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FEATURE STORY June 1, 2020

Meet the Innovator Protecting Our Oceans in Tonga: Captain Aunofo Havea Funaki


Captain Aunofo Havea Funaki is a Tongan trailblazer: She is the first female licensed captain in the Kingdom of Tonga and Polynesia; is a captain of yachts and vakas (traditional Polynesian canoes), and is the founder and Managing Director of the Tonga Voyaging Society. She hopes she can inspire others through her passion for the health of the oceans, ecotourism and sustainable sea transportation.

Sailing has a history of being a predominantly male field. But Captain Aunofo believed that she could change that. In 2000, Captain Aunofo was the only woman selected amongst a class of 23 other students for a maritime course led by the New Zealand Coast Guard where she finished at the top of her class. Within a year, she also became a boat master and in 2018, she became the first female licensed captain in the Kingdom of Tonga and Polynesia. Captain Aunofo is also the founder and Managing Director of the Tonga Voyaging Society, and a member of the Okeanos Foundation of the Sea.


Tell us about yourself.

I’m a single mother with five children. I am from the village of Tuanuku, on Tonga’s Vavau Island. I grew up by the ocean my whole life and it has given me and my family so much to be thankful for. 

I was the only female captain of the international voyage ‘Te Mana O Te Moana’ sailing on vakas (traditional Pacific sailing canoes), and I also captained the first ever all-female sail. Last year (2019), I was honored to be invited to the United Nations World Oceans Day conference in New York, where I shared my experiences of shipping and seafaring, as well as ecotourism entrepreneurship alongside so many other inspiring scientists, storytellers and speakers from around the world. I have now been sailing for nearly 30 years. It has not been an easy journey; you have to really work hard for things you want in life – but every step has been worth it.  


How did you get into sailing in the first place? 

My first job was cleaning yachts! I was only 25 at the time with no interest at all in sailing – I just needed a job. I later became a cook too, so whenever a yacht was being chartered, I was requested to do the cleaning and cooking on board even though at that time, I used to get the worst seasickness. 

The owners of the yacht I worked on would teach me how to sail. At first, it was just for fun, but they were impressed with how fast I learned - I even surprised myself! The turning point for me was when one time out at sea, a certain captain said to me, “You’re just the cook. I’m the boss here.” Something in me sparked. I just knew in that moment that I wanted to become a captain. So, I started working extra hard towards my goal and that’s how I got into sailing and it was the best decision I ever made.

"There is a sense of connectedness to our people, to the oceans, to nature, to our history and the richness of our cultures and traditions that is such an important part of who we are today."
Capt. Aunofo Havea Funaki
Founder, Tonga Voyaging Society


Captain Aunofo (centre, wearing a kiekie) at the 2019 UN World Oceans Day Conference in New York.

(Photo: supplied)

What is it like sailing on a vaka?

My Tongan ancestors are famous for being some of the world’s best seafarers, so when I had the opportunity to sail on a vaka, it was both a thrilling and humbling experience. There is a sense of connectedness to our people, to the oceans, to nature, to our history and the richness of our cultures and traditions that is such an important part of who we are today. There’s also a healing that the ocean gives us; both in terms of its scientific properties, but also on a spiritual level – it keeps us young.

Sailing on the vaka across all those miles, you learn how to voyage relying on the wind, the sun, the stars, your crew and of course, the ocean – the way our ancestors did. I will always remember our vakas passing San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, and stop overs at different ports, meeting so many people from different backgrounds and cultures, experiencing the mana of our ancestors, with all of us working together for a common cause. 

Sometimes you also see things that are just heartbreaking. Once we saw a whale caught in fishing nets and there was nothing we could do to untangle it – so we looked on and just cried. It made me realise that sailing on a vaka comes with great responsibility to create more awareness, understanding and respect for each other as human beings and for our oceans.


What do you see as the biggest challenges facing our oceans in 2020? 

Plastic pollution. Along the way, wherever we were sailing, we would always try to collect whatever rubbish we came across – but there was always more. On our voyage to San Francisco, we saw mounds of plastic debris and nets all meshed together to form a floating island of rubbish.

A lot of people today don’t even realize how their actions are a death sentence for our oceans. Our oceans’ health is everyone’s responsibility – leaders, communities, youth, everyone – we all must work together in the fight to save our oceans by reducing single use plastic and fighting ocean plastic pollution.


What does this year’s World Oceans Day theme, “Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean” mean to you?

For me, reflecting on our sailing on the vakas, the innovation is drawing from the richness of our traditional ways of sailing together with selected modern technology, in order to come up with a sustainable hybrid transportation system that is a fossil-fuel free transport of people, food, medicine, and supplies. 

The vakas are essentially a fusion of the old and the new; from the use of traditional navigation methods and natural resources or materials to build the canoes themselves, to using solar panels and, most recently, coconut oil-fueled engines for less pollution to allow for ‘greener sailing.’  The vakas’ design also allows us much greater accessibility to otherwise extremely remote and inaccessible islands and communities as these canoes are able to dock directly onto beaches; especially–critical for assisting with transportation of urgently needed disaster relief supplies where it is needed most and also for ecotourism. 

The revival of this type of traditional sailing helps us to also create awareness about our oceans, as well as protecting our Pacific heritage, in making sure we don’t lose those skills of canoe carving, celestial navigation, cultural protocols and so much more that enables us to connect or reconnect with our history, culture and traditions on a much deeper level.


If you had a magic wand and could change or fix one issue/challenge facing our oceans, what would it be?

Getting rid of all plastics – everywhere, all the time – all plastic: gone!  If only plastic manufacturers all over the world could be stopped from producing single use plastic especially, then we could stop it from the source. 


What message would you like everyone to hear on World Oceans Day 2020?

I hope to see more female innovators and leaders in the fight against ocean pollution. We all need to reduce the use of single use plastic. Recycle. Support sustainable ecotourism so we can have less problems in the future. We are running out of time – the time to act is now. Together we can save our oceans. It’s that simple.

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**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.