WHEN a fleet of double-hulled sailing canoes sails through Avana Passage on Oct. 16, Ngatangiia harbor in the Cook Islands will look like an ancient version of a tall ships parade.
The canoes, piloted as far as 2,500 miles by the nearly lost art of celestial navigation, open the quadrennial Festival of Pacific Arts scheduled on Rarotonga through Oct. 27. It's the first such gathering of canoes in centuries.
The Hawaiian Hokule'a, a 60-foot canoe built of ancient design in the mid-1970s, leads a flotilla of canoes from the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tahiti, the Marshall Islands, and Papua New Guinea.
Many of the navigators, who work entirely without instruments, are students of Hawaiian master navigator Nainoa Thompson. Recently he told apprentices training in Hawaii, "When you go home, you will sail for the honor of us all."
To Mr. Thompson, honor is at the heart of the Explorations Project he directs for the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program, Bishop Museum, funded by the United States National Parks Service. The project includes training navigators and building two new sailing canoes of traditional materials.
"This is not just an effort for Hawaiians to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors," says program executive director Lynette Paglinawan. "With loss of culture goes loss of identity. With recovery of culture is recovery of identity. Self-esteem and confidence can grow. And with those, perhaps Hawaiians can deal better with today's society."
No one exudes confidence more than Mr. Thompson. A lithe, handsome man, he projects what Hawaiians call "mana," a presence or spiritual power.
He first sailed on the Hokule'a from Tahiti to Hawaii in 1974 when he was only 19. It was the beginning of his life work: to navigate the trackless Pacific as his 11th-century Polynesian explorer forebears did, without instruments, charts, or written guides.
In 1974, no one in all Polynesia any longer had these skills. Thompson studied the stars in a Honolulu planetarium and then apprenticed himself to Micronesian navigator Mau Pialug. By 1991 Thompson was the director of the new, ambitious, five-year Explorations Project.
Immediately he faced problems. In nine months canoe builders couldn't find any Hawaiian koa trees large enough for a 60-foot double-hull voyaging canoe. Olona, the native plant favored for making cordage, was in short supply. The right kind of lauhala for plaiting sails no longer grew in Hawaii. No Hawaiian had woven a sail in centuries.
Says Thompson, "The ancient Hawaiians must have built 100,000 canoes. Today we can't build even one."
The future should be brighter, though - the project has started koa reforestation and cultivation of necessary native plants. The quest to build a 25-foot coastal canoe by ancient methods as well as with traditional materials led Thompson and archaeologists 12,000 feet up the Big Island's Mauna Kea, where they located the best ancient adze quarry.
In the forests of Mauna Loa builders found a koa tree sufficient for the single-hull coastal canoe. Teams working with stone adzes felled it in two days.
But there was no koa for the larger canoe. Thompson thought of spruce. "Even though spruce doesn't grow in Hawaii, it would be an acceptable substitute. The biggest canoes were made of drift logs."
Through a board member with connections in Alaska, Thompson approached SeAlaska Corporation, owned by 16,000 members of the Tlingit, Haida, and, Tsimpshean tribes.
Says Tlingit elder Judson Brown, a long-time friend of Hawaiians and trustee of the SeAlaska Heritage Foundation, "Basically SeAlaska's CEO said, `How many trees do you want? They're yours.' "
SeAlaska's donation included two 66-foot logs more than six feet in diameter, cut from trees more than 400 years old.
Thompson insisted on bringing a party of Hawaiians to the forest for a blessing ceremony before the felling. In return, tribal representatives, including master canoe carvers who were sent to help the Hawaiians, participated in ceremonies in Honolulu before master-builder Wright Bowman Jr. began transforming the logs into the canoe Hawai'i Loa.
Mr. Bowman worked weekends for 18 months with a volunteer crew that included a lawyer and officers in the police and fire department.
"They didn't miss a beat from the first day," Bowman says. "When we got close to the end, they were all asking, `What's next?' "
Hawai'i Loa - lashed with seven miles of coconut-fiber cordage, powered by two lauhala sails and carrying a crew of 10 - is scheduled for sea trials in 1993. In 1994 she will sail more than 2,000 miles from the Marquesas Islands to Hawaii, replicating the open ocean route of early Polynesian explorers.
That voyage would be a dream come true for Chad Baybayan, one of Hawaii's three apprentice navigators. He co-navigated Hokule'a on a 29-day training trip from Hawaii to Tahiti last summer and will guide one leg of the October voyage to Rarotonga.
For Mr. Baybayan, sailing is symbolic.
"Unless we are committed to regaining our culture," he says, "We'll end up where we were before, a nation without navigators.
"When Hokule'a was built in the 1970s, we had to go outside Hawaii to find a navigator. Now we not only have Nainoa, but he's been able to train others. I don't want to see this thing lost."
Unlike Baybayan, who has been on the Hokule'a crew for 12 years, Robert Tamura was new to voyaging when he boarded Hokule'a in June as a last-minute replacement for the crew physician.
"I was astounded at how much information the navigators had to understand," says Mr. Tamura, a third-generation Hawaii-born Japanese. "In a sense, they function on a PhD level. Their acquisition of knowledge is certainly the equivalent of any degree process. They put in years studying the stars and reading the ocean."
In deference to oral tradition, the navigators keep all the information in their heads. It includes not only myriad positions of stars, sun, and moon, but how to interpret clouds, sea life, and flotsam. Most important is an understanding of swells to determine direction from the pitch and roll of the canoe, then steering by feel.
Says project-manager Ben Acma, "This is all part of a traditional culture that is fast disappearing. The canoe-building and the sailing and the reforesting all connect into capturing what was yesterday so we'll have it for tomorrow."
Tamura puts it this way: "Hawai'i Loa and Hokule'a are not just canoes that sail. In the last 15 years the renaissance of Hawaiian awareness, language, culture, and dance has all been directly related to Hokule'a, and Hawai'i Loa is even better. When you see a canoe come in from a voyage, you just snap. Your nose runs, and something fills you up. It's not an individual pride, it's something else. I'm not sure there's a Western equivalent."