Sabine Jessel was first inspired by outrigger-canoe racing when she saw hundreds of women paddling their small canoes to the finish at the 1992 Na Wahine O Ke Kai women’s outrigger-canoe race in Hawaii.
Shortly afterward, Jessel began paddling herself. Four years later, after moving to Seattle, Jessel became a founding member of the Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club (SOCC) — the first of its kind in the city. Since its founding, Jessel said, SOCC has been a place where Hawaiians living in Seattle can come to reconnect with their culture and where others can learn about Hawaiian values.
SOCC’s canoes and the waters they rest on are treated with the same respect they would be afforded in Hawaii, where canoes signify a way of life for Hawaiians. Naming and blessing ceremonies are held for SOCC’s canoes, the crews engage in sustainable practices, and Hawaiian language calls are used to direct the canoes during races.
While relatively unique in Seattle, these small, one-to-six-person outrigger racing canoes are ubiquitous throughout Hawaii, especially during racing season from early summer to October.
Yet these Hawaiian outrigger racing canoes and their siblings, the larger, traditional double-hulled voyaging canoes that first brought Polynesian voyagers to Hawaii’s shores, nearly died out after Europeans arrived in Hawaii in the late 1700s.
Traditional outrigger canoes of all sizes have seen a revival in Hawaiian society over the last century, due in part to the crucial role the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) has played in resurrecting the tradition of voyaging, and that influence has spread far beyond the islands, to Seattle and beyond.
Thousands of years ago, large, double-hulled voyaging outrigger canoes were the vessels that first brought ancient Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands. For many years afterward, smaller outrigger canoes were used for fishing, communion, trading and to sail between the islands for war.
The early European settlers’ attempts to suppress Native Hawaiian culture resulted in outrigger canoes and canoe races being banned for nearly 100 years. But renewed interest over the last few decades saw the reestablishment of some outrigger-canoe racing clubs.
By then, however, all but a few sketches and small parts of the ancient double-hulled voyaging canoes had vanished.
In the 1970s, the Oahu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to voyaging and education, crafted the Hōkūle’a, a wa‘a kaulua, or double-hulled voyaging canoe built in the tradition of ancient Hawaiian canoes.
The Hōkūle’a made its first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976 using ancient navigation techniques. That successful historic voyage demonstrated that the Hawaiian islands had been settled by skillful Polynesian voyagers who sailed the oceans in such canoes, without navigational tools, and it stoked the fires of a growing cultural renaissance among Native Hawaiians.
Many Hawaiians surged with pride at the proof that their ancestors had been skilled navigators, voyagers and craftsmen.
Linda Furuto, an apprentice navigator and education specialist with PVS and a professor of mathematics education at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, likes to remind her students that even though their ancestors weren’t always acknowledged as mathematicians or scientists, many of these seafaring people were skilled in both disciplines.
“Our ancestors were tremendous, extraordinary mathematicians and scientists. Instead of being called those words, they were navigators, they were fishermen and women, they were cooks, they were sailors,” said Furuto.
Harnessing history to advance the future
The cultural pride and surge of interest after the Hōkūle’a’s first successful voyage led to the construction of several other voyaging canoes across the islands and throughout the Pacific. It became part of, and in many ways inspired, a strong wave of renewed interest in Hawaiian language and increased support for political movements aimed at preserving Native Hawaiian values and interests.
As vessels for fishing, travel, trade and war, canoes in Hawaiian culture represent a way of life in the archipelago and the values important to Hawaiian society.
“(Our ancestors) traveled the oceans on their big double-hull canoes. While they’re on their journey, the canoe is their island. So they learned to work with each other, look after each other, take care of their duties,” said Anela Gutierrez, vice president of the Maui-based Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society. “They learned not to overstep … They learned sustainability. So all those values we try to take to the island and make the island our canoe.”
Over the course of her 12 years with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the lessons kept coming for Furuto.
The year before Furuto began sailing, one of PVS’ master navigators asked her how many people were on the canoe. Looking around the deck she counted 13 people.
Furuto recalled the master navigator’s response: “No, there are not 13 people on this canoe; there are thousands of people on this canoe — past, present and future — who are pulling on the lines and walking the deck.”
The lessons she learned as a crew member on board the society’s voyaging canoes influenced Furuto’s vision for her career as a mathematician and educator.
At the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Furuto has developed the world’s first academic program in ethnomathematics, the study of the intersections of mathematics with culture and tradition.
One example of the intersection of culture, science and math is the Hawaiian Star Compass developed by PVS president and master navigator Nainoa Thompson as a navigation technique.
The Hawaiian star compass is not a physical compass. It is a mental construct that uses the horizon, the winds and the swells of the ocean as guides.
“The canoe is the compass and you are part of that compass,” said Furuto. “So when the storms come and we can’t see the stars, then you literally need to know where you come from to understand where you are, to have hope and confidence and faith moving forward.”
“If the canoe is the compass, then the environment is a textbook. If we can view math and all education that way, we will have students who will become these locally minded global citizens, who are able to identify and understand their kuleana (responsibilities) to past, present and future generations and to the land as a sibling. I think that’s important.”
Beyond Hawaiian waters
In Hawaii and in Hawaiian communities far from the islands, outrigger canoes serve as vessels for reviving and maintaining Hawaiian culture by spreading traditional values and molding the next generation.
The Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society hosts youth paddling programs to get kids into racing and voyaging, and keeps Hawaiian traditions and culture alive by engaging youth in language learning, paddle crafting and gardening taro patches.
“With the Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society it’s about learning a way of life,” said Gutierrez. “(It’s about) bringing back the sustainability, bringing back the rationing, bringing back the simplicity. Living simple, only having what you need, taking care of each other, everybody doing their part. Really it’s an art, the art of not overstepping. … If our whole world was like that, can you imagine?”
Thousands of miles away, the outrigger canoe continues to serve as a way to share and connect with Hawaiian culture beyond the islands.
Today, Washington boasts the third-largest population of Native Hawaiians outside California and Hawaii, and has nine outrigger-canoe clubs that are part of the Pacific Northwest Outrigger Racing Canoe Association (PNWORCA).
Some Seattle-based but Hawaiian-born pullers say outrigger-canoe racing is a great way to reconnect with the culture and communities they left behind.
“We would call ourselves a paddling ohana, a family,” said SOCC President Bethany Fong. “The people that we paddle with really are our family away from home, because we share that same upbringing, we share stories of how we grew up.”
Through their youth program, Fong, Jessel and the members of SOCC share in the Hawaiian dedication to family, keiki (children) and the passing down of Hawaiian cultural knowledge as well.
“We do it because it’s part of Hawaiian culture,” said Fong. “It’s just like language or food or stories, they have to be passed down.”