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Telling Tales: En route to Tokelau

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The “banana club.”

TRAVELING ON HOKULE’A >> The sun is setting off our port beam as we push northeast at about five knots toward the far-flung atoll islands of Tokelau.

The crew has just eaten a filling Chinese chicken salad-like concoction cobbled together by canoe chef Eric Co, who found out the day before that he would be serving as chef. He embraces the role.

We’re a somewhat lean crew of 11 and we’re enjoying a brief respite before the 6 p.m-to-midnight watch. Using clove hitches, Tim Gilliom and Sam Kapoi fixed a heavy patch of Samoan bananas to the forward shroud of our mizzensail. It’s knotted on as tightly as possible but still swings along the center of the deck with the shroud. The bananas resemble spikes and it’s already been dubbed the “banana club.”

I think it’s only a matter of time before someone gets clubbed in the face. I’m betting that person will be me.

Apprentice navigator Jenna Ishii is guiding the two canoes’ course using the traditional star compass developed by her mentor, Nainoa Thompson.

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Lehua Kamalu learns from Nainoa Thompson.

Her task, one she’ll rotate with Lehua Kamalu, is deceptively difficult for what’s a relatively short sail of several days. The two apprentices have a narrow cone of error — basically the margin of error that spread across the sea for the canoes to hit the islands. It’s the first time on this voyage that only one apprentice is guiding Hokule’a at one time.

Thompson watches the sea from the bow. He feels the urge to talk course heading with Ishii but refrains — these early legs in Pacific waters are critical chances for them to learn a craft that was once on the verge of extinction.

Three islands comprise Tokelau and they’re spaced across about 90 miles of ocean. So we want to make sure we don’t sail past them. Ishii eventually uses the top of my head as a mark aligned with the moon above to keep our course, so if we later drift past the atoll I’m at least partly to blame. The winds from the east are warm.

Hikianalia is about two miles off our starboard stern. It radioes over so that the handful of apprentices aboard there can consult with Thompson on their own calculations. As the escort canoe, Hikianalia is beholden to follow Hokule’a’s course — but it still offers several crew members studying navigation to hone their craft. They tell Thompson where they think they’re heading and he tells them they’re doing a good job.

Ishii briefly sings “I Never Will Forget You” — it’s a tune floating in her head from a powerful farewell ceremony earlier in the day in Apia. His Highness, the Head of State Tui Atua, came down to the harbor to say goodbye. He spoke of the significance that he feels Hokule’a has for all Polynesian peoples. He noted that Polynesians had already populated the Pacific by the time European sailors found the Canary Islands.

But now, he said, Polynesians and Samoans in particular “speak their culture in a whisper.” They’ll need to reclaim the values of the ancients, he said, if we’re to tackle the overwhelming environmental problems facing the present.

A church group from Australia serenaded us with acoustic hymns before we left. Hokule’a crew said emotional goodbyes to the Samoan Voyaging Society members who’ve hosted us. It’s too early to say where this will all lead, but it feels like a strong connection has been built this week between the Hawaiian navigators of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the descendants of those who helped discover the Hawaiian islands.

This past week there was a teen from Apia helping us out, spending his hours ferrying Hokule’a and Hikianalia crews from the canoes, anchored just offshore, to the harbor’s black sand.

Vito wasn’t affiliated with any group. No one asked him — he just saw a need and stepped in. The canoes, you could tell, gave him a chance to belong to something, and to feel like he was playing an important role in something significant because he was. As we were preparing to leave, I was struck by how hard the moment was for him. These are essentially just double-hulled catamarans, but there’s a lot of significance tied to them.

As we pushed off — amid the haste of pulling up anchor and turning the canoes north — I noticed several of our Samoan Voyaging Society hosts encircling Vito.

Our Samoan crew member, Junior “Rex” Lokeni, tells me they’ve asked him to join their group.

I hope it works out.

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