WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Centuries before the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and Britain’s Captain James Cook arrived in what became New Zealand, there was Kupe, a 10th-century navigator from Tahiti.
The first Polynesian to reach the then-uninhabited island, Kupe and his wife, Kuramarotini, are said by Maori to have given New Zealand its Maori moniker, Aotearoa, or “land of the long white cloud.”
A long time later — in February of this year — a group of sailors recreated Kupe’s journey, steering the double-hulled canoes known as waka hourua in New Zealand’s indigenous Maori language. The waka, whose crews included a group of teenagers from Maori language schools, were billed as the main attraction in the opening night of the New Zealand Festival, a three-week arts and culture event that began last month and runs through March 18.
It was the biggest fleet of waka to arrive in Wellington since the landing of Kupe, whose story was told in the opening-night spectacle.
The crews had set sail from New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, when they hit squalls and bad weather on their four-week voyage to Wellington.
Te Rina Wineera, 17, who had recently started learning celestial navigation and was on her first major voyage aboard the waka Hinemoana, said she newly appreciated what her forebears had survived on their journey to New Zealand.
“They were a lot harder than I thought they were,” she said of the sailing duties, which included navigating with both traditional and digital instruments.
Ms. Wineera said she had fallen in love with sailing and now planned to pursue a career involving waka hourua or, failing that, the navy.
The food on the voyage was a high point, she said, although their “feasts” of nachos were far from traditional. So was the five-hour car ride to Wellington after Cyclone Gita forced the younger sailors to disembark from the waka in Napier and board it again in Wellington.
The storm had drifted away by the time of the festival opening, though strong winds forced the vessels, which resemble the voyaging canoes in the Disney film “Moana,” — to lower their sails and enter the harbor powered by motors.
Around 20,000 people gathered on Wellington’s waterfront to see the waka hourua arrive, joined by a number of carved wooden paddling canoes, or waka taua.
Actors playing the roles of Kupe and Kuramarotini sang and called to each other from stages at either end of the harbor, and a 300-strong Samoan choir performed traditional songs of welcome.
As the last of the waka sailed into the harbor and darkness fell, a thousand people launched into an energetic haka powhiri, a chant and dance of welcome. They were mostly students in their school uniforms, joined by 100 government workers who had practiced one lunchtime a week for months.
Leading a group in the Maori cries and movements was Kura Moeahu, who wrote the haka, Wellington’s first. Different regions of New Zealand have their own haka — one is famously performed by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team — but the capital city had been without one.
Mr. Moeahu, who grew up not speaking Maori or participating in Maori-language performing arts, was emotional at such a public platform for his culture, as well as his own part in the performance.
“At first I felt really calm,” he said. “But the moment I looked at the young kids and said, ‘It’s time,’ and they said, ‘Really?’ something changed.”
In previous generations, Maori were discouraged from speaking their indigenous tongue at school, and efforts to revive it in the past few decades have sprung up out of fears that the language would die out.
The significance of the mass haka was not lost on some of the teenagers performing it, who said they keenly followed public debates over whether Maori, an official language of New Zealand, was worth preserving.
The day after Kupe’s story took over the Wellington harbor, the waka sailed up the coast to Petone Beach, where the navigator landed on his first voyage to New Zealand.
Offered the chance to board the vessels, hundreds of locals waded into the water to get a closer look.
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.”