Stops have included a sacred Polynesian homeland known as Hawaii, the end of one of the longer legs of a round-the-Pacific tour. A sixth boat had joined at Cook Islands, and a seventh in Tahiti. The crews represent the biggest traditional transport and exchange of Polynesian islanders in modern times.

The nearly identical boats are traditional but modern canoes, a catamaran rig called a waka (or vaka or va’a according to dialect). They are too tall in the water to paddle. I was able to meet up with them in beautiful Monterey Bay, central California. When I asked if these boats were of original design, a crew member told me “hundreds of boats like this came out to meet Captain Cook at one of his early calls.”

Just as important as the sailing of these traditional craft is perhaps the navigation method employed, handed down for uncounted generations by a revered master to a chosen student. It’s not just about reading the stars, but the waves, wind, birds, and more.

To complement tradition and bow to 21st century demands, the fleet has high-tech assists, such as auxiliary power in the form of twin submersible electric engines for each boat, powered by solar panels. The motor power, good for 5 knots for 8 hours per charge, is just for maneuvering in and out of harbors. The batteries are not so heavy that sailing speed is compromised, but each engine is always lifted out of the water by pulleys for sailing.

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