David Henry Lewis

David Henry Lewis
Born 1917
Died 23 October 2002
Tin Can Bay, Queensland, Australia
Occupation Sailor, Author, Doctor

David Henry Lewis, DCNZM (1917 - 23 October 2002) was a sailor, adventurer, doctor, and Polynesian scholar. He is best known for his studies on the traditional systems of navigation used by the Pacific Islanders. His studies, published in the book We, The Navigators, made these navigational methods known to a wide audience and helped to inspire a revival of traditional voyaging methods in the South Pacific.


Early life

David was born in Plymouth, England and raised in New Zealand and Rarotonga. He was sent to the Polynesian school in Rarotonga, where he apparently developed his appreciation for Polynesian identity and culture. He remained a New Zealander throughout his life, though he eventually retired to Queensland.

After an adventurous childhood and teenage years including mountaineering and skiing in New Zealand, and a multi-hundred mile kayak journey, he traveled to England in 1938 for medical training at the University of Leeds, and served in the British army as a medical officer. After the war, he worked as a doctor in London, and was involved in setting up the National Health Service.


With the announcement in 1960 of the first single-handed trans-Atlantic yacht race (from Plymouth, UK to the US East Coast), Lewis decided to enter in a small 25-foot boat. Following a series of accidents, including a dismasting shortly after leaving, he finished third (Francis Chichester came first), as described in his book The Ship Would Not Travel Due West.

He later decided to sail around the world with his second wife and two small daughters, and built the ocean cruising catamaran Rehu Moana, for this purpose. After an initial voyage towards Greenland, he entered the 1964 single-handed trans-Atlantic race and picked up his family in the United States. They circumnavigated by way of the Strait of Magellan, the South Pacific and the Cape of Good Hope. (See his book Daughters of the Wind.) This was the world’s first circumnavigation by multihull.[1]

Following his longstanding interest in old navigational methods used to explore and populate the Pacific, he employed similar techniques for the Tahiti-New Zealand leg of the Rehu Moana voyage without using a compass, sextant or marine chronometer.

Study and literary career

In 1967, Lewis acquired another boat, Isbjorn, to embark on further field studies of traditional Polynesian navigation. With a research grant from the Australian National University and with his second wife, two daughters and 19-year-old son, he set out for the Pacific again to study traditional navigation techniques. While there, he was welcomed into the cultures of various Pacific Islanders, who taught him their navigational lore, heretofore largely unrecognized by those outside Polynesia. Lewis chronicled this voyage and research in various articles and in his books We, the Navigators and The Voyaging Stars. Lewis’ voyages and resulting books gave inspiration to the revival in traditional Polynesian canoe building and voyaging, which was essentially extinct in many parts of the Pacific.

In 1976, Lewis joined Polynesian Voyaging Society's first experimental voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti on Hokule'a. But this voyage was marred by a clash of egos between David and the Hawaiian navigators. Nevertheless, the team successfully navigated using traditional methods to Tahiti. Lewis departed from Hokule'a in Tahiti and went on to work in his own research.

Along with Dr. Marianne (Mimi) George, he proposed that original Polynesian navigation is still alive in the Polynesian outlier Taumako.

Lewis’ next adventure in 1972 was an attempt at circumnavigating Antarctica single-handed. For this he acquired a small steel yacht, named Ice Bird. Facing treacherous conditions in the Southern Ocean after departing, Lewis was not heard from for 13 weeks but –incredibly—frostbitten and exhausted, sailed Ice Bird to the Antarctic Peninsula under a jury rig after dismasting. He repaired the vessel in Antarctica and left again to complete the voyage, but was capsized again and eventually brought the boat to Cape Town, South Africa. This is described in his bestseller book, Ice Bird. His son, Barry, sailed the yacht back to Sydney from South Africa where it underwent extensive work to prevent further corrosion. In 1982, Dr. Lewis donated "Ice Bird" to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia.[2]

After the Ice Bird voyage, Lewis was involved in setting up the Oceanic Research Foundation with the aim of sending private expeditions to the Antarctic. In a 17.4 metre (57 ft) Alan Payne designed steel yacht named "Solo" with seven other crew, Lewis made a summer expedition to Antarctica and wintered over there, 1977-78.[3] Lewis spent some of his later years conducting research into traditional navigation techniques of the Inuit on the Bering Strait region. One obituary said of Lewis that he “always brought his crews home intact. He was a typical Polynesian sailor, getting into trouble through haste and neglect, then, with near superhuman courage and seamanship, fighting his way out of it.”

Following this, he retired to New Zealand to write his autobiography, Shapes on the Wind; one of 12 books he wrote. In recognition of his various academic, adventure, sailing and anthropological endeavours, he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He finally retired to Australia, and died at Gympie, Queensland.[4]


  1. "The Sailor Who Set Out To See It All" (Obituary of David Lewis)
  2. Shapes on the Wind, by David H. Lewis
  3. Icebound In Antarctica, by David H. Lewis with Mimi George
  4. Ice Bird, by David H. Lewis
  5. We, The Navigators, by David H. Lewis
  6. The Voyaging Stars, by David H. Lewis
  7. Children Of Three Oceans, by David H. Lewis
  8. Daughters of the Wind, by David H. Lewis
  9. Dreamers of the Day, by David H. Lewis
  10. The Ship Would Not Travel Due West, by David H. Lewis
  11. Voyage To The Ice. The Antarctic Expedition of Solo, by David H. Lewis
  1. ^ David Lewis Obituary http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/11/15/1037080913844.html
  2. ^ David Lewis Yacht "Ice Bird" http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=212223
  3. ^ ~~~~
  4. ^ Obituary in Dominion Post of 31 October 2002 page B5

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