• Children of the Sea Visit Malibu •
The six craft slowly glided through the haze, moving on the ocean's surface much as their predecessors did dozens of centuries before them. The vaka moanas' Polynesian crews—men and women of all ages—eased the boats through Malibu waters on Friday in the same way they might have at islands and continents in a period of prehistory about which we have much to learn.
Men and women crewed these ships because voyages in centuries past often resulted in the formation of new settlements. Each boat was a village in the making. The navigation talents of a people renown for their seafaring skills spearheaded Polynesian population dispersal.
Some apply the term Lapita to an ancient Pacific Ocean archaeological culture believed to be the common ancestor of several cultures in Polynesia, Micronesia, and parts of Melanesia. The actual name of this so-called Lapita archaeological culture is unknown. There are no remnants of its boats or rigging.
There are differing schools of thought on these seafarers of obvious skill. Indeed, archeological disputes sometimes become so embroiled in passion that they can make Malibu politics look positively humdrum.
Sticking to less controversial generalities, more than 3000 years ago, then 2000 and 1200 or so years ago, the vacas were constantly on the move. Why crews sailed when they did, and why they then did not set sail for hundreds of years is not known. The sailors had no instruments in those early travels, not even a compass, yet there were those who were able to safely guide the twin-hulled craft as far away as South America.
At the apex of the skilled sailors were the navigators or, as some have dubbed them, the wayfinders—those who find the way. There was no written language. Every step of a trip had to be committed to memory. The men and women who were navigators rarely slept during a voyage, sitting at the stern of the boat in one position for long periods of time, even occasionally going into a trance-like state while they still appeared to be in total command of everything around them.
The navigators or wayfinders were undoubtedly masters at tacking the wind. They counted on the trade winds to carry them home if lost. They monitored birds—knowing which ones stayed close to shore—and the habits of fish and turtles. Navigators knew all the stars and their positions, the sun, the moon and their movement. Currents, waves and water color had lessons. So did the clouds and their shapes and colors, as well as the sky colors. No detail was too small to not be included in how to set direction and speed. The same El Niños that can create horrible Malibu winters may have contributed to their sailing success.
The Polynesians who visited last week are descendants of people who prized their sailors because they understood humans' visceral relationship to the planet's watery expanse. In this era of handhelds and global positioning systems, it is easy to overlook how much people understood without any of today's technology and to forget that we all are children of the sea. The Polynesian voyagers remind us to never let this happen.