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Apprentice navigator is put to the test

EDITOR’S NOTE: Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Marcel Honoré returned to Hawaii on Sept. 26 after spending four weeks as a crew member of the voyaging canoes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia during the Samoa leg of their worldwide voyage which began in May. This story, from Sept. 9, was lost in transit during the voyage and was posted on Oct. 2.

TRAVELING ON HOKULE‘A » Sunrise hadn’t arrived yet Tuesday. Hokule‘a was adrift. Jenna Ishii was feeling lost, bewildered.

Jenna Ishii
Jenna Ishii

The 30-year-old apprentice navigator traveling aboard the voyaging canoe had accepted the challenge to find Swains Island — a speck of land no more than a mile and a half wide some 170 miles north of Apia, Samoa — using the stars and swells.

If Ishii succeeded, she would be the first of about 12 apprentices with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, training in these Pacific legs of the Malama Honua voyage, to locate such a landmark making decisions their own, without consensus.

It was a relatively short sail but a difficult feat nonetheless, with no guarantees.

Swains’ tallest points are the coconut palms, which can be seen maybe from 10 miles away at the most. Hokule‘a captain Nainoa Thompson, a pwo (master) navigator and Ishii’s teacher, compared the task with finding Moku Olo’e (Coconut Island) in Kaneohe Bay from Miloli’i on the Big Island — if you removed all the other Hawaiian Islands around it and replaced them with open sea.

“It’s a time when the student is more important than the teacher,” he said.

And it was a pressure-filled moment for Ishii. “This was in my head. It drove me crazy,” she said. “I always second-guess myself.”

After 30 hours of meticulously guiding the canoe northeast of Samoa, Ishii wound up spending Monday night in the canoe’s starboard hull battling fatigue, headaches and nausea.

The crew, meanwhile, had closed Hokule‘a’s sails when night fell, so they wouldn’t miss sight of the small sliver of flat atoll that Ishii was seeking. Some stood watch in the moonlight. Others tried to get rest.

As the canoe and her escort canoe, Hikianalia, bobbed aimlessly among the swells, it was an uncertain and vaguely unsettling time for  them. The vessels planned to use Swains as a marker to then find the islands of Tokelau. Without pinpointing Swains, Tokelau would become extremely difficult to find.

On Tuesday morning, Ishii had to determine how far they had drifted — and where they needed to go if they were still to find the tiny atoll.

Numbers and calculations swirled through her brain. She talked over the math with Lehua Kamalu, her fellow navigation student who was serving as a watch captain. She discussed the issues with Thompson. But ultimately it was Ishii’s call.

She went with her gut and made a choice. The hours following that choice were tense aboard Hokule‘a, with Ishii and crew searching for land-based birds and other signs.

“You keep looking for signs, hoping that something comes up,” Ishii said. “Then you start second-guessing yourself if you don’t see the signs.”

However, about five hours later that choice in course paid off: The crew saw Swains, a tiny plateau barely above sea level in the distance, to the west.

“Jenna had the first opportunity (of the dozen navigation students) and she did really well. The crew did a good job of sailing,” Thompson said.

Ultimately, the winds prompted Hokule‘a and Hikianalia to stay put at Swains and not continue to Tokelau, but Thompson said Ishii’s success was still critical in the long run.

“No longer can we sail just to find islands,” he said. The point of Hokule‘a’s worldwide voyage, he said, is more about rediscovering traditions and man’s relationship to nature, and Ishii’s success was a small stepping stone in that direction.

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