Traditional navigator Peia Patai has trained Pacific Islanders from more than seven countries to become open ocean sailors since the Auckland-based Okeanos Maritime Training Program first began in February 2018. Captain Peia’s work is core to Okeanos Foundation for the Sea’s mission to empower islanders to regain control of their ocean transportation and to create a network of fossil fuel-free sailing canoes operated by Pacific people, servicing their remote island communities.
Pacific countries such as Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Palau, and Kiribati are all threatened by sea level rise but are also heavily dependent on expensive and infrequent diesel-powered cargo ships.
That is why Okeanos Foundation for the Sea is dedicated to building and transferring traditionally based, open ocean sailing canoes, called Vaka Motu, to Pacific islands where they will be operated with locally trained crews. Okeanos is also planning on transferring the open ocean sailing program to a Pacific island next year.
Captain Peia works tirelessly as Okeanos’ fleet commander and crew trainer, preparing sailors to professionally and safely operate the vakas across the open ocean. Some crews have successfully ventured more than 4,000 nautical miles from Auckland, sailing Okeanos vakas to the Northern Marianas, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Micronesia.
The fifty-foot vaka motus are inspired by Captain Cook’s 18th century drawings of Polynesian sailing canoes. Like the vakas of Peia’s Maori ancestors, the canoes have traditional crab-claw sails and double hulls bound together by rope lashings. For safety, efficiency, and reliability, the vaka motus are outfitted with modern hybrid engines that run on a combination of solar power and coconut biofuel. The vessel is even equipped with a desalination unit that produces 60 liters of potable water per hour.
“These vakas are a combination of traditional design and modern technology, merged together so that our people can run them,” says Captain Peia, who seeks to bring economic independence to islands that are otherwise reliant on expensive, imported fossil fuel. “That’s why I’m working so hard to get this opportunity – so that my people can benefit from it.”
The Okeanos vaka motus can carry up to three tons of cargo and 12 passengers, offering safe transportation to and from outer island communities.
Unlike western ships, the shallow draft of the vaka motu’s hulls can dock directly on the beach providing immediate access to remote or cyclone-damaged communities.
A legacy in voyaging
Rarotonga-native Peia Patai was first introduced to traditional voyaging in Hawaii in 1991. He was taught by Nainoa Thompson, the first Hawaiian to captain a traditional Polynesian canoe on the open-ocean in centuries, along with Pwo Master Navigator Mau Piailug, the Micronesian seafarer who is credited for sparking the Pacific voyaging renaissance after successfully sailing the maiden voyage of the Hawaiian canoe, Hokulea, in 1976.
Under Nainoa and Papa Mau, Peia trained in Wayfinding, the ancient art of navigating the open-ocean using only the stars, clouds, wind, waves and other patterns of nature. Since the sacred practice of Wayfinding had been lost for centuries throughout Polynesia, Peia’s opportunity to learn traditional navigation was an opportunity of a lifetime.
In 2011, Peia put his Wayfinding skills to the test and captained Cook Island’s traditional canoe Marumaru Atua during the Okeanos-sponsored Te Mana o Te Moana voyage – an unprecedented two-year voyage where hundreds of first time sailors traversed hundreds of thousands of nautical miles around the Pacific. Peia served as one of the lead navigators to teach young sailors in Wayfinding, some of which had never before stepped foot on a vaka, let alone sailed one without compass or map.
During Te Mana o Te Moana, Peia received the position of Pwo – the sacred Micronesian ceremony that deems sailors as master navigators; a highly coveted title only shared among a handful of Wayfinders in the Pacific, including Peia’s mentors, Nainoa and Mau.
“Receiving Pwo comes with responsibility,” explains Peia. “The responsibility is to pass this knowledge on to future generations so that our traditions are never lost again.”
Sailor, Navigator, Teacher
The responsibility of Pwo is what drives Peia through his seemingly daunting workload in Auckland today. As the commander of the Okeanos vaka motu fleet and head of the Okeanos Maritime Training Program, Peia is ensuring the future of traditional Pacific sailors.
When Peia is not overseeing the construction of the next vaka motu, he is teaching seamanship courses to an international body of students. The Okeanos Maritime Training Program offers a range of trainings to ensure the safety and quality of vaka motu operations. It was created with the intent of giving compulsory training for all crew working on Okeanos vakas with a secondary course dedicated to comprehensive knowledge of Okeanos standards, procedures, and leadership.
According to Okeanos Foundation’s philosophy, the trainings are based on hands-on practical learning on the vaka, backed up by a theoretic approach in the classroom. The theoretical training also includes the study of Okeanos’ Safety and Training Manual; participation in firefighting classes; knowledge of basic knots and anchoring, beacons (e.g. marks and lights of boats at night) and basic route rules; a glossary of nautical terms; and preparation for rough seas, including emergency procedures and safety practices.
“This training gives us a solid basis on which we can build up our knowledge and skills”, says Winnifa Mael, crew member from Vanuatu and among the first to graduate with a certificate of Seamanship from the Okeanos Maritime Training Program. Winnifa and her crew members spent three months in Auckland to complete the course.
The Okeanos Maritime Training Program also supports sailors wishing to become captains of the vaka motus. Today, sailing students from Vanuatu, Marshall Islands, Yap, Pohnpei, and the Marianas work with Captain Peia at the Okeanos Maritime Training Center to become captains of their respective Okeanos vakas.
The team plans sails and services for the new vakas currently in construction at Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders – the site where students learn everything from traditional lashing to the carving of the vaka’s paddle, or hoi, with the leadership of Captain Peia.
Among the captains-in-training is Papa Mao’s very own grandson, Jerry Joseph. Once his training with Captain Peia is complete, Jerry will be responsible for delivering a newly constructed vaka back to the Federated States of Micronesia where it will stay to service outer island communities.
“It means a lot to bring the vaka motu to Micronesia – the place that has given me the gift of traditional navigation,” says Captain Peia, who is honored to train the grandson of his former mentor into Okeanos captainship. “Papa Mau would be very proud to see us passing on this knowledge to the next generation.”
With the introduction of new captains to the vaka motu fleet, Peia hopes Okeanos Foundation will continue to support its pan-Pacific network of traditional canoes to service outer island communities and regain the ancient sea roads for future sailors to come.
All Okeanos Training Courses require the students to pass theoretical exams of the different units and practical assessments at sea. The courses typically take 3 months for students to complete.
To learn more about the Okeanos Maritime Training Program, visit: