Tributes are flooding in from around the world for the Northland man credited with reviving the ancient Māori arts of ocean voyaging and celestial navigation.

Sir Hekenukumai Puhipi, affectionately known as Sir Hek, died in Kaitaia on Saturday aged 86.

One of Northland's most influential Māori leaders, Sir Hek built more than 50 waka including waka hourua (double-hulled sailing canoes) which retraced the paths of his ancestors around the Pacific using only traditional navigation methods based on the stars, currents and birds.

He was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in a powerful ceremony at Waitangi earlier this year.

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Determined that the knowledge he had worked so hard to revive would not be lost again, he trained a number of young men as successors and built a celestial navigation school on family land at Aurere in Doubtless Bay.

Sir Hekenukumai Busby in 2014 during construction of his school for traditional celestial navigation on family land at Aurere. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Sir Hekenukumai Busby in 2014 during construction of his school for traditional celestial navigation on family land at Aurere. Photo / Peter de Graaf

He was also a noted exponent of kapa haka, carving and mau rākau, and was a life member of Te Matatini, the national kapa haka competition.

His achievements were all the more remarkable given that the young Hector Busby (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu) left school at the age of 15. He set up a bridge-building firm with his brothers, eventually constructing 158 bridges around Northland.

In later life he continued to build bridges of a different sort between peoples scattered across the Pacific Ocean.

The reverence for Sir Hek around Polynesia was demonstrated by the Hawaiian delegation that attended his investiture on February 4, and the tributes which followed his passing.

Also at Waitangi to see Sir Hek knighted was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said she would never forget the passion and love on display for him that day.

''He gave so much to the next generation and in turn, they honoured him. May the waters be calm and the stars guide the way to your final resting place,'' Ardern said.

The Minister for Māori-Crown Relations, Kelvin Davis, described Sir Hek as an esteemed kaumatua, a master carver and waka builder, and a navigator with a curious mind whose legacy would not be forgotten.

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Sir Hekenukumai Busby puts the finishing touches to his second waka hourua, Ngāhiraka Mai Tawhiti, in 2008. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sir Hekenukumai Busby puts the finishing touches to his second waka hourua, Ngāhiraka Mai Tawhiti, in 2008. Photo / Richard Robinson

Speaking at Sir Hek's investiture, Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said his quest to build ocean-going waka and sail them around the Pacific without European navigation aids was a breakthrough for all New Zealanders.

''It affirmed our oral history that we are in fact navigators extraordinaire who traversed the greatest expanse of water on the planet for millennia ... His feats dispelled the long-held myth that we Māori are here by accident and not by design.''

Yesterday Piripi said Tai Tokerau had other leaders in business and politics, but in terms of cultural development no one equalled Sir Hek.

''He was a cultural icon in every sense,'' Piripi said.

Sir Hek's involvement with waka went back to his youth when he crewed the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, but his quest to revive ocean voyaging was sparked by the arrival in Aotearoa of the Hawaiian sailing canoe Hōkūle'a in 1985 and a challenge by Sir James Henare that Māori should also return to the ocean.

Ten years later a waka hourua built and sailed by Sir Hek completed the return voyage, fulfilling Sir James' dream.

Since then Sir Hek's waka Te Aurere and Ngāhiraka Mai Tawhiti have sailed every side of the vast Polynesian triangle, culminating in a voyage to Easter Island and back in 2012-13.

Sir Hekenukumai Busby's waka hourua Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti leave Auckland at the start of an epic journey to Easter Island in 2012. Photo / Alan MacGillivray
Sir Hekenukumai Busby's waka hourua Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti leave Auckland at the start of an epic journey to Easter Island in 2012. Photo / Alan MacGillivray

Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii, was the captain of the Hōkūle'a in 1985.

Thompson said Hawaiians felt the loss of Sir Hek deeply as he embarked on his last great voyage, but his ''exceptional and extraordinary life'' had enriched the lives of many.

Sir Hek's death has been felt as far away as the Netherlands, where one of his waka — Te Hono ki Aotearoa — has been based in the city of Leiden since 2010.

Waka group spokeswoman Nola der Weduwe said without Sir Hek's trust and approval Māori culture could not have taken root in the Netherlands. His legacy would live on as his waka continued to be paddled in Leiden and around Europe.

Other messages of condolence have come from voyaging societies in Samoa and the Cook Islands, to name a few.

It is understood Sir Hek died at Kaitaia Hospital following a medical event.

His tangihanga is expected to be the biggest in Northland in many years. It will be held at Te Uri O Hina Marae in Pukepoto, a settlement just outside Kaitaia where Sir Hek was born.

Karakia whakamutunga (final prayers) will be performed at 10am on Wednesday.