Surrounded by the launches, ocean-going yachts and catamarans moored at Orakei Marina, one of the Pacific's most valuable boats is almost camouflaged from view.

She is Va'a Gaualofa, Samoa's traditionally-inspired 22-metre, twin-hulled voyaging canoe (waka hourua in te reo), which sails across oceans crewed by 16 sailors and powered almost exclusively by wind and sun. Since 2009, when she was gifted by the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea to the Aiga Folau o Samoa - the Samoan Voyaging Society (SVS), Gaualofa has sailed more than 40,000 nautical miles.

Lavatai Lauaki Afifimailagi, crew member of The Samoan Voyaging Society. Photo / Michael Craig
Lavatai Lauaki Afifimailagi, crew member of The Samoan Voyaging Society. Photo / Michael Craig

Her value lies in the knowledge and purpose of her crew of eco and cultural activists who weave together environmental, cultural and historical traditions and advocacy. Many of Gaualofa's miles have been clocked up inspiring new generations to learn about voyaging and the risks that human activity and climate change pose to the oceans.

Last year they used Disney's hit film Moana to help in their education message. SVS president Schannel van Dijken says Moana's themes of ocean conservation and the importance of Pacific culture resonate with both children and adults.

Promo for New Zealand Festival. Supplied by New Zealand Festival

"There's a lot they didn't know that Moana exposed to them and now they're asking questions and they're singing the songs. We want to showcase Moana in a way that will reach some of the people that may have not seen it. We see it as a wonderful tool."

Even more apt, Gaualofa is captained by Fealofani Brunn, a young woman who, in 2015, became the first Samoan to receive a yachtmaster Captain qualification. Is she a modern-day Moana?

Va'a Gaualofa, Samoa's traditionally-inspired 22m twin-hulled voyaging canoe.
Va'a Gaualofa, Samoa's traditionally-inspired 22m twin-hulled voyaging canoe.

Brunn smiles, obviously adept at answering that question: "I don't see myself as a modern-day Moana because it's too much of a square box to fit into. She was very young, able to go out and voyage and be a bit of a rebel. With our voyages, we are much more focused on the safety aspects and the work."

Brunn and the crew have spent around a month at Orakei Marina ensuring Gaualofa is in the best possible shape to take part in this weekend's Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival in Auckland. They'll then sail to Waitangi and, weather permitting, around Cape Reinga down the west coast to Wellington to for the capital's largest ever waka event, A Waka Odyssey.

Participating in the festivals, which demonstrate how waka culture is going mainstream, will also allow them to learn from our own voyaging experts such as Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, president of Te Toki Voyaging Trust, which is the kaitiaki (guardian) of the Haunui waka - brother ship to the Gaualofa. Haunui often sails to remote New Zealand coastal communities doing similar work to Gaualofa's crew.

"Everybody loves it when they see a waka arrive," says Barclay-Kerr. "It's a really great way to get conversations started and I think we now have a generation of young New Zealanders who want know what this part of the world is all about, its history, how things were done."

LtoR , Fealofani Bruun and Schannel van Dijken, crew members of The Samoan Voyaging Society. Photo / Michael Craig
LtoR , Fealofani Bruun and Schannel van Dijken, crew members of The Samoan Voyaging Society. Photo / Michael Craig

One of the trustees of Tamaki Herenga Waka Trust, a not-for-profit organisation working to revitalise waka culture in Auckland, he's also helping to make A Waka Odyssey for Wellington. Sailing into Wellington Harbour will be a new experience for Barclay-Kerr, one he is looking forward to.

Developed with Te Ati Awa/Taranaki Whanui Iwi, A Waka Odyssey – Kupe opens the NZ International Festival with a massed assembly of waka hourua from around the Pacific and Aotearoa arriving on Wellington Harbour at dusk on Friday, February 23. The theatrical spectacle honours the legacy of famous Pacific explorer, Kupe, who will be portrayed by actor Te Kohe Tuhaka, with singer-songwriter Maisey Rika playing his wife, Kuramarotini.

The choreographed movements of waka hourua, waka taua (the bigger canoes often associated with war) and a fleet of smaller waka ama will bring the harbour to life; on land the actors, choirs and kapa haka groups welcome the voyagers to Wellington. A 1000-strong new haka for Wellington will be performed, and a full musical score has been composed by musician-composer Warren Maxwell.

Timed to coincide with the second Pacific Climate Change Conference, Kupe starts a week of free community activities, with waka travelling to various beaches in the region to speak about navigation, voyaging, science, environment, sustainability, and history.

The chance to paddle a waka at Auckland's Tamaki Herenga Waka proves to good for thousands to pass up.
The chance to paddle a waka at Auckland's Tamaki Herenga Waka proves to good for thousands to pass up.

NZ Festival artistic director Shelagh Magadza programmed it because she believes we need to tell more stories about the real-life epic journeys and grand characters from voyaging days. It's a sentiment shared by director Anna Marbrook, who has spent several months travelling on waka filming Waka Warriors and award-winning Te Mana o te Moana The Pacific Voyage for Maori Television.

"When you travel on waka around the Pacific, you hear such beautiful stories and when you are seeing and experiencing the types of things they talk about, it all makes sense on so many levels," says Marbrook. "Fishing up islands connects with the science of the curvature of the earth and islands seeming to appear out of the ocean as you sail towards them Maui slowing the sun? Sailing south in summer the days get longer as you traverse the latitudes."

But modern waka voyaging comes with modern challenges.

Barclay-Kerr talks of going days without seeing any life in areas where you'd expect fish to be plentiful. He recalls crew jumping off the waka to untangle a turtle bound in plastic fishing thread.

Gaualofa elder Lavatai Lauaki Afifimailagi says he's seen "wonders" at sea but then turns to talking about the amount of plastic he sees bobbing in the ocean and navigating through the Pacific gyre, an enormous area of floating rubbish.

"It's about getting the world to change its ways," says Barclay-Kerr.

Marbrook wants to take a version of A Waka Odyssey to other parts of NZ, including Auckland. Anniversary Weekend festivities traditionally featured waka but they gradually disappeared from the celebrations, along with most other aspects of tikanga Maori.

Tamaki Herenga Waka has restored this presence and though there's a vast range of cultural activities on offer, it's the waka sailings that have proved most popular. Up to 3000 festival-goers will try to get a place on a waka and says Barclay-Kerr, it's further proof of the waka resurgence under way.

"It's a shared history of everyone who has settled in New Zealand – everyone has had to cross the ocean – and it's not about saying one history is better than others; it's about bringing everyone together and realising we've all come here to find a new place and to honour the ancestor who first made those journeys."


Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival
Viaduct Events Centre and Viaduct Harbour
Until Monday

A Waka Odyssey – Kupe
Wellington waterfront
Friday, February 23