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No. 2722:

Today, voyaging at the edge of technology. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

I was recently immersed in an astounding progression of the technology of sail. This was at the Voyager Maritime Museum of Auckland in New Zealand, an island nation itself first peopled by sea voyagers. Here, we see the sailing canoes that carried the ancestors of the Maori to New Zealand about 1300 years ago. These were amazing open boat journeys — carrying Polynesian navigators sometimes thousands of miles in leapfrog colonization moves across the Western Pacific. 

Looking at relics and replicas of these ancient vessels, one cannot help being struck by the audacity of the shipwrights and mariners. Materials were gathered from many diverse sources. Hulls were hewn from single logs, or hybridized with planks sewn together with plant fiber rope and sealed with tree saps; sails were woven of palm leaf fiber; tree branches were custom cut to form structural members and attach frames to primary hulls and outriggers. Selection and use of materials produced the right amount of structural rigidity — balanced by the stretch and give needed to survive in wind and wave. The vessels and the methods represented the cutting edge of technology of the time. But, reflected in design and art, there is a humility and respect for the forces and power of the sea. These people took enormous risks, apparently deeming the benefits worth it.

Polynesian canoe replica
Polynesian canoe replica Hawai'iloa in Honolulu harbor

There has been debate about the abilities and intentions of the time. Did the Polynesians make calculated and deliberate voyages to discover and populate new islands, or were they more often simply blown off course and delivered by the elements to such lands as New Zealand? There is evidence for both. In either case, we can say that these people resolutely put to sea in what for them were state of the art vessels. 

At the far end of this chronological collection — the speed machines built for the America's Cup and other yacht races. These are wondrous craft incorporating the latest in hydrodynamic and aerodynamic design, advanced composite materials for lightness and strength, sailed by those schooled in winds, water, tactics and the behavior of their machines. I had the good fortune to crew on one of these for a few hours around Auckland harbor. The power of the wind transmitted to motion of these hulls and the speeds they attain in the water is truly remarkable.

Black Magic, front view
Black Magic, the America's Cup winner from 1995. New Zealand has had a rich sea faring history, but the America's Cup victory was stunning and really put this island nation on the map of high performance yacht racing. 

In space travel, we find an obvious parallel. We gather widely to assemble appropriate technologies and materials; we then build ships that voyage with systems operating near the extreme limits of performance. This is needed to climb the gravity well of earth. Eventually technology will improve and be more widely available, so that more people will fly into space with the expectation of safe arrival. One day, we may even be afforded the luxury of sport in space flight similar to the racing yachts. But for now, we use the lightest structures, the most powerful engines, the most heat resistant materials to claw our way into orbit and back. Human history suggests that as soon as we develop the technology to voyage across obstacles, we do so. The forces required to overcome earth's gravity and the heat of re-entry remain formidable, and like ancient seafarers, we fly with humility and respect for these forces.

last launch of Space Shuttle Discovery
The Space Shuttle Discovery, on which I launched on its final mission on 24 February, 2011, with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. Also a state of the art craft of the time, the Shuttle began its voyages into space by flying out over the ocean. Photo courtesy NASA.

I'm (astronaut) Michael Barratt for the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work

(Theme music)

End Notes

The Voyager Maritime Museum in New Zealand is located on the water at the Viaduct Harbour in Auckland. As a sailor and sailing history aficionado, I gravitated quickly to it while I had a half day off during work related travel. This was on a rather foul-weathered weekday afternoon, and as it turns out I was one of only a couple people in this great collection that day. The lights went off and the museum closed around me as I was entrenched in an exhibit dedicated to the late sailing genius and explorer Sir Peter Blake. I was locked in, and how I escaped is another story. But the collection is most worthwhile. While I concentrated in this piece on the sailing aspect of sea travel, there are also wonderful exhibits and relics of whaling ships, immigrant transports, and cargo vessels that have served or been based in New Zealand.

The technology link associated with sailing journeys arises loudly when you see such progression and contrast. The materials used in the crafting of the sailing canoes must have been every bit as advanced for the time as those used in the 1996 America's Cup winner were 15 years ago. Black Magic, shown in the photograph, occupies a prominent place in the largest hall.

Black Magic, the America's Cup winner from 1995. 


There are several good web references, and always Wiki has a nice work under the title Polynesian Navigators with very good references ( A wonderful site is, which is a companion to the PBS film 'Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey'. This gives a brief description of the origin and history of the Polynesian people, which is deeply entrenched in sea travel.

The last launch of Space Shuttle Discovery photo courtesy of NASA. Black Magic yacht photos taken by Mike Barratt. Photo of Polynesian canoe replica Hawai'iloa in Honolulu harbor, taken March 2002 by Stan Shebs and located in the Wikimedia Commons.