all times. And we looked at where they were all the time versus their sail plan and the navigators were never really more than 50 nautical miles off the course line they had set. They did really, really well.


You say this hasn’t been done. Has anyone tried it?

It’s never been tried in modern times.

What were some of the hardships the crew faced along the way?

The weather, number one. We had significant storms on our way out to Tubuai, four of them in fact. A lot of the crew, 50% at least were new to open-ocean voyaging, so they had to develop a trust in their vessel. Sickness as well. We had two cases of hypothermia – that’s to be expected when you’re out at the tail end of winter here. Some got boils as well, which is also common. They have to be treated seriously. A few guys had toothaches, infections.

A couple guys had to be taken off because of coral cuts because we couldn’t risk them getting infections out on the open ocean. Another one got burnt – most of the injuries happened on land, not out on the ocean. But we had a well-stocked medicine cabinet, so everyone was treated quite quickly.


Did everyone who started finish?

One had to come off as a result of an injury in Mangareva, but we took him to be there when the waka arrived in Rapanui because he’d made it through the hardest part of the voyage and we couldn’t bear for him not to be there at the end.

Tell me about the crewmembers. Did they all take time off from careers to do this?

waka tapuWe had teachers, people with Ph.D.’s, engineers, people who work for their tribes. It was a broad range of professions, in most cases, they had to walk away from their employment to do this voyage. Some were very senior; one in particular was a very senior official in the Ministry of Education here in New Zealand. A lot of these people walked away from everything you’d consider mandatory in the modern day world to undertake this voyage with no guarantee of success.

And the voyage was unpaid. They got some support along the way but we didn’t pay them or help with their mortgages or anything else, so they had to have a real commitment to this project.

How were they selected for this voyage?

It was through a training program, and they had to volunteer. We had a nine-month training program. There was some natural attrition, we had about 50 who volunteered, and the cream rose to the top.

[Photo credit: Waka Tapu]