Nearly 40 years ago crews guided the Hokule‘a — Hawaii’s “Star of Gladness” — into the waters off Kualoa to rediscover their ancestors and help reclaim a culture on the verge of extinction.
When the voyaging canoe’s crews leave Hilo this month, they’ll embark on an odyssey those ancestors never could have imagined. They’ll face global challenges those ancestors never dreamed possible.
Nainoa Thompson, who famously helped navigate Hokule‘a across nearly four decades and 150,000 miles of Pacific Ocean, is now father to 5-year-old twins. For him the upcoming worldwide journey, dubbed “Malama Honua” (Care for Our Earth), is no longer a choice — it’s a mandatory mission.
“This voyage, on the personal side, is not an option anymore because I have a responsibility to take care of these two children,” the Polynesian Voyaging Society president said in a recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser interview. “But at the same time there are many, many, many parents … that I would hope would be impacted by a voyage that would help them protect their children, too.”
FOLLOW THE SKIES
Traditional Polynesian navigators use the position of more than 200 stars to navigate through the ocean. Hokule‘a and Hikianalia are Hawaiian star names for Arcturus and Spica, which break the horizon together in Hawaii skies. Birds that fly away from the coast to feed on fish are a sign that navigators use to help direct them toward land. The white tern (manu-o-ku) can travel as far as 120 miles from shore.
With the Hokule‘a and its new escort canoe, the Hikianalia, several hundred dedicated volunteer crew members hope to accomplish various goals over the next 36 months. They’ll conduct science experiments on board, groom new navigators and share details about the sail with thousands of students using an unprecedented technological setup.
Furthermore, as Thompson’s fellow pwo (master) navigator, Kalepa Baybayan recently said, Malama Honua represents the logical next step for the pioneers who once brought wayfinding navigation back from the brink.
But at its heart, Hokule‘a’s latest and riskiest voyage yet aims to rally people across “island Earth” around the 21st-century problems of vanishing natural resources, rising seas and changing climates. And when the two wa‘a (canoes) return in 2017, crew members hope the voyage will inspire Hawaiians to use the islands to pursue solutions.
“If you want to look at the issue of the importance of sustainability, Hawaii can and should be that place,” said Thompson, 61. “All we need to do is to work toward Hawaii becoming the laboratory and the school, those two pieces, to figure out the solutions about living well on these islands and teaching children.”
None of this will be easy.
PVS officials have spent the past six years painstakingly planning and addressing a host of risks. Hokule‘a spent 18 months in dry dock, starting in fall 2010, essentially being rebuilt to handle the mission ahead.
The journey will lead it and Hikianalia for the first time out of the familiar waters of the Pacific and into the volatile Indian Ocean, where the small canoes could face natural and man-made dangers. The crews will try to avoid that ocean’s two hurricane seasons and five monsoon seasons, as well as threats of piracy.
Volunteers, looking to eventually serve as crew members on the safer voyage legs, have been training, too. In addition to their swim and strength trials, they’ve carefully studied how the canoes operate. They’ve learned to tie bowline knots in an instant, hoist sails, steer the wa‘a and other essential tasks. For many, joining a leg of the voyage will come at great cost — leaving families at home and putting jobs and duties on hold.
They’ve also learned the principles of wayfinding: How to use stars, currents, seabirds and other natural cues in the way early Hawaiians and the voyaging society’s late mentor, Pius “Mau” Piailug, once did to guide the wa‘a across the ocean without a compass or other modern instruments. Hokule‘a’s navigators aim to use those techniques as much as possible, even with the canoe sailing across new frontiers.
Meanwhile, PVS officials have been raising funds for the expensive undertaking. Clyde Namu‘o, the group’s executive director, estimated the total cost for the 36 months at $30 million — but that includes about $17 million of sweat and sail time provided for free by PVS volunteers.
The group has so far raised about $8 million of the $13 million remainder, Namu‘o said, mostly from philanthropists such as the Campbell and the Atherton Family foundations and companies such as Hawaiian Airlines. PVS will continue to raise funds during the voyage, he added.
In many ways, this latest voyage began more than two decades ago nearly 200 miles above the Pacific aboard another voyager: the Space Shuttle Columbia.
As the orbiter circled Earth during a 1992 mission, astronaut and Punahou School graduate Charles Lacy Veach was roused by fellow mission specialist Bill Shepherd so Veach could catch his home state in the dawn light. As Thompson recalled, Shepherd knew the move broke shuttle protocol, but he did it anyway, scraping Veach off the shuttle’s velcro wall where he slept and floating him in zero gravity to a nearby window.
What Veach saw took his breath away: the Hawaiian Islands surrounded by vast ocean, and a blue planet surrounded by the endless black of space. It was a powerful image of how special Earth is, and the unique role that Hawaii could play in protecting the planet’s resources.
“‘You’ve got to take Hokule‘a around the world,’” Veach would tell his close friend Thompson and his father, community leader Myron “Pinky” Thompson weeks after Columbia landed, when Veach was back on Oahu.
“‘You know, the canoe needs to meet the Earth, and the Earth needs to meet Hokule‘a,’” Veach told them.
Pinky Thompson agreed. But he needed to know for sure that “the Hawaiian culture (was) strong enough to be able to, with the values of aloha and caring, to embrace the world’s cultures,” Nainoa Thompson recalled. “The question is, ‘was the Hawaii community strong enough to take a message around the world?’”
For PVS an answer would come in 2007 as Hokule‘a sailed around Japan.
“Every place we went, there were literally thousands of people lining up for hours to actually get on board the canoe and do a tour,” Baybayan remembered. “It was overwhelming in all aspects, not just in the droves of people, but in the hospitality.”
The next year, PVS started planning the voyage inspired by Veach, who died in 1995, and Pinky Thompson, who died in 2001 — both men claimed by cancer.
Thompson will captain Hokule‘a on its first leg to Tahiti, and in balancing the voyage with the demands of fatherhood, he figures he’ll sail on 20 percent of the legs.
Veach, an engineer and Air Force pilot, “clearly knew that everything you do bad to the Earth, you’re going to pay for it later. And so we’re stealing the inheritance of our children,” Thompson said. He “was one of the first voices … to tell us things are going bad, we’re on the wrong sail plan. Pay attention, be informed and act.”