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The Challenge

Rediscovering the lost art of Polynesian ocean voyages.

By Marvin C. Ward

of Captain Cook's ship Endeavour] The high-spired verdant peaks of an island broke over the horizon with thrilling promise. A man on a foremast spar sang out, "Land! Hey- Oooh! Land!" For an instant all hands ceased their motions. An astonishing silence fell on their pose; then, almost simultaneously, each man scrambled to the railing-or topside-- or into the rigging. Hard by this action the ship’s bell tolled 3:00 p.m. Endeavour

Captain Samuel Wallis of the Royal British Navy and George Robertson, the Dolphin’s master, grabbed their ‘scopes and rushed out on deck. The Dolphin, running on the wind, closed the distance steadily. Captain Robertson ordered a positioning and returned to his cabin to log the sighting as 3:00 p.m., June 19, 1767. His comment, "...the country had the most beautiful appearance its possible to imagine..."

[Tahitian Dance] The promises soon became vistas of reality; jewel-blue and green waters divided on an irregular jag of; dazzling white spray; the reef opened narrowly and the jewel-blue ran on into the land, lush hills were roundabout; sparkling sweet-water ran down out of the mountains splitting the dark beaches; palms laden with coconuts clustered invitingly, offering nourishment and drink, comfort and rest. A wholesome fragrance was in the air. The seasalt-weary crew drank it in. And a darkly handsome people scrambled over the beaches and put to sea in fast little rickety boats.

In their mutual ignorance and shock, hostilities flared between the two strange races, but a few blasts of roundshot from the Dolphin’s guns sounded the changes to come in Polynesian culture.

This discovery of Otaheiti (Tahiti) was the beginning of the unraveling of the mysteries of the Pacific. But mysteries yet prevail. For each revelation has uncovered new areas of thought and challenge. Anthropologists and ethnologists today are keenly interested in the origin of the Polynesian race and culture. Expeditions continually arise to explore the possibilities of this origin, each hoping to supply a bit of proof toward an ultimate continuity of unshakable truths that will establish the progress of a people.

Wallis’s discovery was indeed an impact upon the sophisticated attitude of civilization. The machine age was on its way and navigation was an established science. How ever-remote were the land masses from each other, communication was a world-wide institution. Yet the vast Pacific was unknown .

Theorists supposed a great continent must exist in the Pacific to give balance to the known land masses of Earth. Wallis’s expedition was to seek this land mass. This venture and subsequent discoveries have given us Oceania thousands of small islands in three general classifications: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

Polynesia inscribes a great triangle with vertices at New Zealand in the south, Easter Island in the east and the Hawaiian Islands in the north. The western base passes through Samoa, the eastern base through the Marquesas. Within the triangle are such groups as the Tokelau Tuamotu Society, Austral, and the Line Islands. Tahiti, in the Society group, lies in the center of the triangle.

It seems fitting that these discoveries began with the magnificent Tahiti, Tahiti that Captain Bligh called, "...the finest island in the world..." Tahiti, the center of Polynesian culture. The joy of this discovery is a continuous thing. The thrill felt by the crew of the Dolphin is experienced each time a new person discovers Tahiti. After Wallis came Bouganville, then Cook and Bligh, and on they came, Melville, Loti, Stevenson, Gauguin, Frisbee, Calderon, Nordhoff and Hall. All sang its praises. All praised its song.

Eleven years after Wallis first saw Tahiti, Captain James Cook "raised" the Hawaiian Islands. It soon became apparent that the peoples of certain islands were of a particular race; the islands of this ethnology became known as Polynesia.

The native traffic in Wallis’ and Cook’s time was of a short island hopping nature. Large twin-hulled oceangoing sail-craft were in use, but long voyages requiring navigational method did not exist at the time of western discovery. Yet the fact remains that all the habitable islands, that are scattered over thousands of miles of water, had been settled by the Polynesians. The same people populating islands 5,000 miles apart are the result of an obvious system of navigation. How they did it has always baffled modern science. No less in this praise is the expedition Liki Tiki.

While working in the Hawaiian pineapple fields, Bob Webb became exposed to discussions of Polynesians and their ocean voyaging. He concluded that the northern route from Tahiti theory reasonable. Bob decided to try to duplicate the supposed voyage of the Tahitians for his own satisfaction.

Bob’s attempt to sail in Polynesian fashion began in reverse-- he went to Tahiti from Hawaii via Panama. The adventure sailed out of Honolulu as a crewman aboard a 36’ sailboat for Los Angeles. From there he hitchhiked down through Central America to Panama. For amusement Bob made a few side trips into Panama’s jungles, gold-prospecting. Another digression was a trip across the Andes Mountains from Lima, Peru, to the headwaters of the Amazon River. Bob and a party went down the river for 1,200 miles by riverboat, raft, and canoe.

To finance the Liki Tiki project, Bob hired on as a machinist at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal Company. This established the home base necessary to get the expedition sailing.

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