OUR VAKA – A true Pacific Voyage


  okeanos There is a canoe in Vanuatu that came all the way from the land of the long white cloud, New Zealand. The people behind her amazing journey are the Okeanos Foundation. This is the story of that journey and the life she hopes to have in her final home, Vanuatu.

 The Voyage – Te Mana O Te Moana

In April 2011, seven ‘vakas’ (canoes) set out from Aotearoa, New Zealand, on an ocean voyage across the Pacific that would last two years. Over one hundred sailors took part in this voyage. Most of them had never been on a boat before.

The voyage took them to Hawaii, San Francisco, Cocos Islands, Galapagos, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and beyond.

The canoes were built traditionally, developed by the Okeanos Foundation and voyaging societies across the Pacific, to mimic traditional sea canoes. Seven double masted fossil-fuel free Vaka Moanas (Polynesian sailing canoes), representing ten island nations, were launched into the Pacific Ocean to embark on a voyage that is an urgent call for cultural and environmental preservation.

The vessels were traditional and so was the navigation. The voyage was accomplished using traditional celestial navigation and these inexperienced Pacific sailors not only learnt to sail in traditional canoes, but by traditional means. They battled storms, re-learning as they went, the sailing craft of their islands and the culture of a seafaring people who, with their phenomenal navigational skills, populated the Pacific well before Europeans started their exploration of the great oceans.

Through the voyage, they recorded thousands of hours of footage, which have now been turned into the feature documentary ‘The Starchasers’, scheduled to launch later this year.

polynesian-vakasThe voyage, ‘Te Mana O Te Moana’ was the dream child of the Okeanos Foundation, created in 2007 by Dieter Paulmann. The Foundation’s vision is to help protect the ocean by raising environmental awareness, facilitating communication and research projects between scientists, and, through the vakas, uniting the Pacific people with their ocean, their traditions, and each other. A community of people with a love and knowledge of the ocean, the Foundation aims to revive traditional ways of sailing that are in line with environmental sustainable practices. With an emphasis on the protection of the environment overall, both in the ocean and on land, in 2009 the Foundation began the production of the feature documentary ‘Racing to Extinction’ which was filmed across the globe during five years. ‘Te Mana O Te Moana’ voyage came shortly after.

Upon reaching their destinations, the vakas found homes around the Pacific. Four vakas were gifted to the voyaging societies of Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti. These vakas have now become cultural icons, part of the tradition of these islands countries, proudly featuring on the Cook Islands national currency, and serving as floating classrooms to teach environmental awareness, traditional navigation and marine knowledge. The vakas are also used as transport vessels that are environmentally sound, using only coconut oil for fuel when needed and able to navigate in shallow waters, perfect to further ocean research and conduct tours. New Zealand is home to the other three Vaka Moanas, which are now part of three trusts that provide training and education on environmental awareness as well as tourist activities.

A Vaka with a goal – Sustainable Sea Transportation

Part of the Okeanos Foundation is the Sustainable Sea Transportation initiative. The goal of this initiative is to create a network of transport between island countries Pacific-wide and to do this by bringing together traditional culture and knowledge, economic development and environmental sustainability. Okeanos’ Vaka Moto (boat for the island), the smaller version of the Vaka Moana, has one mast and can carry a maximum of twelve people and three tons of cargo. These canoes can navigate in very shallow waters and access land where there are no jetties. They use the wind as their primary source of power, and when an engine is needed, it runs on coconut oil. Okeanos had funded the construction of several smaller ‘Vakas Motu’, launched from New Zealand, which also took part in stages of the Pacific Ocean voyage.

cyclone-pam-reliefOne of these vakas was in Fiji when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu back in 2015. Within days, ‘Vaka Motu’ was sent to Vanuatu to help with post-cyclone relief efforts. Some may have seen the Vaka moored in the harbour during the months following the cyclone. With the help of Vanuatu’s association ACTIV, Vaka Motu transported much-needed fresh food crops from the relatively untouched islands in the north of the country, to where they were needed in the south. The vaka and its crew worked tirelessly during the months following the cyclone, moving over 30 tons of food in the process.

Okeanos’ vision is eventually to help develop a full network of vakas across all the islands. These vakas would be used for scientific research and data collection, as floating schools raising awareness of the need to protect our ocean, to foster the knowledge of traditional navigation techniques, and transport people and goods from island to island while having a minimal impact on the environment, through using the power of wind as the primary source of energy.

Okeanos Vanuatu – Tours and education for our Vaka

After the relief work post cyclone Pam ended, Vaka Motu decided to make Vanuatu her home.

At present set up as a tourism activity, Okeanos Vanuatu offer tours aboard the traditional and eco-friendly vaka. Two of the initial members that were part of the Pacific voyage and came to help with relief efforts after Cyclone Pam, have stayed with the vaka in Vanuatu for the past two years, training the local crew to navigate the canoe. Once the crew is trained, Peni and Iva will go back home to Fiji and leave Vaka Moto to her home in Vanuatu. “It is going to be sad, I have been with Okeanos now for five years, and in this Vaka for the last three, but I am 35 years old and it is time to start a family…maybe!” explains Iva. Iva had never sailed before joining Okeanos. She saw an advert in a Fijian newspaper, a call for volunteers to join Okeanos on their ocean voyage, and leaving job and family behind, joined Te Mana O Te Moana in Tahiti in 2012.

Fijian man Peni Vuadreu Vunaki, now captain of the vaka, was a kava farmer before joining Okeanos in 2011. Without sailing experience, he too left life in Fiji behind, to join the voyage. Six years later, he now ‘even has the tickets’ and can call himself officially Captain.

okeanos-vanuatuThrough the tours, Vaka Moto Okeanos Vanuatu hopes to be financially self-sufficient, so it can continue with environmental work by offering workshops in local schools, serving as a research vessel and raising environmental awareness through different initiatives, as well as continuing its work teaching traditional navigation techniques to Ni Vanuatu and others. Jeffry Pakoa is one of the four Ni Vanuatu crew members who have been learning the ropes for the past few months. He has been in boats for a big part of his life, but behind a bar and not the helm. Working for the cruise ships before joining Wan Smolbag, he decided to take this opportunity due to a sense of urgency to spread the message to care for the ocean. “We are small islands surrounded by sea. If we don’t look after our ocean and we don’t teach our children to look after it as well, in a few decades there will be nothing, no fish and no future. I want to help spread the message, that is why I joined Okeanos,”explains Jeffry.

Okeanos Vanuatu offers different tours aboard the vaka, including Sunset Tours, One-Day Tours and Three-Day Tours as well as tailor-made tours. The Sunset Tours take you for a sail around Port Vila Bay, where you can chat to the crew, learn some local stories and traditional navigation and enjoy some kava and fruit in the beautiful vaka while the sun goes down. The One-Day Tours will take you for a sail to Lelepa Island where you can swim, snorkel the reef, visit Lelepa Island and enjoy some local food. As a not-for-profit organization, all profits from the tours go back into the foundation to facilitate their environmental and educational work. Eventually, Vaka Moto would like to fulfill her destiny and become a sustainable mode of sea transport for inter-island transportation of people and goods. For more information and to book a tour contact +678 7735413, [email protected], www.okeanos-vu.com.

Story by Patricia Gil. Photos courtesy of Okeanos.