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Telling Tales: Trial by water

  • Nainoa Thompson watched as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon signed the "Promise to Ka Pae'aina" aboard Hokule'a in Apia on Monday.
Nainoa Thompson watched as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon signed the "Promise to Ka Pae'aina" aboard Hokule'a in Apia on Monday.
Nainoa Thompson watched as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon signed the “Promise to Ka Pae’aina” aboard Hokule’a in Apia on Monday. (Marcel Honoré / Star-Advertiser)

Let’s just say I don’t have tons of sailing experience — but I’m learning tons by watching and working alongside some remarkable crew members.

There’s Tim Gilliom of Maui — Gilliom is a man of few words, but when he does talk it’s equal parts hilarious and profound. There’s Kawai Warren, of Kauai — like Gilliom he’s a tall drink of water, at 6 feet, and he’s as kind as he is physically strong. Both of those guys are built for the water, whether that be sailing or swimming. There’s Kalepa Baybayan — the expert sailor and pwo navigator — and his student, Celeste Ha’o.

Oh yeah, and there’s our captain, Nainoa Thompson — the first Hawaiian in centuries to successfully navigate to Tahiti using traditional way-finding. Watching the other night while sailing … I hope it doesn’t sound cliche but it’s as if Thompson, the canoe, the sea and the stars all blend into one entity. He’s totally in the zone. It’s something I’ve never seen before.

All of these folks and others have taught me a lot about the art of sailing in a very short stretch — not to mention the physical and mental discipline and preparation it requires. And look: that’s just sailing from Pago Pago to Apia. We’ve got a lot of nautical miles ahead of us. There’s so much more to learn.

All that said, the journey to clear Pago Pago Harbor was pretty eventful. We got a tow out into these large, rolling 12-foot swells and then Thompson immediately hops up on the rail and starts calculating our ability to clear Tutuila using his outstretched palm to measure directions along the horizon. To him, it became clear we could sail.

My approach so far is to chip in where I can, how I can — an extra pair of hands that’s still learning all the lines and sheets and shrouds and stays and knots and cleats, and learning how this complex canoe machine called Hokule’a works.

But man, those first several hours clearing Tutuila were a ride.

As we were towing out, the only instruction Thompson gave me directly was “don’t get sick.” I told him “OK” and crossed my fingers. About an hour in, I started feeling it — a mix of nerves queasiness in the pit of my stomach as we rolled up against the swells. Nothing too alarming, but still there.

Oiwi TV specialist and crew member Sam Kapoi, built like a guy who probably missed his first calling as a quarterback, busted out some tasty pa’i’ai he’d prepared with his Samoan family members the night before. I ate a few mouthfuls. Delicious.

But my stomach then informed me it was temporarily closed for business and I should find another place to put the food. Quickly. No, as in right now. I jumped down to the port hull at Hokule’a’s stern, below the navigator’s chair, and calmly delivered my taro offering into the rolling Pacific blue swells. I felt like a hundred bucks. Then a (figurative) wave of tired hit me. And then, my body seemed to catch on.

The canoes headed an average of 6 knots toward Apia — we sailed a lot of the way north (heading Na Lani and Na Leo Ho’olua in the star compass).

Thompson runs a tight ship and we stayed busy on the (approximately) 6 p.m. to 12 p.m. watch. With the winds toward our backs and the sea churning, it was a challenge at times manning the sweep — keeping a steady course using the moon and whatever stars we could find as marks against the canoe. But Gilliom and Eric Co were beasts on the hoe (sweep) — applying their concentration and force for hours. I think I mostly held my own, but for those following along on the Google Maps-generated map at home, if there are any zig zags between Pago Pago and Apia that might’ve been me!

Anyway, we made it to Apia in good time — and just in time to meet United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and get his signature in the “Promise to the Pae’aina” document. All for a purpose.

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