From the Uto ni Yalo [Heart of the Spirit] as we voyage the calming sea toward a rendezvous with our sister vakas in Tautira, Tahiti. Speeds have dropped to 5 knots, but as yet morale has not been dampened by what we know will only be a temporary delay. A certain slower rhythm accompanies the more placid ocean. Those not on watch relax in the precious and sought after shade reading, carving or simply "yarning" about nothing with too great an impact on life. Some have ventured to their bunks hoping for both shade and breeze so that they can get ready for their next watch. Like marine cicadas they will emerge once again refreshed and re-invigorated for whatever will lie in wait for them. Like Odysseus's sailors of old they have met the challenges and remain unscathed and wiser for the trying.
This is the quality of the Fijian seafarer, a proud son/daughter of an even prouder sailing tradition that extends back millennia, even before the development of the drua, one of Oceania's most famous [some might infamous if you were attacked by one] double hulled sailing vessels. We are loath to say canoe as that would not do justice to a vessel that exceeded 100 feet in length and could carry what many vessels of larger dimensions carry today! The Uto ni Yalo, born of this mighty tradition, has made many at home proud of her accomplishments as part of the Pacific Voyagers Fleet.
Many who visit our fair shores would describe Fiji as "unique". Some have said that in many ways "it's the way the world should be". A part of that uniqueness rests in its contemporary drua, the Uto ni Yalo, as it currently completes an undertaking begun first as a concept, a vision that was translated into reality by the Pacific Way. The meeting of many minds with one focus.....to act as one and revitalise traditional sailing and navigation while highlighting the plight of the oceans.
The Uto ni Yalo has an "all Fijian" crew. Every volunteer is a Fiji citizen who has lived there for many years and strongly believes in the mission of OKEANOS and the production of Our Blue Canoe. There are no passengers on board. Every crew member past and present has satisfied all the criteria for joining the fleet. In fact three Fiji trained Fijians are currently serving on other vakas making for a total of 19 "kai Viti" in the fleet. Why is this significant enough to put it into print? If nothing else but for indicating that we do not have mercenaries, missionaries or misogynists on board. There's no sightseers, no adventurers and surely no tourists simply "along for the ride". We are ALL sailors with a cause.
They are backed by and in turn back the nascent Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, a non-profit voluntary group of people from a variety of ethnic, educational and career backgrounds. As a society goes we are not well off financially, but currently what we lack in resources we make up for in enthusiasm and commitment. These financial constraints have not hindered us from accomplishing some noteworthy achievements. As Pacific islanders we believe in consultation over confrontation. [although this is not obvious when watching a Fiji versus Samoa or Tonga rugby matches!]. We adhere to the tenet that a man's word is his bond and that things decided during a "talanoa session" especially where the exchange of yaqona is present becomes something to count on! If a tabua is presented to an honoured person this becomes almost a sacred trust never to be broken. That person has been accepted with a deep rooted "mana" that goes back millennia, even before the teeth of the Sperm whale were used as the tabua! In return that person has the mandate to act in the "Pacific way". No memos, no terse phone calls, simply, as the Spanish so aptly put it, "Mano i mano!" Man to man in a personal dynamic that involves openness, honesty and a real desire to problem solve, not problem generate! This is a tried and true strategy that evokes creative discussion and an exchange of ideas instead of issuing an edict that of course is open to cultural and linguistic misinterpretation.
The FIVS is at a crucial juncture in its early years of development. We have had a significant boost from the generosity of the founder and father of the undertaking they are currently a part of - OKEANOS and the production of a major full length documentary film called Our Blue Canoe. We represent Fiji and are at the same time part of a bigger concept/group called The Pacific Voyagers. Mr. Dieter Paulman's investment in passion, insight and finances have made this multi-year undertaking all possible. His vision, which was shared by many Pacific islanders, even before the historic Hokulea's voyages, is maturing into an Oceania-wide movement supported by all those that have had the privilege to be associated with this dedicated group.
While a phase of this project will culminate in the Pacific Islands Arts Festival in Honiara in July, followed by a release of the documentary in 2013, the mana that has been created will continue as each voyaging society focuses on specific projects and programmes that will foster a greater awareness of the original premise - restore the traditional sailing culture to ALL the islands and simultaneously nurture, through education, the protection of the oceans and their resources.
What has the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society accomplished in a relatively short time? In an uncharacteristic Pacific way we will elaborate on our achievements at the risk of being accused of having no humility! Vo sota mada Viti. As was mentioned earlier, FIVS trains traditional sailors as evidenced by the current 19 PV. They also train navigators. Having highly trained instructors like Captain Jonathon Smith, they are constantly preparing new crew, not only for their flagship, the Uto ni Yalo, but for other vessels that will operate in the Fiji waters.
We work closely with the Fiji-based NGO's - IUCN, WWF and the Coral Reef Alliance. We have signed an MOU with USP to work closely with its Oceania Centre for Arts and Craft. In fact USP will play an active role in welcoming the Pacific Voyagers fleet to Suva. With USP sponsorship representatives of FIVS visited many islands in southern Lau and were able to interview many elders and mataisau [boat building experts] in the vernacular recording valuable information about traditional sailing, navigation and drua construction.
Concurrently with the assistance of the Fiji Arts Council and funding from UNESCO, FIVS scholars are researching the traditional navigational terms used by our ancestors as they voyaged in their druas and camakaus. Once this information has been collected and collated star compasses, wind compasses and celestial charts will be produced in the vernacular!
FIVS consults with the I-Taukei Ministry of the Fiji Government on any issues involving proprietary and customary rights of the people. We are sensitive to this and realise intellectual property is an important issue overlooked by many in the past. The FIVS Executive committee was recently able to meet with our Prime Minister and his advisers where maritime issues of mutual concern and interest were discussed.
While in San Diego the crew of the Uto ni Yalo visited a primary school in the rural mountain region of Southern California [Hamilton Elementary School, Anza] where they presented traditional items including a small yaqona ceremony, a bole and songs. In return the school invited us to lunch and donated 8 large boxes of library books for distribution to rural schools in Fiji! We in turn presented the principal with a hand carved tanoa and talked to the students about marine conservation and the vision behind the Pacific Voyagers.
It is our hope that schools in Fiji can communicate with schools like Hamilton and that our experienced crew can become ambassadors for the ocean and missionaries for the cause of conservation. We intend to visit schools in Fiji on our return. This concept has already started as Fiji voyagers from 2010 and 2011 have actually been guest speakers/lecturers at USP where they gave impassioned presentations about their experiences, the plight of the oceans and what they had learned about traditional sailing and navigation.
We believe in non-formal education and can picture a day when our young people can safely sail on the Uto ni Yalo and in country built drua as they learn firsthand about their maritime heritage and the oceans that sustain them.
One of the ancillary activities we've undertaken on the Uto ni Yalo is to collect "at sea data" on the biotic and abiotic factors that are currently influencing the oceans. The drua/vaka makes an excellent platform to collect data from as its stable, makes no appreciable noise [we sailed in that safe zone near whales for long periods of time observing them up close]. There is ample space to have a mini-lab on board and process data and samples taken all the way from microscopic plankton, to floating refuse analysis, to collating marine organism sightings with environmental conditions. A few interested and qualified crew intend to focus on this latter activity after we leave French Polynesia. In passing - what better way to train budding marine scientists and natural historians?
In the near future don't be surprised to learn that FIVS in collaboration with other interested parties is designing, planning, obtaining traditional materials and constructing a model drua that will sail. Working with mataisau will be FIVS reps and young people from many islands as they learn how to build a drua from the masters. You can see the multiplier effect here as they in turn will go back home and build one and teach others how to sail and navigate it.
All this and more is being undertaken by a small group committed to the cause. The group gets larger as we communicate our goals and vision around Fiji. It is surprising what a small group of like minded people can change when focused! In fact Colin Philp, one of our prime movers, may be in a position during this year to release an exciting multi-phase project involving local and international participation! Until that time we have appreciated your support, well wishes and prayers. Vinaka vaka levu.
tabu soro.........our voyage continues well beyond Honiara!