UNDER the gaze and heat of the sun in Lautoka, the Uto Ni Yalo finally ended her voyage of five years and embarked on a new one yesterday.
The vaka moana, which had sat weathering away in the secluded corner of Lautoka Wharf for the past five months at the end of the Te Mana O Te Moana, came alive in a traditional ceremony where she was given as a gift to the people of Fiji by German philanthropist Dieter Paulmann.
Like she did wherever she sailed in the past five years, the Uto Ni Yalo broke the barriers of differences, race, gender and age in the overwhelming love for our ocean and the environment.
Swedish seaman Captain Magnus Danbolt, the fleet admiral of the Pacific Voyagers of which the Uto Ni Yalo was part of in the voyages across the Pacific and to the Americas since 2010, said it was a proud moment for him to be in Fiji.
"This is the best visit here to be able to gift the vaka to the people of Fiji," he said.
"The Uto Ni Yalo is now at home where she belongs."
Uto Ni Yalo Trust president Manoa Rasigatale, who was part of the first voyage in 2010, thanked Captain Danbolt for his efforts to have the canoe transferred to Fiji.
The iconic 14-tonne vessel, built according to a Polynesian design, was extensively used with communities in Fiji and through the Pacific region to highlight the importance of culture and sustainable conservation.
Travelling with six other vaka along ancient migratory routes, connecting the Pacific islands by canoe as our ancestors did thousands of years ago, the Uto Ni Yalo played a lead role in the voyage.
Where there were political and other differences, the Uto Ni Yalo brought people together to celebrate the wonders of the ocean and raise awareness on the need to protect cultures and traditional methods of conservation for our future generations.
Captain Johnathan Smith, who quit his job on a superyacht in Oman to lead the Uto Ni Yalo on her historic voyages, said the handover of the vessel by was a momentous occasion for the country.
"The Uto will continue the voyage at home and help revive ancient cultural skills of navigation and canoeing. Our children will learn more from her on sustainable sea transportation and ocean conservation.
Mr Rasigatale thanked Mr Paulmann for the gift of the vessel, built in New Zealand at a cost of $1million, saying it would make a difference in the lives of Fiji's citizens.
"We have peacefully and positively advocated for a healthy ocean and for the livelihoods of Pacific communities to national, regional and international governments, organisations and communities," he said.
"Fiji has benefitted directly from the work of the Uto Ni Yalo over the past five years as one of the lead canoes of the voyages that we have undertaken.
"Its impact on communities throughout Fiji and the world has seen the Uto Ni Yalo contribute to Fiji's cultural and environmental tourism campaigns.
"The importation into Fiji of this vessel will further promote the interests of Fiji in tourism and also in Fiji's foreign policy on the protection of the environment and mitigation on the rising sea levels, and its stand on pollution and global warming.
"Today (yesterday) as we receive the official deed of gifting and the vessel's registration certificate, we look forward to continuing to celebrate this unique Fijian spirit in reverence and preservation of our cultural and natural heritage."
Mr Rasigatale said UNYT would revive and sustain traditional Fijian canoe building, sailing and navigational knowledge, skills and customs.
"It also aims to undertake research into all aspects of Fijian and Rotuman seafaring culture, including the sustainable use of sailing for future seas transport for the benefit of current and future generations, both locally and internationally."
UNYT will work with the government and other public and private organisations with similar aims and objectives.
Mr Rasigatale thanked the Prime Minister's Office for helping facilitate the transfer of the vessel into Fijian ownership.
The Uto Ni Yalo's voyages will hit the big screen later this year in the documentary film, Our Blue Canoe.
When the sun set over the waters off Lautoka yesterday, the Fiji flag flew with pride on the Uto.
Crew members, families, friends and lovers of the ocean made the most noise in the main port of call in the West.
And it was justified.
The Uto Ni Yalo was about to embark on a new journey.