Rare Flotilla a sight to behold


New Zealand has an extraordinary voyaging history and a spectacular flotilla of traditional Maori waka and European heritage ships is now making its way around our coastline.

Tuia- Encounters 250 is a special commemoration organised by the Government to celebrate the feats of voyaging and navigation that have shaped our nation. It marks 250 years since the first onshore meetings between Maori and Pakeha and provides an opportunity to see our voyaging history up close.

A flotilla of six vessels including two waka hourua (double-hulled canoes), a va’a tipaerua from Tahiti, two heritage ships and one youth ship will depart Gisborne on 5 October and sail north, hugging the coastline until they reach the Bay of Islands on 7 November. They will then travel down the west coast of the North Island and reach Lyttleton by December.

Along the way they’ll stop at many sites of cultural significance, including Whitianga and Mercury Bay (18 – 21 October). This is the second main site where Maori and Captain James Cook met, and where Cook and his crew observed the Transit of Mercury.

Experienced waka navigator Jack Thatcher is Kaitiaki (guardian) of the Tuia 250 fleet and says the celebration will certainly turn heads.

“We’ll be travelling a couple of thousand miles on water. Many of the communities we’re going to visit are getting quite excited.”

Waka hourua represent the voyaging capability of Maori, both historically and today. The three European ships include the HMB Endeavour from Sydney which is a replica of Captain Cook’s original Endeavour, and the R. Tucker Thompson, a traditional gaff-rigged schooner. They will be joined by the Spirit of New Zealand, a three-masted barquentine which is believed to be the world’s busiest youth training ship.

“What I’m looking forward to most is a voyage that helps to bring everyone together to celebrate what’s great about Aotearoa and our voyaging heritage, whether it’s European or Pacific. There’s no other place in the world that has that. There are other nations that had fleeting engagements with European voyagers that came through. But in terms of our Pacific heritage, voyaging across one third of the earth’s surface to get here is pretty special. And of course we have Europeans who have circumnavigated the globe as well. It’s an exciting space to be in.”

Organisers see Tuia 250 as an opportunity to take an honest, close look at the diverse and complex history of our country. The arrival of James Cook in 1769 is often the main focus but this account overlooks the earlier feats of voyaging and discovery by the ancestors of Maori.

“We’re inviting communities to share all the stories of first arrivals in their regions – from the beautiful stories to the more painful ones. It’s about building on the knowledge of our history and sharing those stories about our pioneering spirit,” Jack says.

About 150 people will be onboard the six vessels, including ‘trainee berths’ for people who volunteered for the experience of a lifetime.

“The great thing about sailing around Aotearoa is there are lots of stopovers to replenish. When you’re out in the middle of the ocean you don’t have that luxury so you have to carry as much as you can and be able to catch fish and gather fresh water to maintain life. It’s not an easy place to challenge yourself if you’re not used to the ocean environment.”

The longest stretch will be approximately nine days travelling down the west coat of the North Island to the Marlborough Sounds. Those onboard the traditional waka hourua will sleep under the stars and catch fish to eat along the way. The va’a tipaerua from Tahiti will sail to Rarotonga and the Kermadec Islands before reaching  New Zealand to join the flotilla. The vessel, named Fa’afaite, represents the origin of our Pacific people, as well as representing Tupaia – the legendary Polynesian navigator who acted as an interpreter between Cook’s Endeavour crew and Maori.

It’s owned by the Tahiti Voyaging Society whose goal is to help the renewal of ancestral navigation without instrument. The 22m long vessel will use traditional navigation techniques to reach our shores, but Jack says modern technology will then be used to guide the flotilla around New Zealand’s coastline.

“Most of our traditional navigation is done when sailing to distant islands. When we’re sailing around the coast it’s a different kettle of fish, especially if you’re unsure about certain areas where reefs might be. So we have to be more circumspect about our safety so we use a lot of technology around the coastline. We can’t afford to put our people at risk in that way.”

A great deal of planning has gone into Tuia 250, with Jack in charge of preparing the routes, approach plans and anchorages for all ports. “We trust a lot in all our rituals. We’re looking at both sides of the coin – from the traditional Maori rituals to appease the Gods to technology from the MetService and all those other support organisations that are helping us to ensure the voyage is successful.”

While in Whitianga (18-21 October), the public will have the opportunity to go on board the vessels and learn more about voyaging techniques, celestial navigation, waka sails and the history of the European heritage vessels.  

For more information about what’s happening in Whitianga, visit https://www.mercury250.org

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