Conjuring up the downfall of the civilization can drive you mad. Puzzling out the timeline of Rapa Nui’s colonization can cause fits. Then there’s the whole moai thing, the conundrum of their abandonment.
Thankfully, imagining how the settlers got here is a beautiful thing, thanks to the work of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and a canoe called Hōkūle‘a, the inspired project of an artist and historian elected a Living Treasure of Hawaii in 1984, a man named Herb Kawainui Kāne.
Precious little evidence remains of the physical form of original Polynesian canoes of exploration. Drawings from the same 1773 Cook expedition that called at Rapa Nui show double-hulled canoes at Tonga. Fragments of ancient canoes have been excavated on New Zealand.
A bog on Huahine, near Tahiti, has yielded pieces of a canoe. A petroglyph of a canoe found at Orongo on Easter Island (the center of the birdman cult, about which more later) suggests the possible ancient design. Beyond these tantalizing bits, as Herb Kane tells the story, there is no hard evidence.
So in designing the Hōkūle‘a, Kane made some guesses. He came up with a double-hulled voyaging canoe 62 feet four inches long, 17-1/2 feet abeam with a draft of two and a half feet and a total sail area of 540 square feet. This is the vessel that, since 1975, has traveled the Polynesian Triangle, New Zealand to Hawaii to Rapa Nui.
A member of the crew named Sam Low kept a dairy of the sailing to Rapa Nui, and it’s a gorgeous thing to read. Freedom and expansiveness flow from Low’s pen as he writes of the measure of a sailor’s days – sunrises, stacks of cumulus, “smoke,” a gray haze of salt and seaspray stirred into the atmosphere by strong winds, and sunsets.
Seeking to "discover" Rapa Nui, the Hōkūle‘a sailed from Mangareva, and called for a few hours at Pitcairn Island, Rapa Nui’s nearest inhabited neighbor, where the entire island, 42 inhabitants, put on a potluck dinner. Low writes of “VHF radios squawking in every home — the island’s only reliable telephone service,” of “freezers and shelves crammed with tinned goods to tide people over between supply ships, which arrive once every 4 months,” of how mail is delivered by passing freighters, in watertight containers thrown overboard.
Pitcairn was the refuge of the HMS Bounty mutineers in 1789, and Fletcher Christian’s Bible survives in the 7th Day Adventist church. Brenda Christian lives on Pitcairn still, generations on.
Nainoa Thompson, the Hōkūle‘a lead navigator, devised a scheme for finding Rapa Nui at once ambitious and straightforward. Approaching from the west, the canoe would target a block of ocean starting 300 miles from Rapa Nui and extending two degrees on either side of 27 degrees south latitude, the island’s latitude.
Targeting a box 300 miles by 240 rather than a 64-square-mile speck would compensate for any mistakes the crew may have made in dead reckoning how far east the Hōkūle‘a had sailed from Pitcairn, or in estimating the canoe’s latitude. Beginning at the western edge of the block the Hōkūle‘a would sail up and down to the top and bottom of the box, zigzagging back and forth, and eventually, the crew hoped, pass within sight of Rapa Nui.
Sam Low's diary is written with grace and no affectation, and we’re as thrilled as the crew members when, just before dawn on October 8th, seventeen and one half days out of Mangareva, Max Yarawamai, standing lookout, spots Rapa Nui as a vague black line on the horizon, and the crew celebrates with garlic eggs for breakfast.