Ben Finney

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Ben Finney Dies at 83, Anthropologist Thrilled Hawaiians in Voyage to Tahiti

Ben Finney, a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, dies at 83 By Gary Kubota May 24, 2017 Updated May 26, 2017 10:33am STAR-ADVERTISER / JAN. 2012

University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Ben Finney, who helped to show that ancient Polynesians sailing thousands of miles were capable of finding the Hawaiian Islands through non-instrument navigation, died at about noon Tuesday at a nursing home in Kaimuki, his son Sean said.

The last surviving founder and first president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who helped to debunk the scientific theory that Polynesians had drifted to Hawaii by chance, has died.

University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Ben Finney, who helped to show that ancient Polynesians sailing thousands of miles were capable of finding the Hawaiian Islands through non-instrument navigation, died at about noon Tuesday at a nursing home in Kaimuki, his son Sean said.

He was 83.

“The voyage changed the whole identity of the Hawaiian people. We went from being castaways…to being children of the world’s greatest navigators,” said Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson.

“We owe it to our visionaries … and Ben was the first.”

Sean said his father was conceived in Hawaii but born in San Diego because Ben’s father was reassigned by the Navy.

Ben Finney, who loved surfing, found his way back to Hawaii, eventually earning an masters degree in anthropology at UH.

He received his doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University and was a senior fellow at the East-West Center.

He worked as a professor at the University of Hawaii from 1973 through 2000, including nine years as chairman of the Department of Anthropology.

“Finney combined that sense of rigorous scientific testing with a deep appreciation and aloha for the Polynesian people,” said Sam Low, Hokule’a crew member and author of “Hawaiki Rising: Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance.”

For decades prior to the early 1970s, a popular assumption about migration was that Pacific islanders found islands such as the Hawaiian Islands by accidentally drifting as castaways in the currents — a theory supported by scientist Thor Heyerdahl aboard the experimental wooden raft Kon Tiki and writers like Andrew Sharp.

But Finney and other co-founders waterman Tommy Holmes and architect Herb Kane thought otherwise.

Kane had seen Hawaiian carvings of ancient petroglyphs of sailing canoes, heard of ancient chants about trips between Hawaii and Tahiti, and wanted to build a voyaging canoe.

Finney had heard from UH folklorist Katherine Luomala that Sharp’s theory was wrong and should be challenged and Finney was also aware of Pacific Island navigators who practiced non-instrument navigation in Micronesia and he sought to find one, friends said.

Together, the three founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973 and sought support to build a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe to embark on a voyage of more than 2,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Finney had heard of a navigator on Satawal atoll named Mau Piailug who was known for his sailing skills and invited Mau to serve as the navigator on the voyage. But Finney wasn’t sure when or how Mau might arrive because radio communications were difficult in that part of Micronesia.

“My dad told me a story the one day, a customs guy called him up at Honolulu Airport and said, ‘This guy from Micronesia is here,’” Sean recalled. “He jumped in his car to pick up Mau.”

He was on the first crew along with a number of renowned Hawaiian watermen sailed into Papaeete in Tahiti to a crowd of thousands of people in 1976.

The culture of native voyaging has grown, with about 25 native voyaging canoes along with more than 2,000 sailors in the Pacific, including more than seven based in Hawaii.

Hokule’a, the original voyaging canoe, is completing a three-year worldwide voyage next month when it returns to Hawaii.

Thompson said the Hokule’a owes much to Finney and and other visionaries. “He was responsible for changing history,” he said.

Ben Finney, a founder and first president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

The son of a United States Navy pilot, Ben Finney grew up in San Diego, California. He earned his B.A. in history, economics and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1955. In 1958, after serving in the U.S. Navy and working in the steel and aerospace industries, he went to Hawaii, where he earned his M.A. in anthropology at the University of Hawaii in 1959. His master's degree thesis, “Hawaiian Surfing: a Study of Cultural Change”, became the basis for Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, a book which Finney co-authored in 1966 with James D. Houston.Finney earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard University in 1964.

Ben was a pioneer in the reconstruction and sailing of Polynesian voyaging canoes. He first began dreaming about building a canoe and sailing it to Tahiti while studying at the University of Hawai'i in 1958. In the mid-1960s he built Nalehia, a replica of a Hawaiian double canoe that provided the basic information on sailing performance that went into planning Hokule'a's initial voyage to Tahiti.

In 1973 he co-founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society and served as its first president. He sailed aboard Hokule'a during the first voyage to Tahiti in 1976, the 1985 voyage to Aotearoa, and the 1992 voyage to Rarotonga, and also covered the 1995 voyage from the Marquesas to Hawai'i from Hokule'a's escort vessel.

Finney has held faculty appointments at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Australian National University, the University of French Polynesia,and the International Space University.From 1970 through 2000 he was a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his courses included Human Adaptation to the Sea and Human Adaptation to Living in Space. From 1994 through 2003 he was the co-chair of the department of Space and Society at the International Space University.


1976: Pacific Navigation and Voyaging. Auckland, New Zealand: The Polynesian Society. 1979: Hokulea: The way to Tahiti. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1992: From Sea to Space (The Macmillan Brown Lectures 1989). Palmerston North: Massey University. 1994: Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey through Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1998: “Traditional Navigation and Nautical Cartography in Oceania” in Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific Societies. Chicago: U of Chicago. 2003: Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press. 2007: Three chapters in Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific.Kerry Howe (Massey University School of Social and Cultural Studies), ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Articles Online at PVS Website

From ”Voyaging into Polynesia's Past” in From Sea to Space

The Founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Building of Hokule'a Hawai'i to Tahiti and Return: 1976 Hawai'i to Tahiti and Return: 1980 Voyage of Rediscovery: 1985-87 Other Articles

Sin at Awarua (1995 Voyage to Ra'iatea and Nukuhiva) Voyaging and Isolation in Rapa Nui Prehistory

Ben Finney, Anthropologist Who Debunked Theory on Island Settlement, Dies at 83


From “Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings,” by Ben Finney and James D. Houston, a nook that grew out of Mr. Finney’s master’s thesis. Credit Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images On June 4, 1976, the Hokulea, a double-hulled sailing canoe of ancient design, glided into Papeete Harbor in Tahiti, greeted ecstatically by a crowd of 17,000 — more than half the island’s population. For the first time in six centuries, a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel had made the voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti, covering more than 2,700 miles without instruments.

For Ben Finney, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii, it was sweet vindication. In an effort to prove that the settlement of Polynesia came about through deliberate exploration, rather than aimless drifting — the so-called accidental settlement hypothesis — he oversaw the construction of a 62-foot double canoe based on 18th-century illustrations made by members of Capt. James Cook’s crew.

He then found a master navigator from the Caroline Islands, Mau Piailug, who was capable of guiding the Hokulea (the name means “Star of Joy”) in the age-old way: using the rising points of the stars, supplemented by observations of the sun, the moon and ocean swells, as a natural compass.

Thirty-four days after leaving Honolua Bay, in Maui, on May 1, the Hokulea reached its destination, affirming the navigational expertise of the ancient Polynesians and throwing additional cold water on Thor Heyerdahl’s conjecture that settlers had come from South America, a theory he hoped to prove in his famous 1947 voyage aboard the raft Kon-Tiki.

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In an account for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Mr. Finney wrote, tersely, “The voyage went as planned.”

Professor Finney died on May 23 in Honolulu. He was 83. His son Sean said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Ben Rudolph Finney was born on Oct. 1, 1933, in San Diego, where his father, Leon, a Navy pilot, had recently been transferred from Hawaii. His mother, the former Melba Trefzger, was a homemaker.

The family relocated to Rio de Janeiro when Leon Finney was assigned to be the pilot for the Navy’s attaché in Brazil during World War II, but Ben grew up mostly in San Diego.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history, economics and anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955, he worked as a statistician at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, Calif., and a manufacturing analyst in the Convair division of General Dynamics in San Diego. A year of active duty in the Navy followed.

He enrolled in the University of Hawaii and earned a master’s degree in anthropology in 1959. His master’s thesis, on surfing and Polynesian culture, evolved into a book, “Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings” (1966), written with James D. Houston. An updated edition was published in 1996 with the title “Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport.”


Ben Finney in 2012. Credit Honolulu Star Advertiser In 1964, the year he received his doctorate in anthropology from Harvard, he married Ruth Sutherlin. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son Sean, he is survived by his wife, the former Liudmila Alepko; another son, Gregory; a stepdaughter, Anna Alepko; two grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.

After teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Australian National University, Professor Finney joined the anthropology department at the University of Hawaii in 1970. He retired in 2000.

His other early books — “Polynesian Peasants and Proletarians: Socio-Economic Change Among the Tahitians of French Polynesia” (1965) and “Big-Men and Business: Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth in the New Guinea Highlands” (1973) — offered no hint of an interest in Polynesian navigation. But the topic soon took over.

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SEE SAMPLE PRIVACY POLICY OPT OUT OR CONTACT US ANYTIME “How the Polynesians, sailing in canoes hewed with stone adzes and setting their course by the stars, winds and ocean swells, were able to explore and colonize their island realm has long been one of the most intriguing questions about the spread of humankind over our planet,” he wrote in “Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey Through Polynesia” (1994).

With Herbert Kawainui Kane, an artist, and Tommy Holmes, a local waterman, Professor Finney founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973 to study traditional Polynesian techniques of sailing and navigation. In 1974, he and several colleagues, including David Lewis, a New Zealand anthropologist who was an expert on ancient Micronesian navigation methods, set about recreating a facsimile of the double-hulled canoes used in ancient Polynesia, assembling a mostly Hawaiian crew and taking the vessel on test runs around Hawaii.

If the navigation went according to plan, the voyage did not. The canoe confronted fierce storms and becalmed seas. Even worse, cultural tensions arose.

Soon after setting sail, several of the Hawaiian crew members staged a mutiny, resentful that the Hokulea was not sailing around the Hawaiian Islands in a show of ethnic pride. They called Kawika Kapahulehua, the Hawaiian captain, a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. When the canoe reached Tahiti, they threw punches at him and threatened to burn the boat.

Mr. Piailug, the navigator, threw up his hands in disgust and returned home. Guided by modern instruments, the Hokulea returned to Honolulu, without Mr. Finney and with a new crew.

Despite the uprising, the voyage, described by Mr. Finney in “Hokulea: The Way to Tahiti” (1979), was a triumph. “The voyage changed the whole identity of the Hawaiian people,” Nainoa Thompson, the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, told The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently. “We went from being castaways to being children of the world’s greatest navigators.”

A voyage two years later, this time all Hawaiian, came to grief when the Hokulea capsized off Molokai six hours after setting sail. The big-wave surfing legend Eddie Aikau, a member of the crew, perished while trying to paddle 15 miles to summon help.

The Hokulea successfully repeated its maiden voyage in 1980 and undertook a more ambitious voyage in 1985, to New Zealand by way of Tahiti and the Cook Islands, returning via Tonga and Samoa. It accomplished many more voyages over the years, some described in “Voyage of Rediscovery.” It was scheduled to reach Hawaii on Saturday after a three-year tour of 85 ports in 26 countries.

When he was not looking at the oceans, Mr. Finney was pondering the stars. He maintained a deep interest in space exploration and the potential for life on other planets, reflected in his books “Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience” (1985) and “From Sea to Space” (1992). He frequently lectured at the International Space University.