Text by Sonny Ganaden | Images by John Hook
The sun is setting and the atmosphere is lively at the Sand Island dock in the heart of Honolulu’s industrial harbor, where the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a and her accompanying vessel Hikianalia are leaving their homeport for a four-year journey around the world. Several hundred people, most of whom have volunteered, crewed, or been inspired by the story of the revival of Polynesian voyaging, stand mesmerized by the scene. Fresh lei and saltwater fill the air; a state senator emcees with platitudes of teamwork and pride as the crowd cheers and waves; a haka (traditional Polynesian dance) is performed by students from across O‘ahu; dozens of paddling canoes crowd the channel leading out to sea; the crew members are seen at their posts as the canoes disappear with the fading light. After being in the planning stage for years, the Malama Honua (“Care For Our Earth”) Worldwide Voyage is taking the Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia across more than 46,000 nautical miles to 26 countries, 85 ports, and 12 UNESCO Marine World Heritage sites.
Founded in the mid-1970s, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was created, in part, to test the theories of transoceanic voyages made by Polynesians prior to Western contact, the wonders of which were observed in the 1700s by Captain Cook, who saw canoes sailing against the wind and current, running circles around British ships. In the intervening centuries since Cook witnessed those vessels, many traditional forms of canoe building were lost. Whereas canoes were customarily made with wood, Hōkūle‘a, which means “the star of gladness,” steadily emerged over several years, crafted using fiberglass, wood, and resin. What remained uncertain, however, were the traditional forms of knowledge to navigate the beloved canoe.
What unfolded next was a story that has resonated with the peoples of the Pacific: Mau Piailug, a navigator from the tiny island of Satawal in Micronesia—the last man on his island to be initiated with the secrets of sailing without instruments—taught the intrepid first crews of Hōkūle‘a how to sail to Tahiti as their ancestors had; the Hawaiian Renaissance found its metaphor in the teamwork, intelligence, determination, and foresight necessary to sail; and tragedy struck off Moloka‘i in 1978, when the canoe capsized after departing during rough seas. The loss of Eddie Aikau, the famed waterman who paddled away from the overturned canoe in an attempt to find help, led to a reevaluation of techniques, safety procedures, protocol, and the mission of voyaging. The Polynesian Voyaging Society recovered, and Hōkūle‘a became an instrument of education and community for all of Hawai‘i. A plaque bearing Aikau’s name and an inscription of John 15:13 was later installed on the starboard bow: “No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Since those journeys, Hōkūle‘a has sailed with dozens of crewmen and women across the Pacific Ocean. The famous canoe has found port in Japan, the American West Coast, Alaska, and throughout Micronesia, guided by master navigator Nainoa Thompson. It has also spawned a wave of cultural seafaring pride throughout the Pacific. Wa‘a kaulua, or voyaging canoes, have been built in the last two decades in Tahiti, Micronesia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, and all major Hawaiian Islands, symbolizing the stories of Pacific communal ideology and ecological connection.
Now, Hōkūle‘a has set off on the next journey of this wave, with the intention to unite and inspire the world. Though it is a larger-than-life mission, the canoe, measuring 62 feet by 10 feet, carries only a small, highly trained crew of 13. Her sister vessel, Hikianalia, sails with 16. Most crewmembers are part Native Hawaiian. Crewmember ages range from 20 to 72. Both vessels are equipped with solar panels for lighting, communication, and cooking.
In addition to motors, Hikianalia has the latest technology available so that, although the journey is guided by the stars, viewers can follow it by satellite. The crew will engage with young students, educators, and indigenous communities to discuss environmental sustainability, and of course, adventure. “The world needs to hear this story,” said Thompson at the O‘ahu departure ceremony. He may be right; the peoples of the Pacific are already being devastated by climate change. Recent reports indicate that waters may rise as high as 10 feet in the next century, leaving nothing but a requiem of Satawal, which lies only 8 feet above the high-tide mark.
After stops in Lahaina on Maui and Radio Bay in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island, the first port of call for the worldwide voyage is Papeete in Tahiti. (When the first crew docked at Papeete’s Taunoa Channel in 1976, they were met by more than half the population of the island; the Tahitian government declared the day a national holiday.) After Tahiti, the Hōkūle‘a’s journey will continue through Polynesia and Micronesia, then the rest of the world. Crewmembers will rotate out, not manning the journey for longer than 30 days at a time. Neither vessel will return to Hawai‘i for at least three years.
Since the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s early years, safety procedures have been greatly modified. At 26, Austin Kino is the safety officer for Hōkūle‘a. “There’s a lot of ways you can get banged up out there,” he says between fixing lashings at Radio Bay. “There are protocols we practice often with man-overboard drills. Rule one: Stay on the wa‘a. Rule two: Bring the canoe upwind. Rule three: Have it done in two to three minutes. We can even use Hikianalia’s boom to stabilize someone in the water before bringing them onboard.” Kino has worked extensively with previous crewmembers and Maui-based waterman and business owner Archie Kalepa to develop safety techniques, and he has developed protocol with Dr. Ira Zunin, who will care for the crews. “I’m as worried about dehydration as I am if someone bangs their head or gets incapacitated,” Kino says. “But we’re as prepared as we can be.”
Noelani Kamalu, a Hawaiian language and mathematics educator at the Hawaiian immersion school Hālau Kū Māna, will be teaching lessons from aboard Hikianalia. She has scheduled Google hangouts and lesson plans for the journey to Tahiti. “The canoe is perfect for project-based learning,” she says. “For example, vectors. There’s so many forces acting on the canoe, there are so many things to teach. We can estimate our distance by dropping orange peels off the bow and counting the time it takes to reach the stern. I have the kids do the distance rate multiplied by time in their heads too.”
Docked at Radio Bay, the canoes wait nearly two weeks for the right winds prior to departure. Finally, on May 30, 2014, hundreds gather in the rain to sing and see them off as they did on O‘ahu, the supreme drama of a scene that will be repeated dozens of times in the next several years, in populated cities and isolated communities across the vast Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. The crew from Hawai‘i waves to the crowd while readying their stations, and the canoe becomes a speck on the horizon. The sun sets, the crowd dissipates, and Hōkūle‘a unfurls her famous sails as the day’s brightness descends to stars.
To keep up with Hōkūle‘a’s worldwide voyage, visit hokulea.com.