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Deadline nears for Hokule'a to reach UN delegates

By Marcel Honoré

LAST UPDATED: 7:17 a.m. HST, Aug 30, 2014

PAGO PAGO >> Strong, relentless winds have Hokule'a and Hikianalia crews in a race against time to meet the head of the United Nations on a nearby island, in Samoa, to receive from him a commitment toward protecting more ocean area.

Winds around 25 miles an hour have pounded Pago Pago Harbor from the east since as early as Monday night. For the last several days the gusts -- along with swells forecast to climb as high as 18 feet -- have prevented the two canoes from safely departing for the UN's Small Island Developing States conference in Apia, nearly 80 miles away.

Saturday marks the last chance Hokule'a and Hikianalia will have to leave if they're to arrive in time to bring UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and various heads of state aboard Hokule'a for a special sail around the harbor there. The sail is scheduled for Monday, but the two canoes will lose a day crossing the international date line.

The meeting with Moon is considered a vital part of the Malama Honua ("Care for the Earth") worldwide voyage -- he's expected to give crew leaders a document in a bottle that pledges commitment by the UN member states to work over the next two years toward a declaration to create more sanctuary areas for the world's ocean resources.

Hokule'a crews will then check in on that commitment with Moon when they arrive in New York in 2016

On Friday, after the winds only got worse, Wally Thompson, Pago Pago's harbor master, drove down to the canoes to warn crews not to leave as planned. Hokule'a captain Nainoa Thompson has been relying on Wally Thompson's knowledge of the local waters, along with National Weather Service briefings out of Honolulu and other sources.

The winds are forecast to weaken somewhat Saturday. "It's probably going to happen," Nainoa Thompson said Friday of the departure, but he's looking for a signal that the weather will cooperate.

The pressure to get to the conference has been immense. "They've been working really hard," Thompson said while briefing the crews aboard Hikianalia -- tapping the deck with his hand for emphasis. "I wish I could be there for them. (But) It's the right call" to stay in Pago Pago so far.

Delayed departures in order to wait for the right weather have been more the rule than the exception in the Polynesian Voyaging Society's history, Hokule'a first mate Kalepa Baybayan's said. In late May, for instance, crews had to wait several days until the winds were right to leave Hilo Bay and launch the first international leg of Malama Honua.

If the the canoes do leave Saturday, the crews will kick off their Samoa leg in rough seas. They've spent the past several days keeping the canoes prepared -- loading food and supplies, testing equipment, running safety drills and securing the sails, masts and spars.

The canoes are slated to be guided through cloudy skies and unfamiliar seas by apprentice navigators, including Celeste Ha'o, a Hilo native whose family hails from a village near Apia.

"I'm really excited," Ha'o said Friday. "It's the highest of honors to do what my ancestors did -- to come back home in a way my kupuna did so many years ago."

Hokule'a crew member Junior "Rex" Lokeni said he supports whatever's best for the crew's well-being.

"The thing I learned from the last leg I was supposed to be on is patience," said Lokeni, a native of Upolu, the island where Apia is located. "What's best for the crew, I will definitely be a part of it," while securing gear on deck, fighting against the gusts.

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