When you’re sailing into ocean wilderness, there’s always risk. Things don’t always go to plan. Crews must respond, and these moments reveal their true mettle.
For the Samoa leg, that happened two weeks ago during a memorable, tense and tricky 24 hours off of Swains Island before the full crew landed on the tiny atoll.
I say “full” crew because three Hokule’a crew members inadvertently landed ashore a bit prematurely.
I’m only getting to this now because a.) when it happened I was super busy with crew duties and b.) after fast-moving situations like these, you want to talk to everyone involved and get the details right.
First off, know that everyone’s OK and that Hokule’a and Hikianalia crews performed selflessly and admirably. I’m not just saying that. They really did.
OK, here’s what happened:
When the winds wouldn’t allow us to venture to Tokelau or the Phoenix Islands, the visit to Swains became more significant.
The Samoa leg had aimed to raise awareness about protecting the world’s oceans. “Going to Swains was a chance to take the voyage underwater,” Hokule’a Captain Nainoa Thompson said.
After two days sailing around Swains (see the Hokulea.com tracking map), he opted to allow leg specialist and Blue Planet Foundation Chair Henk Rogers to briefly explore the waters just outside the reef and record the environment below — but only as long as waterman Tim Gilliom, Hokule’a’s designated safety swimmer, went too. Thompson knew Gilliom’s ability firsthand, so he felt it was the right call.
Rogers was eager to check it out. “I was dying to go,” he said later. Then, Gilliom asked Junior “Rex” Lokeni to accompany them. Lokeni, a lifeguard trainee, was torn. He wanted to stay with the canoe but also felt obligated to help in the water as the only person who had visited Swains.
“Despite the fact that I said I wasn’t going, I had to go,” Lokeni said later. Thompson recalled seeing that sentiment painted across Lokeni’s face.
“There is a constant need to balance and weigh the fulfillment of the mission against the risk,” Thompson said later. “I had full confidence that those three people in the water could take care of themselves.”
He also wanted the group to survey for any spots where the canoes might safely anchor without destroying the coral below. Hokule’a they decided, would make a pass and pick them up.
So the trio donned snorkeling gear, grabbed a GoPro camera and jumped off the starboard edge.
The coral below was incredible, but they saw no place to anchor without damaging it. Gilliom also saw that Hokule’a would take a while to return. He figured it best to wait along the island’s reef edge instead of the open water. The others agreed.
Then, the sail plan went awry.
The trio swam through a narrow channel in the reef to get inside, but the current turned out to be much stronger there. The reef also had holes which acted similarly to blowholes — sucking in sea water and spitting it out with the next wave. Still, the reef was swimmable.
But as he swam, Rogers suddenly got sucked backward.
“That was out of nowhere,” he recalled. “If you’re sucked into a hole into a coral, that is not a nice situation.” Rogers held on to rock to avoid getting pulled in. The force pulled a fin off his foot. The next wave spit him out, sliding him across reef toward the others.
Rogers was scraped up and rattled. He wanted to swim ashore, not go back. Gilliom and Lokeni thought it best — and safer — to swim back out and wait for Hokule’a. Rogers didn’t feel comfortable doing that, and Gilliom and Lokeni would not leave him. “We have to stay together,” Gilliom said, recalling the moment later.
Using palm fronds, they spelled “abort” in large letters on the beach, for the canoes to see, letting them know not to retrieve them.
Back on Hokule’a, crew members stood silent, wondering what prompted the others to go ashore and then to stay there. A lean crew of 11 people had for the moment shrunk to eight. Still, Thompson was confident the remaining crew could handle the job.
Both canoes closed sails. Hokule’a would then set sail again around 2 a.m. so it wouldn’t drift too far from Swains.
Meanwhile, try to picture it:
On Swains, the unlikely trio of Gilliom, a renowned Maui waterman and sailor, Lokeni, a rugby-built Samoan, and Rogers, a well-known Hawaii philanthropist, talking story and roasting sand crabs for dinner around a fire they had started using a flint on a knife that Lokeni’s father-in-law had gifted him for the voyage. That turned out to be a good gift. In that moment, Lokeni missed his family.
They knew that a vessel, the MV Sili, was scheduled to meet Hokule’a at Swains the next day.
Hokule’a returned the next morning and spotted the trio, who appeared OK. However, the trio thought Hokule’a was trying to retrieve them and they swam toward the canoe as it passed a couple of times. In this scramble, Rogers got scraped up more along the jagged reef.
Things got pretty tense when Hokule’a crews saw two of the trio swimming past the reef as the canoe was tacking away. It might take the canoe 20 or 30 minutes to return, so those in the water would be on their own. Meanwhile, a crew member was injured while closing the mizzensail during one of the canoe’s numerous tacks. At the time, it wasn’t clear how seriously they were hurt (they would eventually be OK) — but the crew was down to seven.
Now Thompson had two urgent matters to juggle: The trio swimming off Swains and the injured crew member on Hokule’a, resting in the hull. Later, the crew’s medical officer, Mel Chang, aided by safety swimmer Kawai Warren, paddled over to Hokule’a from Hikianalia, in a carefully executed maneuver, to examine and treat the injured crew member.
Eventually, the MV Sili arrived and swooped in — Thompson had radioed the situation. The Sili sent a motorboat to pick up Gilliom, Lokeni and Rogers. Rogers opted to stay on board the Sili and have their medical officer treat his cuts from the reef.
Gilliom and Lokeni returned to Hokule’a. Spirits were lifted to have them back safe after a day on Swains. Thompson lauded them for staying behind to help Rogers.
After hours of tension, everyone exhaled.
I share all this because a.) it’s my job to chronicle this journey and b.) it was the most eventful moment, sailing-wise, that I participated in while crewing Hokule’a. It was tense and strenuous, but I witnessed a crew that calmly and firmly rose to the challenge.
Our captain responded swiftly to each new curveball thrown at him. And I learned more about sailing that day than any other.
In voyaging, “there is always risk — but calculated risk,” Thompson would say on the matter, reflecting on it later. And on a canoe it’s no different than in a community: you take care of each other to succeed.