Ho‘ola‘a wa‘a (Canoe Blessing Ceremony)
The Hawaiian culture is rich with ancient ceremony and tradition. Many of the protocols and rituals of a time long past are still respected and practiced today. Up until little more than a hundred years ago, at the center of the Hawaiian culture was the outrigger canoe or wa‘a. The wa‘a provided access to food, news from distance lands, defense, and recreation. Put another way, the Hawaiian people would likely have not come to existence and certainly would have perished without them. A well built wa‘a was held in high regard since it had the responsibility of returning men, women, and children home safely from ke kai (the sea). The wa‘a was so important to the Hawaiian people that each wa‘a was considered part of their ‘ohana and was treated as such. Just as important was the inoa (name) given the wa‘a. The same consideration you would give to naming a child was given to naming a wa‘a.
Through historical evidence we have learned that a couple of thousand years ago the Polynesian ancestors were arguably the world’s best navigators of the open sea. In fact, around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Polynesian ancestors using sailing canoes had already explored over ten million square miles of the southern portion of the largest body of water on the planet known today as the Pacific Ocean. In contrast, at this time in history the European’s had not yet mastered the navigational skills to sail their boats beyond the site of land.
Although the Hawaiian canoe is no longer essential for the survival of a people, the many Hawaiian values, rituals, and traditions surrounding the outrigger canoe are still practiced today. One of those traditions is the wa‘a ho‘omaika‘i (canoe blessing).
In a time now long past, the majority of nā wa‘a kino (canoe hulls) were fabricated from Koa trees and their ama (outrigger) were fabricated from the wiliwili-pua and the nā ‘iako (booms) were fabricated from the hau tree (sea hibiscus). These pieces were all lashed together using aha (Sennet made from coconut fiber) that was braided into flat cord. The Hawaiian people believed that everything had mana (a living spirit or super natural energy). The Hawaiian ancestors taught that when a koa tree had fallen and died, it took on another life, a continued spirit called lā‘au mana. Therefore, when we bless a canoe we start by asking the koa tree from which the wa‘a was carved – for forgiveness in taking the trees life. We also thank the forest from which the tree came from for allowing us to give its child a new life as a wa‘a. This wa‘a is a gift from Aku (God) so we bless it. We also bless the wa‘a to celebrates its birth. From this point on, we consider it the seventh voyager of a six kanaka canoe. We thank Aku (God), nā aumakua (the ancestors), Lono, the demigod of fertility which allowed the tree to grow, and Kanaloa the demigod of ke kai (the sea) for allowing us to paddle our wa‘a on his skin.
Today the majority of wa‘a are fabricated from modern composites. However, we still bless the canoes to pay our reverence to tradition and we still treat them as if they are part of our ‘ohana. We bless our nā hoe and we bless our nā wa‘a each year before our first race. We also do a very authentic and traditional wa‘a blessing for any new wa‘a we acquire.