Issue 10.4: August / September 2007

Among the Stars

story by Julia Steele
photos by Monte Costa


Imagine: It is night, very dark. You are on a vast sea, days from land, at the helm of a sailing canoe, with no modern navigational equipment to guide you, no machinery of any kind to move you. There is simply the boat, the ocean, the wind, the sky. The elements are in complete control.

The canoe pitches with the waves, the air reeks of salt. You look up into the universe, searching for the Southern Cross to point you to the land you seek. But a cloud sails across the sky and blots out the formation. You look for the two pointer stars, Alpha Centauri—at 4 light years away the closest star to earth’s sun—and Beta Centauri. They, too, get blocked by clouds. But you find two unobscured nebula—the two closest galaxies to Earth’s at 130,000 light years away—and these tiny and hugely distant beacons guide your hand and keep you on course.

For Ben Finney, the man at the helm, the experience that night was “an intellectual and physical epiphany.” It came in 1985 on a trip from the Cook Islands to Aotearoa. “I thought, ‘Wow. Here I am sailing a little canoe in a dark ocean on the third planet out from our sun, steering by the closest star to our own and then by the closest galaxy,’” he remembers.

On paper, the experience was nothing new for Finney—one way or another, he’d been involved with Polynesian voyaging for almost three decades by this point. But it was the moment’s immediacy, its intensity, that lit up the miracle of navigating by the stars and the canoe’s intrinsic connection with the universe. And Finney had always loved the sea: first as a boy growing up in California and in Rio, later as a teenager learning to surf and discovering Santa Cruz. Surfing provided Finney’s entré into the world of islands, watercraft, ingenuity and adventure, a world he has inhabited ever since. “It was that it wasn’t Californian,” he says of his early fascination with surfing. “It was oceanic, Polynesian.”

Oceanic, Polynesian: In the ’50s, the love of these two things took Finney to the territory of Hawai‘i and to Tahiti. It was a time of questions about the past that saw archeologists digging for facts and intellectual speculators like Thor Heyerdahl sailing the seas for clues. Polynesians, ready to reclaim their history and their heritage in the wake of centuries of colonialism, were planting the seeds of cultural revival. Finney jumped right into the middle of it all.

“I started … getting this idea of building a voyaging canoe and sailing it to Tahiti and back,” he says. “And that became my spiritual journey.”


Most everyone in Hawai‘i now knows about the Hokule‘a, the traditional canoe that made the historic sail from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1976. But when Finney arrived in Hawai‘i in 1958 as a graduate student, there was still debate over whether such a journey was even possible. Finney vividly remembers his advisor handing him a copy of Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific, a book by New Zealander Andrew Sharp that suggested that Polynesian canoes were no good, that Polynesian navigation was lousy and that the Pacific had been settled randomly, accidentally. Finney, in Hawai‘i to do a master’s of anthropology on surfing, took umbrage—inside. “I was already in trouble doing a master’s thesis on surfing, which was considered renegade and lower-class then,” he explains. It was no time to hatch what professors might have considered wacky schemes, but silently Finney thought: Why not recreate a sailing canoe and prove Sharp wrong?

He finished his MA, worked at the Bishop Museum, went back to Tahiti to do fieldwork on socio-economic change. He went to Harvard and got a PhD. All the while, the idea of the canoe was in his head. He graduated and took a teaching job at UC Santa Barbara, and there he began, building a replica of a 40-foot sailing canoe. “A first step,” he calls it today. When it was finished, he shipped it to Hawai‘i. Mary Kawena Pukui christened it Nalehia, The Skilled Ones, after the graceful way its double hulls rode the sea.

“We got firsthand data on sailing and paddling using Nalehia,” says Finney. For example, the boat debunked the theory that paddling had been an important part of voyaging; Finney teamed with a physiologist and a trained crew that paddled from Kewalo Basin to Poka‘i Bay and back. “All the while, we were monitoring food and water intake and urine output,” recalls Finney. “We put a mouthpiece on our two test subjects, Rabbit Kekai and Tommy Schroeder, and a continual feed on their pulse to measure how many calories they were burning. It was 6,000 a day plus water—there was no way you could have taken those kinds of supplies on a canoe.”

In the dramatis personae of modern Polynesian voyaging, Finney is the academic, the outsider, the dreamer, the schemer. Nalehia only whetted his appetite for more adventures, more information. With the sailing data he’d collected, Finney wrote a paper—“in effect, a research proposal”—on building a full-size canoe and sailing it to Tahiti. The idea was embraced by famed archeologist Kenneth Emory, whose first theory of migration had held that the Hawaiians came from Tahiti (a theory then challenged by discoveries in the Marquesas). Fate was kind to Finney, too. In 1970, a job opened for him at the University of Hawai‘i. By 1972, fourteen years after Finney first opened Sharp’s book, the stars were all in alignment.

“This time I wanted to make it a community project,” he recalls. “There were really two goals: experimental anthropology and cultural revival.” Finney teamed with Hawaiian artist Herb Kane and sailor Tommy Holmes, and the trio formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society. They worked fast. “In ’74 we designed the canoe [Hokule‘a], in ’75 we built it, and by ’76 we were ready,” recalls Finney. The canoe’s captain was Ni‘ihau native Kawika Kapulehua, “the best catamaran sailor in Hawai‘i.” The navigator was Mau Pialug from Satawal island, who’d been trained in the old ways of navigating by the stars.

Looking back from three decades on, the Hokule‘a’s voyage is still startling for its audacity and bravery. It had its trials, though, and Finney found himself in the middle of the biggest one, caught on the fault line between cultural pride and historical resentment. In the midst of a Native Hawaiian renaissance, there were those who definitely did not want to see a haole on the canoe.

But for Finney there was no turning back. “I did it in my head,” he says of the voyage. “I did it on paper and in a book. And then I did the steps with other people to make that come true. So for me, I had to go to Tahiti. Even though a lot of people were inviting me not to go, it was a trip I had to take.”

Hokule‘a’s initial success inspired more canoes—Hawai‘iloa, Makali‘i and others—and more journeys—to the Marquesas, Rapa Nui, Aotearoa, Alaska and beyond. Finney watched as a dream he and others had nurtured came to life and flourished. After that first voyage, he sailed a few more times, but mostly he recorded the movement, writing a lead article in Science and the key books Voyage of Rediscovery and Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors. He has just contributed three chapters to Vaka Moana, a thick and thorough tome edited by Kerry Howe that is bound to become the definitive work on Pacific canoes. It will be published by University of Hawai‘i Press this fall.

Talk to Finney for any length of time and you can see he has a restless, penetrating mind, always wondering, questioning, analyzing. No surprise then that once the canoe had been successfully built and sailed to Tahiti, Finney did not stop researching. His intellectual fascination with movement and migration led him to study Columbus, DeGama and other explorers, searching for an understanding of what drives people into the unknown. The question led him, ultimately, out of the past, into the future and straight back to the stars. “I thought, ‘I’m not trained as a historian; I’m a cultural anthropologist. There is a phase of human migration that’s now just getting started,’” he says. “We’re on the threshold of space. There are plenty of people with visions, ideas and plans for getting human beings off the earth and into other parts of the solar system and beyond that, the stars.”

In the ’90s, Finney worked with NASA, with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project and co-wrote a book, Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience. He had, he says, “a grand time.” When NASA drew parallels between space travel and Columbus’ journey to America, Finney pointed out that Polynesian voyaging provided a far more apt metaphor: people developing new technology to go where no one had gone before, to discover new worlds and settle them.

The parallels between Polynesian voyaging and space travel—and the mysteries and promise of the stars—fill Finney’s life to this day. His next two books will be profiles, the first on traditional Pacific navigators, the second on Constantine Tsiolkovsky, the Russian schoolteacher who in the 1890s figured out how to break through the gravity barrier and get rockets off the earth. Whether on the ocean or in the final frontier, Finney remains a pioneer, seeking to comprehend—and to humanize—man’s great journeys. HH