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Cook Islands vaka to set sail for Festpac 2024 in Hawaii

Saturday 27 April 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Art, Features, Weekend


Cook Islands vaka to set sail for Festpac 2024 in Hawaii
Vaka Marumaru Atua will set sail for Hawaii next week to participate in the 2024 Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (Festpac 2024) in Honolulu in June. Tokerau Jim Images/24042622

Cook Islands traditional canoe Vaka Marumaru Atua will set sail for Hawaii next week to participate in the 2024 Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (Festpac 2024) in Honolulu in June. Cook Islands Voyaging Society explains the country’s long history of sending vaka (voyaging canoes) to the regional cultural event.

The Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture is a vibrant celebration of the diverse indigenous cultures and artistic expressions from across Te Moana nui a Kiva (the Pacific). The Cook Islands have often played a significant role through our traditional seafaring vessels – vaka.

For the Festpac 2024 with a theme of “regenerating Oceania”, the Cook Islands will sail to connect, to celebrate, to regenerate, and to uphold the mana of te au iti tangata o te kuki Airani.

No other country has arrived at the Festival of Pacific Arts by Vaka more times than the Cook Islands.

The 6th Festival of Pacific Arts held in Rarotonga in 1992, marked a pivotal moment for a revival of traditional Pacific seafaring arts. Cook Island vaka, with their rich cultural heritage, were a central focus. With canoe coming from across the Pacific including Te Aurere a vaka from Aotearoa to Rarotonga – the first in 600 years – it was monumental event.  The esteemed vaka Hokulea sailed down from Hawaii to join us.

Even more special was our Pa Enua spent 12 months carving, building and learning to sail and navigate vaka from our outer islands. Vaka were Takitumu, Te Kotaa Nui, Uritaua, Te Rangimatoru, Enuamanu Tia, Maire Nui, Te Roto Nui, and Ngapuariki. Skills were relearnt, techniques revived and mana built. Cook Island voyager, Terepai Maoate, expressed at the time, “Our vaka are not just boats; they are living symbols of our ancestral connections and seafaring traditions.”

During the 1992 festival, Cook Island vaka were showcased in various ways. They were used for traditional navigation demonstrations, where skilled voyagers demonstrated their expertise in celestial navigation and the art of sailing. The late Sir Geoffrey Henry stated in the festival opening speech “why should we harbour such great respect for the arts of our ancestors ... I believe the answer is identity. Our cultural heritage is not a nicety it is necessity – to have command of our ourselves and our future, we must know who we are”.

The vaka Takitumu had fundraised to attend the 1996 Festival of Pacific Arts, however they decided to sail to Aitutaki and “stole” the vaka Te Au o Tonga and sailed to Apia, Samoa, on it to attend the 1996 festival. Out of the crew three women were onboard – Pa Ariki, Lyn and Marama Nikoia. Paiau Pirake was the skipper of the vaka, alongside Papa Tom. The vaka “stealing” has been immortalised in the song “who stole my vaka”. 

In 2000, Cook Islands Voyaging Society sailed the vaka Te Au o Tonga to the Festival of Pacific Arts in New Caledonia. Captained by Paiau Pirake the vaka Te Au o Tonga had travelled down to Aotearoa to celebrate the

The 6th Festival of Pacific Arts held in Rarotonga in 1992, marked a pivotal moment for a revival of traditional Pacific seafaring arts. Cook Island vaka, with their rich cultural heritage, were a central focus. CIVS (NICK HENRY)/24042621

Millennium and the America’s Cup. Pirake described that it took eight days to sail from Aotearoa to New Caledonia as part of the Cook Islands contingent.  Pirake worked tirelessly for many years travelling over 24,000 NMI during his sailing time – taking Te Au o Tonga to the world. In 2004, the Society did not sail to Palau for the festival, but rather a small vaka was built by its representatives. 

The 2008 Festival of Pacific Arts, held in American Samoa, continued to highlight the importance of Cook Islands vaka in the Pacific cultural landscape. Skippered by Garth Henderson through very rough seas, the vaka Te Au o Tonga made her last major voyage from the Cook Islands to American Samoa.  PWO master navigator Tua Pittman emphasised the role of vaka as a means of preserving cultural identity and fostering intergenerational knowledge transfer. “Our vaka are the vessels that carry our stories, traditions, and values across the vast Pacific Ocean,” stated Pittman.

The 2012 Festival of Pacific Arts, hosted by the Solomon Islands, continued to honour the legacy of vaka. The culmination of the Okeanos funded “Te Mana o te Moana” voyage – an 18-month journey of reconnection across the Pacific –Cook Islands voyagers, including master navigator Peia Patai, emphasised the spiritual connection between the vaka and their crew.

Patai stated, “When we sail on our vaka, we become one with the ocean, the wind, and our ancestors. It is a profound experience of unity and reverence.”

In 2012, Cook Islands vaka was not only showcased but also actively involved in workshops and educational programmes. Visitors had the opportunity to learn about traditional boat-building techniques, navigation methods, and the cultural significance of the vaka. These interactive sessions fostered cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for the rich maritime heritage of the Cook Islands. 

The vaka voyages leading up to the 2012 festival also showcased the Cook Islanders commitment to environmental sustainability. The voyagers emphasised the need to protect the oceans and preserve their cultural heritage for future generations. Through their journeys, they highlighted the interconnectedness of the Cook Islands’ cultural identity and the natural world, inspiring a sense of stewardship among the festival attendees. 

Cook Island Voyaging Society member, Alex Olah recalls “I was incredibly blessed and lucky enough to be one of the senior crew that sailed our Cook Islands national vaka Marumaru Atua across our Ocean to the Pacific Arts Festival in Honiara, Solomon Islands back in 2011 through to 2012 ... The long journey there, the crew I sailed with, and that event are one of the major defining moments of my life so far.”

Any Pacific Arts Festival is simply incredible, incomparable to anything else in the world and almost beyond words to describe ... the beauty, richness of experiences on offer, deep and sacred cultural heritage on display, phenomenal skills, art and creations to be seen, the wonderful overload of senses all around, meeting strange yet familiar people everywhere who become friends so easily, and being inside a melting pot of amazing cultures to absorb and experience openly, that meet willingly and happily, to share, perform, learn, and celebrate our connected peoples across our Pacific Ocean. It is the pinnacle of all our Pacific cultures all re-connected over countless generations again ... together.  And as if that’s not enough, the only way to elevate such an incredible experience even further is to actually sail into such a Festival on a voyaging canoe!”

The Cook Islands vaka have played a vital role in the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of the region.   On Tuesday, April 16, 2024, our vaka was blessed before she went back into the water, and it was commented that as Cook Islands people “we are known for the vaka”. Thirty-one years after PWO master navigator Peia Patai brought Vaka Maire Nui from Mauke for the 6th Festival of Pacific Arts, he will again be leading the vaka to Hawaii for the 13th festival, continuing to navigate, sail and teach. We continue our support of this Festival and depart this upcoming week for Hawaii. voyaging on the pathways of our ancestors. 

Vaka Marumaru Atua will have a Veevee Aroa (blessing and farewell) ceremony on Thursday, May 2, 2024, at Tuituikamoana Wharf (Avarua Harbour) at 8.30am before departing when the weather is right for Hawaii. It is estimated that it will take approximately three weeks to make the 3000 NMI trip to Hawaii through the South Easterlies, the doldrums and equator and then facing the North Easterlies on to Hawaii.

Our crew are a mix of old and new – some with over 30 years’ experience, some with next to none ranging from 17-73 years – a collaboration between the Cook Islands Voyaging Society and Te Puna Marama Voyaging Trust. 

We thank our sponsors - Nia Tero, Ministry of Cultural Development, The Pacific Community (SPC), Bank of the Cook Islands (BCI), Social Impact Fund, Triad, Stonefish, Tav, Air Rarotonga, and Island Craft.

We are eternally grateful to our families who support our captain and crew on this amazing voyage.

Mahalo e Meitaki ranuinui.