Crossing the Ocean in a Canoe: The Pacific Voyagers Project

© Rodolphe Holler

My name is Schannel van Dijken. I am Samoan, I am a Pacific Islander — and I am a Pacific voyager.

Normally I live in Samoa and work as the marine conservation manager for CI’s Pacific Islands program. But since January this year I have taken three months off work from CI to voyage across the Pacific Ocean from San Diego to Tahiti with the Pacific Voyagers Project.

The aim of our voyage is simple. Through traditional navigation and sailing methods, we sail to bring awareness to the troubles of our sea and the preservation of the Pacific, while honoring our ancestors who voyaged before us. My Pacific Island brothers and sisters and I do not separate ourselves from this ocean. It divides but also connects us, the water running through our bodies giving us our strength, our identity. It is who we are.

The Pacific Voyagers Project was first envisioned by a generous German philanthropist named Dieter Paulman, who saw that a powerful ocean message could be delivered through traditional means. Through his conservation organization, Okeanos, he funded the building of seven va’a — traditional Polynesian sailing canoes — to sail and raise awareness of ocean issues and revive the traditional navigation methods that Pacific people used to colonize Oceania.

Each va’a has 16 crew members, coming from Aoteroa (New Zealand), Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. I sail with my Samoan family aboard the Samoan va’a, the Gaualofa, which has been supported by the CI Pacific Islands program.

Life on these traditional canoes is simple but challenging. Our world is a 6-by-22 meter (20-by-72 foot) area, with our own personal space limited to our beds. We sail 24 hours a day, with three four-person teams doing three hour shifts. We sleep, wake and take turns steering the canoe with the large foe (steering paddle). We clean, set sails, laugh, think and reflect, play ukuleles, sing, nap, eat healthy food made by our great cook, and exercise — all this while trying to escape the ever-present bite of the tropical sun that invades every space.

CI's Schannel van Dijken using the foe (steering paddle) to steer the va'a on a journey across the Pacific Ocean. (Photo courtesy of Schannel van Dijken)

Enduring the elements has been a constant challenge, whether it be escaping the bitter and biting cold sea of a San Diego winter or, as I write this, a tropical heat that engulfs us most of the day, making it hard to get the most simple things done. This is made more challenging with the very limited freshwater supply on board (only 40 25-liter containers). Water is only for drinking, and is strictly rationed. We wash in seawater, we do dishes in seawater, we cool down in seawater. It is literally a part of us.

There is no Internet, no phones, no alcohol, no smoking, no distractions. But time passes quickly. It is a simple and happy existence — an existence that can last up to three weeks at a time before the break of port or new land.

A common question I’ve been asked is, “Why are you doing this?” I’ve observed that many people (including many crew among the fleet on this voyage) see the as something that is vast with apparently infinite resources; something that can withstand everything we put in and take out; something that will always be there to provide for us.

Those of us working in science or conservation know the reality: We are in trouble, big trouble. But effectively getting this message out to those unfamiliar with science, conservation or the environment — the majority of the human race — is the challenge. We need to do a better job informing the masses about what we know is happening, what needs to be changed, what we can do about it — and the hope that still exists if we make changes now.

This voyage presents a unique opportunity to communicate to people; it touches people in the heart and soul. When you see seven canoes come into port — each with a crew of Pacific Islanders who have sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean — you take notice. The mana, the pride, the magic that these canoes bring with them is the messenger, and people are listening.

I get goose bumps writing about this, as I have experienced a power here that provides a simple message on so many levels. This is a powerful way to educate, to talk, to listen. This is the way to communicate in the Pacific to the people who live here. This is a way to connect with one’s own culture as well as others. This is why I voyage.

Schannel van Dijken is the marine program manager for CI’s Pacific Islands program.