Since leaving Hilo in late May, crews aboard two canoes shaped with ancient wisdom have covered more than 4,000 miles of Pacific blue.
They’ve sailed through gale-force squalls, battled lengthy bouts of seasickness and illness, and shivered through punishing chilly temperatures.
They’ve also honed their skills to navigate by stars and swells, educated schoolchildren in Hawaii and abroad about ocean voyaging, and succeeded in securing pledges from local leaders to help protect local marine life.
It hasn’t always been easy. But in the first two international legs of Hokule’a and Hikianalia’s worldwide journey, these several dozen crew members have helped spread aloha throughout French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.
Later this week, the voyage’s third international leg will launch from Pago Pago in American Samoa.
Dubbed "Samoa" for short, it’s an approximately 1,800-mile leg that leaders of the Sand Island-based Polynesian Voyaging Society have flagged as an early but critical venture in their three-year global odyssey to promote environmental sustainability and cultural harmony.
Because of this leg’s importance to the group, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser will be aboard Hokule’a for the next several weeks.
During the past eight months, this reporter has trained alongside several dozen volunteers preparing to crew the canoes on future legs — individuals who’ve expressed a willingness to put their lives on hold and to leave family members and loved ones for weeks while they’re at sea.
A skilled, dedicated crew will make those same sacrifices to help further the Malama Honua ("Care for the Earth") voyage under captains Nainoa Thompson (Hokule’a) and Bob Perkins (Hikianalia).
While aboard, the Star-Advertiser will chronicle life at sea, stories in port, and new efforts to protect the oceans and the marine life they hold for the sake of future generations.
"Every island has a story, and the goal is to show that there’s a human side to climate change and there’s a human side to protecting our oceans," PVS Education Coordinator Jenna Ishii said Thursday.
Crew delegates, including Thompson, plan to meet with United Nations and local political leaders during a once-in-a-decade U.N. island conference, happening next month in Apia, Samoa.
The two canoes then plan to sail north to visit some of the most pristine — yet ecologically imperiled — island paradises in the world. They’ll also meet with activists in the struggle to conserve the ocean’s ecosystem, including renowned marine biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle.
The journey won’t be without risks. Besides the usual uncertainties of open-sea voyaging, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently put American Samoa on "watch" (the first of three levels, in which the third recommends avoiding travel) for a feverish and debilitating mosquito-borne illness called chikungunya. There’s also an uptick of dengue fever in the area, PVS doctors say, which also is transmitted by mosquitos.
The canoes’ leaders likely would have to change the leg’s sail plan if any crew member appears stricken by either disease after leaving Samoa, to ensure crew safety, PVS officials say.
For the past several weeks, the voyage’s leadership and doctors have repeatedly consulted the upcoming crew on the issue, ensuring that they’re taking all possible precautions to avoid mosquito bites while in port, mainly by wearing the proper clothes and applying effective repellant.
All potential mosquito woes aside, the leg represents a unique opportunity to explore firsthand the pressing ocean issues affecting the rest of the globe, including rising seas. Hokule’a and Hikianalia look to visit residents on the coral atolls of Tokelau, a New Zealand territory some 300 miles north of Samoa. It’s one of many low-lying islands around the world already grappling with the realities of sea rise, brought on by a warming planet and melting ice caps.
The two wa’a (canoes) then plan to push several hundred miles further north to the distant Phoenix Islands. Earlier this summer, the president of the Republic of Kiribati, Anote Tong, announced a ban on commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.
Tong has stated in media interviews that he hopes the shuttering of those 157,000 square miles to industrial fishing practices can be seen as a key early step to creating more widespread conservation zones across the Pacific — a way to help the ocean’s dwindling fishing stocks recover for sustainable, future use.
Earlier in the leg, Hokule’a crews aim to visit with Tong in Apia, Samoa, during the U.N.’s third Conference on Small Island Developing States — a meeting to highlight the issues faced by 39 member states from around the world.
This year’s conference will come weeks before U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convenes a special summit on climate change, aimed at spurring legally binding pacts next year to help tackle the problem.
In Apia, the canoe crews look to get realistic pledges toward conserving more of the world’s ocean environments from the U.N. Then, in 2016, Hokule’a and Hikianalia will check in on how those U.N. conservation goals are going when the voyage brings them to New York.
The voyage has already yielded some results for sea conservation in French Polynesia, where President Gaston Flosse in June presented Thompson a special pledge to care for the oceans. Hokule’a crews will bring this pledge with them to Apia.
"We’re taking the voyage underwater," added Ishii, who also will serve on this leg, her second, as an apprentice navigator aboard Hokule’a. "We’re really excited to start diving and start documenting what we’re seeing with climate change, but also what island communities are doing to be resilient and to adapt."