Many of the original Polynesian Voyaging Society crew members who sailed to Tahiti aboard the Hokule‘a 37 years ago credit luck for bringing them together, but hard work and dedication has kept them close over the years.
A small group of crew members from the maiden voyage of Hawaii’s traditional Polynesian sailing vessel gathered Saturday to serve as the grand marshals for the annual Aloha Festivals Floral Parade.
This year’s theme: "Moana Nui Akea — Celebrating Traditional Hawaiian Ocean Voyaging."
"It’s really hard to get us together, but then when we are together nobody wants to leave because it’s wonderful, you know, it’s like we were just there yesterday," Penny Rawlins said before taking her place with her Hokule‘a ohana on the Hawaiian Airlines float.
"Once you sail, it’s a lifetime voyage; the voyage is never over," she said. "I think when we got home my voyage started."
Eight original Hokule‘a crewmembers took part in the parade to recognize this year’s 40th anniversary of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
In May the society embarked on its worldwide tour aboard the vessel, which will eventually span 46,000 miles, 28 countries and 62 stops. The group plans to spend a year traveling 1,000 miles around Hawaii, educating local communities, before it heads to Tahiti in May.
Earlier this year, Hawaiian Airlines pledged to provide air transportation for crew and cargo wherever it operates during the four-year voyage.
One of the group’s goals for the tour is to train the next generation of Polynesian navigators.
Billy Richards remembered being captivated in 1976 by the star-studying skills of Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug.
"I think it’s just being out there with Mau, our original navigator, and learning from him and experiencing what I thought our ancestors went through" that was memorable, he said. "And that’s what we try to tell the younger crew members now when they come aboard, is that the idea is to try to put yourself in the footsteps or the wake of your ancestors, you know, so you can understand what they had to go through."
Richards, 65, said he grew up in Kailua reading books about migrations and dreaming of one day sailing to Tahiti.
"But I never, ever dreamed it was going to be on a canoe; I thought it was just going to be on a regular sailboat," he said. "But like I said: right place, right time. I was able to get on board, and I’ve been there ever since."
Richards said he happened to be visiting the Big Island when the vessel was touring the state to recruit crew members in 1975, and he took a short trip in it along the coast. The adventure unfolded from there.
Rawlins, 61, was one of only two females who were part of the original crew, which was made up of 17 members (including scientists and journalists) who navigated to Tahiti, and 13 members who brought the canoe home. The other woman, Keani Reiner, died 19 years ago. About 15 crew members remain.
"They didn’t treat us like women," Rawlins said. "They treated us like crew. You know, we were their sisters, and we were crew."
Dr. Ben Young, 75, who served as a physician on Rawlins’ leg of the journey, said the men didn’t dare do otherwise.
"She would have beaten us up, man," he said.
Young recalled that the group nearly sailed right into Tropical Storm Diana.
"Suddenly (it) decompressed, so we missed it," he said.
"That was a big one," Rawlins agreed. "That was scary."
She added, "They thought it (the storm) would put us at risk and so the escort boat came up and said, ‘You know what? Oahu has contacted us. You guys may be in danger. You need to get ready for this storm.’ And so that was the first and only contact out at sea."
Rawlins, a Molokai native who can trace her family’s ties to the island back more than 10 generations, said the two crews are often thought of separately, but she sees them as one. She said people have sometimes asked her if she wished she had been part of the voyage to Tahiti, but she’s content with her place in history.
"That is the leg that the women would have come on anyway," she said. "They came to Hawaii; they didn’t return. The men did, but not the women. So, you know, I think that was an appropriate leg for the women to be on — and it was fun coming home."
Like Richards, Rawlins said she never expected to be part of the Hokule‘a crew.
"In 1975 there’s a canoe sailing into my harbor … and I was still in the mindset that they weren’t going to take women," she recalled. "The very last day they were there I went out and asked if I could go on board and just touch the canoe. So I did, and I asked a million questions, and then later on I had a phone call inviting me to come and try out.
"Luckiest day of my life."