Some, holding Samoan flags, made a beeline for the waka Gaualofa. At the head of the vessel was Fealofani Bruun, a 32-year-old female captain whom many — particularly “Moana” fans — had come to see.
Ms. Bruun said that in addition to using celestial navigation, her crew had followed traditional protocols for every part of their journey, including their interactions with one another, meal preparation and, where possible, the food they ate, including coconut cream, taro and fresh fish.
Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, a master navigator who has spent decades sailing waka throughout the Pacific, was one of the creative producers of the festival opening. He lamented that the stories of Maori ancestors arriving in New Zealand had long been taught in schools as myths or fairy tales rather than recognized as history.
His own waka, the Haunui, circumnavigates New Zealand spreading a message of environmental conservation. Mr. Barclay-Kerr said the sight of a waka sailing into the bay often awakened memories among older Maori people of oral histories they had learned as children.
“Often they’re not confident enough to talk about it until the waka arrive, because people tell them, ‘Ah, it’s just a story,’ ” he said.
Standing knee-deep in the sea on Petone Beach, a 35-year-old Haunui crew member, Dale Dice, said taking to the sea had strengthened his connection with his culture. Mr. Dice, who works as a furniture removalist, said he had tried everything he could think of “to get a chance to sail around the world — but nothing worked out.”
Turned down for the navy, Mr. Dice joined a yacht squadron and then the Coast Guard in the hope that he would learn to sail, but it was the waka that provided the opportunity he sought. He was now preparing for a voyage to Hawaii on the double-hulled canoe in 2020.
“I never really knew the history of these waka,” he said. “Being on board, it adds a whole new dimension to my knowledge of being Maori. I feel more Maori now.”