story by Julia Steele
photos by Monte Costa
Imagine: It is night, very dark. You are on a vast sea, days from land, at the helm of a sailing canoe, with no modern navigational equipment to guide you, no machinery of any kind to move you. There is simply the boat, the ocean, the wind, the sky. The elements are in complete control.
The canoe pitches with the waves, the air reeks of salt. You look up into the universe, searching for the Southern Cross to point you to the land you seek. But a cloud sails across the sky and blots out the formation. You look for the two pointer stars, Alpha Centauri—at 4 light years away the closest star to earth’s sun—and Beta Centauri. They, too, get blocked by clouds. But you find two unobscured nebula—the two closest galaxies to Earth’s at 130,000 light years away—and these tiny and hugely distant beacons guide your hand and keep you on course.
For Ben Finney, the man at the helm, the experience that night was “an intellectual and physical epiphany.” It came in 1985 on a trip from the Cook Islands to Aotearoa. “I thought, ‘Wow. Here I am sailing a little canoe in a dark ocean on the third planet out from our sun, steering by the closest star to our own and then by the closest galaxy,’” he remembers.
On paper, the experience was nothing new for Finney—one way or another, he’d been involved with Polynesian voyaging for almost three decades by this point. But it was the moment’s immediacy, its intensity, that lit up the miracle of navigating by the stars and the canoe’s intrinsic connection with the universe. And Finney had always loved the sea: first as a boy growing up in California and in Rio, later as a teenager learning to surf and discovering Santa Cruz. Surfing provided Finney’s entré into the world of islands, watercraft, ingenuity and adventure, a world he has inhabited ever since. “It was that it wasn’t Californian,” he says of his early fascination with surfing. “It was oceanic, Polynesian.”
Oceanic, Polynesian: In the ’50s, the love of these two things took Finney to the territory of Hawai‘i and to Tahiti. It was a time of questions about the past that saw archeologists digging for facts and intellectual speculators like Thor Heyerdahl sailing the seas for clues. Polynesians, ready to reclaim their history and their heritage in the wake of centuries of colonialism, were planting the seeds of cultural revival. Finney jumped right into the middle of it all.
“I started … getting this idea of building a voyaging canoe and sailing it to Tahiti and back,” he says. “And that became my spiritual journey.”