Alex and Lesley Stone continue their exploration of the traditions of vaka moana voyaging in the Pacific.


When the tūpuna (ancestors) of today’s Māori people of New Zealand first arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand around 900-1,000AD, they were at the apex of a millennia of ocean voyaging traditions of discovery.

The two large islands of this southern land were the last habitable place on earth to be settled. Human expansion into the Pacific took place over several millennia. The oldest settlement sites in outer Melanesia (Vanuatu, Fiji etc.) date to 1,200BC, and in Polynesia (Tonga) to before 1,100BC.

Māori settlement of New Zealand – and later the more remote Chatham and sub-Antarctic Auckland islands – was founded on repeated journeys to and from an ancestral homeland, Hawaiiki, somewhere in Eastern Polynesia, possibly the Marquesas Islands. There could also have been influences on Aotearoa from Western Polynesia – the distinctive poi dance, and the name for owls (ruru) may have come from there.

In Aotearoa, Māori largely gave up on dual, lashed-together voyaging canoes driven by Oceanic lateen sails, in favour of paddle-powered, intricately-carved waka. The paddled boats could not be becalmed, and waka taua – war canoes – could slip around headlands for surprise attacks more effectively.


Haunui crew Vance Steele, Haylee Koroi and Joseph Upperton.

In 1990, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 was celebrated by the building of a great fleet of waka taua by different iwi (tribes). These congregated at Waitangi to meet the Queen on her visit here.

Since then, the Māori rennaisssance has continued to embrace their earlier tradition of oceanic sailing waka (the Māori spelling of vaka).

The first to be built was Te Aurere, fashioned from two massive kauri tree trunks, taken from the Herekino State Forest. Te Aurere is 57-feet (17.4m) long, and 18-feet (5.5m) wide – quite narrow compared to a more modern catamaran, as all traditional vaka are.

In charge of the building was Hec Busby, helped by several younger men, among them Stanley Conrad. Responding to a challenge from respected Māori leader Sir James Henare to re-discover their own voyaging traditions, they both went on expeditions aboard Hōkūle’a, sailing with Mau Pialug.

Te Aurere’s maiden voyage was to Rarotonga in 1992. Since then it has sailed over the Pacific to Hawai’i, Tahiti, Marquesas, New Caledonia and Norfolk Is. Te Aurere has also circumnavigated Te Ika a Maui (the North Island of New Zealand) a number of times. It usually carries up to 14 crew – since 1993, these have always included wāhine (women).

The waka hourua Tairawhiti rounds the mole at Gisborne. Credit: Gisborne Herald.


Speaking to Stanley Conrad, now a qualified kaihoutu (sailing waka captain), I learn about the challenges – and rewards – of traditional non-instrument Pacific navigating. He was aboard the Hōkūle’a on Nainoa Thompson’s maiden voyage as wayfinder, from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, to Aotearoa New Zealand. Mau had said, “It’s time to navigate without your teacher.” And Nanoia and his crew had to rise to the challenge.

The voyage was built around a plan to first ‘sight the Kermadecs’ as a waypoint on the route to New Zealand. Stanley recalls being on watch with Nanoia one night, and the navigator being confused: “I know I’m close, but I just can’t see the island.” This was after a few incidents of an almost supernatural nature – a brush with a sperm whale that bumped them in a new direction; an arch of lightning-defined clouds that led them one way, and hooking a giant marlin that eventually “spat the lure.”

But Nanoia was right: in the murky night, sharp-eyed Stanley spotted a “dark cloud that didn’t move.” Landfall.

The matrix of clues and cues that inform a palu is complex; and Nanoia is unique among these navigators in being equally well-versed in the technical, mathematical aspects of navigation as Westerners know it, as well as the more complex, inter-connected world of the palu, which relies on all of what we would now call the natural sciences. And no, the supernatural doesn’t really come into it – although the intuition that an experienced palu might demonstrate, would appear to verge into that realm.

There are other direct connections between the traditional vaka and modern cruising catamaran design. Stanley tells me that daggerboards were not unheard of; on Te Aurere, and the later New Zealand-built waka moana, a steering oar would sometimes be jammed up against the leeward hull, in the manner of a leeboard, to facilitate a higher course to windward. (Te Aurere is on the hard on Stanley’s ancestral land in the far north of New Zealand, undergoing a refit. She’s due to be re-launched in 2022.)

Also many of the truisms of seamanship have endured through the centuries. Stanley tells me he’s much more cautious when coastal navigating a vaka. He prefers to follow the ancient practice of standing out to sea at night; “Better be in the open ocean, than up against a coast.”

Rakeitonga (Tikopia, Vanuatu) waka ama (outrigger) in Auckland Museum.


Most voyaging vaka these days follow one of two watch systems: either four hours on and eight hours off; or six hours on and six hours off. These are made easier with the bigger crew a vaka normally carries, relative to a modern yacht. But while on board, and navigating the traditional way, all personal timepieces are stripped off. So the watch timing is all done by feel. And as expected, the navigator stands alone and above the watch system.

As Stanley says. “At sea, the waka is your mother, the navigator is your father, and you’re just a child.” Onboard discipline is maintained strictly. “You know your place,” says Stanley. “You may share observations with the navigator – but never to question him. Decisions about the route to be taken, and the responsibility for landfall, are his alone.” That said, the modern re-creators of the vaka moana tradition are encouraging women to ever greater roles of responsibility. There are in New Zealand now a number of wāhine kaihoutu.

Another, perhaps unexpected connection between these traditional craft and modern yacht design is the reliance on testing with models and half-size craft. All Pacific nations have smaller versions of vaka moana in their traditional fleets – these used for inter-atoll trips. And in the tiny island nation of Kiribati in particular, it’s a popular pastime to experiment with (very fast) models of that nation’s remarkable sailing proas.

Taratai, a 75-foot (23m) re-construction of a Kiribati voyaging proa was the project of a New Zealand-based adventurer James Siers. It was built in 1977, using all traditonal methods, on the island of Tarawa. The boat made a 1,500-mile voyage to Fiji, but some deficiencies – mainly due to a rushed construction process – meant that Spiers and his crew wanted to start again. Taratai now takes up almost all the space in the Maritime Museum’s gallery. Spiers went on to build Taratai II – which capsized at sea. But he felt his point had been made with Taratai, that these proas could complete long ocean passages.

Haunui and Aotearoa One, the two vaka moana moored at the New Zealand Maritime Museum, both have fibreglass hulls. These were built by the Te Toki Voyaging Trust – Waka Hourua (waka hourua is another name for a catamaran), with generous financial support from Dieter Paumann. The skippers of these two waka houroa are Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and John-Reid Willison

The stern of the waka hourua Haunui.

At the Auckland War Memorial Museum, pride of place in its Pacific Hall goes to a vaka tapu that was built by Pue Auekofe for Te Ariki Taumako, the chief of the Taumako clan of Tikopia.

This outrigger canoe named Rakeitonga is famous in Tikopian tradition, and made long ocean voyages to Anuta and Vanuatu in the early 1900s. In was acquired by the museum in 1916; in 1953, it was re-lashed and re-rigged in the Auckland Museum by Tikopian crewmen from the Melanesian Mission ship, Southern Cross.

Two features of this boat worth a closer look are the sailmaking skills evident, and the intricate lattice of load-bearing struts that support the waka ama (outrigger).

The link between the vaka of the traditional Pacific sailors and those of today is perhaps best shown in the display at the Auckland Museum, where models of a waka hourua and an America’s Cup foiling catamaran sit side by side.

This is a story that could go on to encompass many books (it already has) and cover many millennia (ditto). Suffice to say that it is thanks to the tradition of voyaging vaka in the Pacific that we now enjoy all the benefits of the modern cruising catamaran. They are both products of the very same, venerable lineage.

An addendum: In the early 1800s, Māori were quick to build European-style ships and trade far afield. Indeed, He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand, came about primarily because Māori ships visiting Sydney, Australia, were required to have a national flag. BNZ