By Alison Gardner, Editor, Pasifik Currents
All images © to Vaka Taumako Project
“In the far western Pacific Ocean on the eastern edge of the Solomon Islands, Polynesian Voyaging is alive,” opens the engaging six-minute trailer on the Vaka Taumako Project website. “These vaka or voyaging canoes are built by hand using sustainable local materials, ancient tools and design knowledge, and uncommon craftsmanship by young and old.”
Therein lies the mission of the project to revive something nearly lost. The Vaka Valo Association is the name of the Taumako charitable organization that runs this project. “Very appropriately,” says Dr. Marianne (Mimi) George, a Hawaii-based anthropologist who studies Pacific wayfinding cultures and one of the guiding forces documenting this initiative, “Valo means something like healing or growing or improving through customary ways. Maybe ‘rising up of customary life-unity’ would be a good translation.”
Transporting people and goods, these vessels are distinctive, complex, and designed to travel over long distances on the open ocean. An entire remote community is “rising up” to take a hand in reclaiming expert knowledge of traditional seamanship and star navigation before it is lost. People who know these techniques can use them to find their way even if modern navigational equipment fails them.
As community elders pass away, they ask who will guide them? Today these last living navigators reject modern instruments. Instead they call for a revival of natural navigation, teaching a new generation to use the methods of their ancestors to follow ancient sea roads to a more culturally-rich and sustainable future.
Paramount Chief and Master Navigator Koloso Kavela started the Vaka Taumako Project with this vision. Having spent much of his life sailing around the Solomon Islands, he had seen the disruptive effects of town life on people from small communities like Taumako. However, as part of his vision, he insisted that some young men and women of the community learn modern methods of documentation to share the natural phenomena such as weather patterns that could aid scientists, sailors and others outside Taumako. A remarkable three-part film is unfolding that is both inspiring and informative.
Dr Simon Salopuka is the lead director on the Vaka Taumako Project, and his story is an extraordinary one in its own right. He grew up on the volcanic island of Taumako with no electricity, phone, airstrip or harbour. At age 14 he left to further his education and didn’t return for 20 years. In the interim, he earned his medical degree in Papua New Guinea and worked at a hospital in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. He recalls, “I felt something was missing, something deep from my culture.”
When Dr. Salopuka got a call from the Paramount Chief, Koloso Kavela, asking him for help with a project to revive his village’s distinctive voyaging traditions, he knew it was time to go home. His dedication to the project is strong as he himself learns all he can about the traditional culture and skills that are his heritage.
The Taumako-style canoe is one where most of the hull rides under the water. The visible platform where you sit or stand rests on the whole canoe which is submerged. Sails are woven from pandanus leaves that “catch the wind like a tropic bird.” There is no tacking, commonly associated with sailing. The crew lifts the slim mast and carries the entire sail from one end of the vaka to the other, a procedure known as shunting.
“It is an amazing design,” says Dr. George, who paid her first visit to Taumako in 1993. “These canoes are smooth, with quick acceleration and they’re easy to steer on many points of sail. And what’s so fascinating is that you’re basically riding on a submarine with an outrigger. They are fast and stable and can carry a lot of weight.”
In the early 1900s, as many as 200 voyaging canoes were reported to be sailing the waters around Taumako. Tragically, in 1918 the Spanish flu pandemic decimated the island population leaving only 37 survivors including a young Koloso Kavela. Today the population is about 450. Though he passed away in 2009, it is truly encouraging to traditional cultures around the world that this Paramount Chief is achieving his vision to revive natural navigation, restore his community’s pride in their skills, and celebrate what is being achieved on film.
Partly to raise money to fund Parts 2 and 3 of this documentary and partly to raise wider awareness of this unique initiative, Part 1 of We, the Voyagers has been globetrotting in 2018 and early 2019.
“We have done over 20 test screenings of Part 1 with very diverse audiences, and we have received very enthusiastic responses,” says Dr. George, “so we are confident that the film connects well with crossover audiences. We have screened it in the National Museum of Solomon Islands, Guam and Fiji Indigenous cultural gatherings, UNESCO meetings in Korea and Solomon Islands, the National Tropical Botanical Gardens Educational Series on Kaua’i, various sailing and paddling clubs, university classes, anthropology conferences and museums in California, Oregon and Washington State. And, of course, we were delighted to screen it at Pacific Peoples’ Partnership’s One Wave Festival in Victoria in early September 2018. During February and March 2019, we will screen at cultural gatherings, museums, and universities in Aotearoa, and in coming months, we will apply to film festivals happening later in 2019 and in 2020.”
Meanwhile, the documentary team is making a roughcut of Part 2 for test screenings in March 2019. The hope is that funding, including individual private donations, will permit completion of all three parts of the film. Part 2 is about selecting crew members, their jobs, how the vaka performs at sea and the ancient navigation system. “We are also excited to capture on film what happens when a crew arrives at a distant island and re-establishes long lost contacts,” adds Dr. George.
Donations to support the project and film production may be made by PayPal or cheque on the Vaka Taumako website.
The Vaka Taumako team is returning to Victoria on March 24 and 25, looking forward to showing Part 2 to anyone connected with PPP who wants to see it. Please contact the PPP director, email@example.com for more information about when and where.
Alison Gardner is a professional travel journalist and travel magazine editor living in Victoria, B.C. She has been part of Pacific Peoples Partnership for 28 years, serving on the Board twice and volunteering in writing, editing and communications roles throughout that time. She is currently editor of Pasifik Currents e-newsletter. www.travelwithachallenge.com.