Nearly 30 years ago, Hokule’a crews braved the frigid, stormy seas south of the tropics to sail farther than they ever had before.
They sailed past a lightning storm, nearly collided with a large sperm whale, and when they finally landed safely in New Zealand, the local Maoris there declared them a new tribe that had found its way home.
Now, that tribe from Hawaii is about to return home again, this time during its ambitious and risky voyage around the planet. Hokule’a, accompanied by its escort vessel, Hikianalia, is on the verge of landing in New Zealand for the first time in almost 30 years.
The crew of the Hokule’a sighted New Zealand’s North Island at about 7:30 a.m. Saturday Hawaii time, the Polynesian Voyaging Society reported. The Maoris call North Island "Te Ika-a-Maui," the fish of Maui, the demigod who they believe pulled up the island from his canoe.
The two canoes’ crews have already sailed more than 6,000 miles of what’s slated to be a three-year worldwide journey stretching more than 50,000 miles.
When the latest crew members land in New Zealand, they’ll be greeted with what aims to be a powerful homecoming ceremony that’s known as a powhiri. A delegation of Kamehameha Schools students from several of the Hawaiian islands is slated to perform.
Also on hand will be a hui of original Hokule’a crew members who made that first voyage to New Zealand. They’ll be sailing on the traditional canoe around North Island on the upcoming leg.
"Getting back down there again and seeing the fruits of that first voyage, it’s a wonderful thing," Billy Richards, a veteran Hokule’a crew member who sailed on the 1985 voyage to New Zealand, said Wednesday amid his preparations to depart Hawaii. "It’s time. We’re getting older. I was in my 20s when I first started, I’m in my 60s now and it’s time to pass it on."
Joining Richards will be other veteran voyagers who supported Hokule’a during its tumultuous early years and helped to make it a household name across Hawaii.
They include Gordon Pi’ianai’a, who captained Hokule’a on its pivotal 1980 voyage, during which Nainoa Thompson became the first Hawaiian in some 600 years to locate Tahiti without using modern navigational tools.
Harry Ho, who supported Thompson on that same voyage, and Michael "Buddy" McGuire will also reunite to sail on the upcoming leg.
"(I’m) still at it, and I plan to continue as long as they let me," McGuire declared Wednesday. "There was a moment in time when I didn’t think I’d be able to sail on her again … and I’m just absolutely delighted. I feel like a kid again."
This reporter will once again serve as a crew member aboard the canoes to chronicle Hokule’a’s homecoming in New Zealand and its journeys during the next month across "Tai Tokerau," the country’s northernmost region.
New Zealand also represents a key hub in the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s "Malama Honua" ("Care for the Earth") worldwide journey. Crews plan to spend the next six months in New Zealand sailing around its scenic coasts and strengthening the Maori friendships they forged back in 1985.
They’ll make repairs to the two canoes and wait out the region’s hurricane season while preparing to leave the Pacific for the first time in the voyaging society’s nearly 40-year history.
The 1985 journey, based on the accounts of many who were there, helped to spark a new bond between the native Maori tribes of New Zealand, traditionally known as Aotearoa, and the voyagers from Hawaii who landed there.
Meanwhile, recent findings also point to a shared connection between the two traditions. An approximately 600-year-old canoe, or waka, discovered two years ago on New Zealand’s South Island revealed that the voyaging canoes from there and those found in other parts of Polynesia might have come from the same design tradition, according to a report last month from the Los Angeles Times.
The artifact was a nearly 20-foot-long hull section and it featured a sea turtle carved in relief — a symbol that’s not typically found in Maori culture and that’s more often associated with other parts of Polynesia, the report stated.
Ever since Hokule’a crews first arrived in New Zealand, many of the Maori tribes there have called them the "sixth tribe" of the Tai Tokerau region, PVS volunteers say. The other five tribes can trace their ancestry all the way back to the specific voyaging canoes that brought them there, they add — and that’s been lost in Hawaii.
"When I fully started to understand their connection to ohana and ancestry and kupuna and place, I was, like, baffled," Thompson recalled last week. He now serves as PVS president. "How in the world can you still remember that?"
Thompson recalled a key moment during the 1985 visit when a Maori elder told him that he felt sorry for him having lost that information. Thompson said he was taken aback at first, but approached the man later.
"It’s OK, because a child born 100 years from now will know Hokule’a," Thompson recalled telling him. "I want to thank you for feeling sorry for me, but don’t. I know what my job is … to make sure we never feel sorry again."