Tauranga man ready for his turn at sea

By James Fuller

Negotiating storm waves and ominous rolling swells, alone on the vast Pacific Ocean exposed to the elements, you have nothing but nature to navigate thousands of kilometres to reach your destination.

It sounds like something you would not enter into willingly. But that is exactly what TeKuka Tukaokao will be doing in a few weeks.

He is about to fly to Easter Island (Rapanui) to meet the 20-strong crew of Waka Tapu which is in the midst of an historic 16,000km oceanic voyage.

He will be one of three replacements from Tauranga for sailors leaving the party at the island. It is the halfway point of a journey which is recreating those made by his Maori ancestors hundreds of years ago to reach Aotearoa.

"I love being part of anything Maori and keeping our traditions alive," says the 31-year-old who teaches Te Reo at Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

The group is sailing two traditional waka hourua (double-hulled sailing canoes) crafted by Hekenukumai (Hector) Busby - Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti.

They will use the stars, moon, sun, ocean currents, birds and marine life to sail their way across the ocean.

"We are using the winds and the tides and our knowledge of the migratory routes of animals like whales and certain birds which follow routes to particular islands," says Mr Tukaokao. "These are things our ancestors used to do and we want to hold on to that knowledge and make sure it's passed down to generations to come."

One of the principal exponents of that knowledge today is master navigator Jack Thatcher. He is the man who inspired Mr Tukaokao to become involved and is one of the expedition leaders.

"Jack Thatcher is one of the few people in New Zealand with the knowledge of navigating by the stars and we're lucky to have him living here in Tauranga," says the former Tauranga Boys' College pupil. "This process began about seven years ago when he began pulling together a few young ones. I was privileged to be one of them. I was eager to learn new things and was hooked straight away.

"Getting the chance to sail to our local islands and having a bit of a dive for kai moana [seafood], experiencing a beautiful day out on the water, doing a bit of fishing, it's awesome. But there's always that feeling you want to go beyond New Zealand and your coastline and this is the ultimate trip. This has always been a dream."

Waka Tapu left Auckland's Waitemata Harbour on August 17. It was predicted to reach Rapanui by late October but bad weather delayed that schedule. It is weather which has meant 43 days at sea covering 2200 nautical miles to reach their first destination. On Monday they did that, setting foot on Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia.

The concept of the trip is to close the final corner of the Polynesian Triangle - defined by Hawaii in the north, New Zealand in the south and Rapanui in the east.

There are five people from the Tauranga area currently at sea: Jack Thatcher, Kiharoa Nuku, Mahara Nicholas, Ani Black and Kushla Allen. In addition to Mr Tukaokao, Tamahau Tangitu and Parerawhiti Taikato will be joining the crew at Rapanui.

So how does the prospect of weeks of tilting, landless horizons make him feel?

Mr Tukaokao's expression tells its own story. His eyes dance and a broad, toothy smile spreads across his face. "It will be an experience," he says.

"I have faith in what we've been taught though and I have faith in the waka. On their first leg they experienced some pretty rough weather but they survived it and after 43 days they finally arrived at their first island. So that says a lot."

Some relatives are concerned for his safety but the overwhelming feeling is one of anticipation. "My mother and a couple of aunties didn't want me to go. They were worried about me, my health and making sure I came back. The majority of my family have said it's an opportunity not to miss out on though. This is something we will be able to share with our children and grandchildren."

It's a trip which should inspire other loves. "I also have a passion for kapa haka and composing songs so this will provide inspiration for that."

The latest estimated departure date is mid-November and, all being well, Waka Tapu should make its triumphant return into Auckland by Christmas.

"Everyone knows their jobs and we all have a turn on the paddle. That will be one of the hardest jobs, rotating that huge paddle, you have to hold it hard against the swells and waves.

"I've been going to the gym but it shouldn't be too bad. I've got a good bit of kaha (strength)."

Track Waka Tapu's progress by visiting www.wakatapu.com

- Bay of Plenty Times

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