For more than 2000 years, Pacific Islanders have upheld a rich history of culture and traditions deeply rooted in deep sea voyaging and navigation despite the thousands of blue water miles that divide these communities. With only the stars as their guide, Pacific voyagers seek to revive and maintain traditional ancestral practices passed down from revered navigators, celebrated for their bravery and perseverance on traditionally designed sailing canoes. Today, these islanders face a major threat to this cultural revival through a lack of the very thing that is keeping their culture alive: transportation.
Traveling between some of the most remote islands in the Pacific is infrequent and expensive for both tourists and locals alike. For the thousands of Micronesian islands stretched across thevast western Pacific Ocean, communities often wait months for diesel powered cargo ships to service their atolls and restock local shops with imported essentials. Meanwhile, chartering a simple “island-hopper” flight can cost more than the average outer islander’s yearly salary.
The philanthropic non-profit Okeanos Foundation for the Sea has created a solution to this problem, turning to the ancient knowledge of Pacific islanders who have been navigating the largest ocean continent for centuries.
Modern Day Moanas
Since 2011, Okeanos Foundation for the Sea has been dedicated to constructing traditionally inspired, fifty-foot sailing canoes that most outsiders would liken to the vessel seen in Disney’s animated film Moana . The Okeanos vaka motu , which translates to “boat for the islands,” is modeled after the ships of island ancestors who, like the Disney heroine, navigated the open-ocean using only the stars, wind, waves, and other elements of nature to settle on the islands strung across Pacific ocean.
With a design inspired by Captain Cook’s 18th Century drawings of Polynesian sailing canoes, the vaka has twin hulls, traditional crab claw sails, and is held together by rope lashings. To meet the needs of the 21st Century, the vakas are outfitted with modern technology that includes a hybrid engine that runs on solar energy, biofuel, fiberglass hulls, and a water desalination kit. The vaka motu boasts of a maximum weight of nine tons, accommodating 12 people and three tons of cargo.
Today, Okeanos Foundation for the Sea has constructed vaka motus for island nations across the Pacific, including Vanuatu, the Northern Marianas, Yap, Pohnpei and the Marshall Islands.
For the crew of Okeanos Marshall Islands , this innovative form of transportation that combines fossil fuel-free technology with traditional design creates an opportunity for islanders to regain their ancient sea roads and practice the traditional sailing skills of their ancestors. For her passengers, Okeanos Marshall Islands offers a chance to visit the remote islands of their countries that would be virtually impossible otherwise.
The Nuclear Legacy of Bikini Atoll
Twelve crew members on a mission to service the most remote community of the Marshall Islands maneuver fifteen-foot swells aboard Okeanos Marshall Islands en route to Enewetak and Bikini atolls – the site of US nuclear testing that forcibly displaced its native populations for generations. While it has been over a decade since Enewetak’s population of 850 has been allowed back on their island, the radioactivity on Bikini will be too dangerous for its residents to return for thousands of years.
Over the course of four days and 500 nautical miles, the crew endured gusts and waves that pounded at the vaka’s hulls and washed over her deck. Among the team was Bikini-native Edward Maddison, who for decades worked as a dive guide for tourists drawn to the atoll’s WWII shipwrecks and one of the world’s largest shark sanctuaries. While Edward has visited Bikini atoll with divers via chartered plane (which he admits can cost well into the thousands), this voyage marked his first time traveling to Bikini on a traditionally-based Pacific canoe.
“My father and mother, [have] never seen the island. So it’s good for the people if they understand what Bikinians are doing. Maybe they can change some of the people’s lives. When we sail, we learn a lot of things. I hope that the government is going to develop this kind of boat[for] everybody.”
At one time, ancient searoads connected the Marshallese people across 2 millions square miles of open ocean to settle up to 1,000 islands. A thousand years before Columbus, Marshallese voyagers sailed ocean vessels they called walaps between the remote atolls using only the elements of nature – a feat that required incredible precision considering that most of their islands average only six feet above sea level and span less than half a mile wide. The people of Bikini and Enewetak atolls were the greatest boat builders in the Marshall Islands.
That all changed in 1947 when the people of Bikini and Enewetak were forcibly displaced by the US government who subjected the atolls to a series of nuclear explosions that obliterated plant and animal life and dispersed clouds of radioactive waste across the islands. There were 23 nuclear bombs detonated over Bikini atoll alone, completely vaporizing the islands of Bokonijien, Aerokojlol, and Namu.
“With the loss of land came the loss of culture”, says Enewetak councilman Paul David. “So much of our traditional knowledge used for survival was lost during the forced displacement from Enewetak in 1947,” says David. “Enewetak was once known for its canoe building. The walap was [the] key to life. It sustained people’s livelihoods that brought in goods and fish… Today, canoe building knowledge is gone – sadly a byproduct of the nuclear displacement.”
After visiting the community on Enewetak, the Okeanos Marshall Islands crew sails through the Bravo Crater, a one mile-long cavity where the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon was detonated; 1,000 times stronger than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Edward explains to the crew that the gaping void of turquoise water was once a fertile island; home to bountiful breadfruit trees where Bikinians would build their massive seafaring canoes.
The only residents of Bikini island are the rotation of maintenance workers who are contracted to upkeep the island a few months at a time: An empty restaurant to accommodate the sparse dive tours that visit a few times a year. A row of vacated houses, including the home of Edward’s family, who in 1970 were permitted by the US government to repopulate the island, only to be displaced again after further testing revealed dangerous levels of radiation. It’s all a solemn reminder for Edward and fellow Bikinians for what could’ve been home.
Today, nearly 90% of Bikinians have never set foot on their atoll. Edward attributes fear and pain as reasons why his own children are reluctant to visit their family homeland, although he believes the lack of inter island transportation in the Marshall Islands and the hefty price tag it comes with are a real factor as well.
Still, the Okeanos Marshall Islands sail to Bikini leaves Edward hopeful for the future.
“My dream is for the Marshall Islands to have more [canoes] so that Bikinians can come and visit their islands,” says Edward on Bikini, admiring the vaka motu from the graveyard of his ancestors.
The Future of Traditional Voyaging
Okeanos Marshall Islands has chartered trips to Enewetak and Bikini atolls two more times since their initial trip to the nuclear legacy atolls in February 2018, bringing Marshallese crew and visitors to the former home of the greatest boatbuilders in the Pacific.