Nov 20, 2017

Charting a course for change

Sixty thousand nautical miles is the equivalent of having voyaged the world three times. A daughter of Gau, Ivanancy Vunikura has sailed more than that.

It’s a world record for any woman and Ms Vunikura holds it, a fact the Okeanos Foundation says is indicative of navigational and voyaging skills that lies dormant in Pacific communities.

Now based in Majuro, the Marshall Islands, Ms Vunikura began her sailing career in 2011 when she answered an advertisement in the media calling for volunteers who were willing to learn to sail traditional double hulled canoes, or drua.

The plan, laid by the Okeanos Foundation back then, was to build and crew seven drua or vaka moana as it’s commonly referred to across the Pacific.

“Drawing on the lessons of their past to propel us all forward, these navigators are charting a bold new course, steering us toward a sustainable future,” was how the foundation described the goal of the project.

With the aim of combining traditional marine design with modern technologies, the seven vaka were built in Auckland, New Zealand completely funded by Okeanos whose founder German philanthropist Dieter Paulmann had a noble mission.

The mission was to support Pacific Island traditional knowledge as a solution to the concerns of climate change that was moving quickly across the island nations at the time.

“I saw in The Fiji Times that they were looking for volunteers,” Ms Vunikura said.

“When I joined UNY I was just going along, I didn’t know what to expect. My friend got me to join the Fiji Voyaging Society because she thought that it would be good for me.

“She knew that I was physically strong and thought that I would do well sailing on a vaka.”

That friend told Ms Vunikura she may enjoy meeting new people and actually like the experience.

It has been the adventure of a lifetime for the 36-year-old and she had met more than her fair share of people.

She passed the stringent screening process and successfully became a crew on board the Fijian vaka called the Uto ni Yalo translated means ‘Heart of Spirit’ or the spiritual state of original being.

With about 100 other sailors representing their countries, the first time sailors from Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand, Tonga, Cook Islands, Hawaii and Fiji, Ms Vunikura set off on their own vaka moana (boat of the ocean).

Built to specifications on drawings made by James Cook around 1770, the canoes were designed for open sea transportation over long distances and the fleet of Pacific vakas crewed their flagships determined to show their crafts were a viable option.

More importantly, the fleet wanted to revive the traditional Pacific culture and environmental awareness.

They called themselves ‘Te Mana O Te Moana’ and each vaka carried traditional designs, carved and painted in the colours of each of the seven island nations.

“Much effort has gone into creating a truly eco-friendly vaka that harnesses the wind and current to travel,” the Okeanos Foundation said.

“This merging of past and the present ideas, serves as a useful metaphor for solutions to our planet’s energy and climate change issues.”

An important mission the fleet had was “implement a fossil fuel-free sustainable sea transportation network of modernised Pacific sailing canoes through public service and social entrepreneurship activities”.

The foundations ethos is based on the concept of supporting “Pacific Islands’ traditional knowledge as a solution, adaptation and mitigation measure for climate change”

The seven vaka went on an international voyage entitled ‘Te Mana O Te Moana’ which means The Spirit of the Ocean, beginning in April 2011 and went over two years from New Zealand to Hawai’i to the US West Coast arriving at San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge in August 2011.

On their way home in January 2012, the vaka fleet stopped at Cocos Islands, Galapagos, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu ending their voyage at the Festival of Pacific Arts in the Solomon Islands, August 2012.

“Our voyage demonstrated the genius of Pacific vaka design and the power of the almost lost culture of celestial navigation,” Okeanos said.

“Collectively we safely sailed 210,000 nautical miles of open ocean and showed the world the great power and potential of the vaka.”

As she spoke at the COP23 in Bonn, Germany this week calling on several Pacific leaders who were on the same panel discussion as her to use traditional canoes as a form of island transportation, Ms Vunikura was emotional and nervous.

The skipper said she had to imagine she was on a canoe with the audience in the packed meeting room at the Bonn Zone so she could gain the confidence to plead with government leaders about the value of vaka in pushing for transportation using renewable energy.

“I wasn’t frightened when I sailed around the world, or when I sail on the vaka. I am my most happiest when I am on the ocean sailing, I feel at one with the ocean and the elements and I know that God and the Moana look after us,” Ms Vunikura said.

“We also develop a very strong spiritual relationship with our vakas — where we treat them with respect because they have mana, the ocean has mana and therefore the work that we do has mana.”

By Lice Movono for The Fiji Times, November 18, 2017