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Being on a waka hourua out in the middle of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa in a storm, and having no fear of a wave taller than the mast of your waka, because you know that you are part of a crew bound by aroha – as well as the values of whānaungatanga, manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga: That’s how it is for the sailors trained by Te Toki Voyaging Trust.

John Reid-Willison, who captained various waka hourua in blue sea voyages when he was just in his early 20’s, says that the feeling of complete safety also comes from the knowledge that you are part of a one thousand-year-old tried-and-true method of transport. “But it is dangerous crossing the ocean in any vessel, so you need good leadership with all those on board living the foundation values to help get you through.”

Te Toki Voyaging Trust waka hourua have sailed around the Pacific to Hawaii, Tahiti, Mexico and many other Pacific islands as well as many coastal voyages around their own whenua of Aotearoa.

These double-hulled voyaging canoes, Haunui, Hinemoana and Aotearoa One, carry a crew varying between 10 and 20. Many on board are from the Pacific, but not all. The kaupapa is inclusive: all people are welcome and there is a mix of nationalities, both men and women, and all ages.

Te Toki Voyaging Trust, which is working to revitalise and preserve the knowledge and skills of the celestial oceanic navigators, was established in the Waikato over 30 years ago. It was set up through the vision and leadership of waka expert, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, who was this year honoured with a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Māori and heritage commemoration.

Working alongside Hoturoa has been fellow trustees Kim Barclay-Kerr and Pare Rata.

The Trust’s aim is to provide lifelong learning opportunities and youth development – teaching navigation, astronomy, marine and environmental science, traditional seafaring technology and innovation.

The crew on a waka hourua learn through mentorship: once you have learned something from your teacher, it is your responsibility to teach others. This, the trust says, cultivates young people who are prepared to stand up and take the lead. It also provides a pathway for succession.

Along with the voyaging waka hourua, the Trust has a long tradition in competitive waka ama and has one of the largest waka ama clubs in Aotearoa. Over the last 30 years, thousands of paddlers, from pre-schoolers to senior masters, have donned the blue and white colours of Te Toki. Many have competed in the annual national competitions, as well as competed and won medals at the world competitions. Te Toki Waka Ama is headed by Hoturoa’s son Turanga, who has grown up with a paddle in his hand. Turanga has overseen the coaching and managing of paddlers and maintained a fleet of single outriggers as well as six-man canoes.

Faumuina Tafunai, who lives in Christchurch, has been crewing as a sailor for over 10 years. She says that when they are looking for rangatahi who might be ready for blue water sailing the leaders look for those who are already demonstrating some of the underpinning values of generosity and helpfulness; someone, for example, who sees that the dishes need to be done, and quietly gets on with the job.

For those who grew up on a marae, like John, many of these values have already been learned:

“For us the waka hourua is just a floating marae so it is easy to slip into the waka world where the number one priority is to look after waka. The second priority is to look after the person next to you. If you look after them, you don’t have to look after yourself. You are part of a seamlessly operating crew and vessel. Everyone understands those values.

“And they are values that help in everyday life. In the workplace if you think workplace first and me second it definitely helps. The same with whānau life. Everything is so much easier if you think that way.”

Because many rangatahi in the Waikato live in more remote areas the trust takes the kaupapa to rural schools and to marae in small coastal communities.

The challenge to rangatahi is to follow their ancestors.

“We talk about STEM,” says John. “We tell them, if you look at waka kaupapa, it is one of the first sciences of navigation. The multi-hull is being replicated nowadays. Our ancestors spent thousands of years developing the hull and transforming the sails. They were very advanced.

“We tell rangatahi – you have a tradition to follow. So many rangatahi are at school and bucking the system. They are saying, why are you making me learn all of this stuff?

“We can change their mindset by telling them – your ancestors were one of the greatest voyaging navigators, scientists, and engineers in the world. They led the great migration through the Pacific. Study STEM. This is you – your ancestors! Then they start wanting to study these subjects. They start to think – of course I can do it. Then when they join a crew, they start taking responsibility for small things.

“The first wayfaring is a baptism of fire almost. When you first come to sail a waka, you are met with the real truth – it is not easy. You have to step up and bring what you can to the group as a whole. For some, it is not for them. For others who find a passion for it, you see them move heaven and earth to be their best, even in small things. To be part of that family – to help the waka first; the person next to you second; and yourself third. You see them really eat and breathe these values.

“I am lucky because I go and visit the families when they come back. It is a time of reflection. They often say, I sent my boy to you, but I don’t know this man who is returning. It has done wonders for him. He has come back with a purpose in life.”

As well as instilling values, the waka hourua experience changes the way rangatahi see themselves.

Faumuina Tafunai says that for her the experience was transformational:

“When you are on a waka hourua, you know who you are – and you have that reflected back to you. Normal classrooms don’t often reflect a Pasifika or Māori identity, but when you are on a waka, on a wooden deck lashed by sennit, you feel closer to your ancestors, to who you are. You are surrounded by knowledge and systems that come down from your ancestors. When I was sailing on a waka from Samoa to Tonga, I had a real sense that my ancestors sailed here. I was 38-years-old and for me, it changed my life.”

Faumuina now runs Flying Geese Pro, where she has transposed wayfinding and voyaging principles into a strategic framework that is used to assist businesses and strengthen mental resilience among young people. Her work in this area earned her an Edmund Hillary Fellowship in 2018.

Many businesses, both Māori and Pākeha now are keen to learn how wayfinding skills can improve their business. Currently Te Toki and Flying Geese Pro are running a Wayfinding for Business programme in Te Waipounamu, the South Island, supported by Te Pūtahitanga.

The waka experience also provides an education about our world, and our place in it.

Marama Togiaheulu was just 19 when she first got involved with Te Toki and was so drawn into the whole experience that she then went on to four years full-time with the waka – much of it helping with the STEM programme and listening to the Māori scientists brought in to explain the natural world to children and communities. She too, said that Te Toki has changed her life:

“It made me aware of just how connected we are in the Pacific – we are all related – all connected by the ocean. As a direct result I married a Niuean. Before I would have felt we were too different!

“And at a deeper level there is the connection to the environment and our role as humans on this Earth to protect the wellbeing of the environment, on sea and on land. Being on the waka really deepened my commitment to being someone who has a small environmental footprint so I can do my part to look after this Earth and hopefully (although it is getting more difficult) to leave it better for the next generation. That is what our ancestors were doing. Doing things with future generations in mind.”

Click here to see the TedX talk on Wayfinding Leadership