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Hokule‘a crew renews strength, spirit through a massive storm

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  • Courtesy Sam Kapoi, Oiwi TV

    Crews of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a and its escort vessel, the Gershon II, conferred as the vessels prepared to depart Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in November.

When captain Nainoa Thompson and his crew steered the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a into the South African port city of Cape Town in November, after a risky trek through frigid and volatile Indian Ocean waters, they were tired and relieved.

They didn’t need a reminder of how fortunate they were to have arrived safely. Still, they got one.

On Nov. 15 crew members invited Cape Town passers-by to board the Hokule‘a and learn more about the canoe’s sail around the planet. Soon they noticed that some people were solemnly walking past the dock in formal dress and gathering at a pier next door.

“We had seen them setting up these tents,” Hokule‘a safety officer Archie Kalepa recalled in a recent interview. It turned out that on the same day the Hokule‘a held its open house, a memorial service was taking place next door for 12 people who had drowned in a recent nearby disaster at sea.

The Lincoln, a 138-foot-long large fishing trawler, had listed Sept. 27 in heavy seas while trying to dodge a storm south of Cape Town, prompting the crew to abandon ship, according to local media reports. Only nine of the Lincoln’s crew were rescued. The rest perished.

The Hokule‘a, a 62-foot-long double-hulled canoe made mostly from wood and fiberglass, passed a few weeks later amid safer conditions through the same area, False Bay, where the Lincoln tragedy occurred. The canoe’s crew hadn’t heard about the Lincoln until they got to Cape Town and saw the tents for the memorial.

It was “a reminder of how blessed we were as a crew,” said Kalepa, a veteran Maui waterman and retired director of ocean safety for that county.

The crew may have been blessed, but it also was prepared. The Polynesian Voyaging Society, which is leading the Hokule‘a’s Malama Honua (“Care for the Earth”) sail, has aimed to mitigate as much of the risk as it can to sail the Polynesian vessel replica about 50,000 miles around the globe.

Those steps include regular reports from weather agencies to help keep the Hokule‘a and its escort vessel, Gershon II, out of harm’s way.

For the approximately 2,400-mile leg from Mauritius to Cape Town, which PVS considered the worldwide sail’s most dangerous leg, crews relied on reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service office in Hawaii, the South African Weather Service and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. PVS also relies on intelligence from local sailors and harbor masters where the canoe travels.

PVS scheduled about a two-month window to complete the leg, which is about twice as long as the typical “Malama Honua” leg, so that crews could safely wait out weather in port as they advanced around Africa’s eastern and southern coast. In the end the journey took about 41 days.

It also took its toll — not just on the crew, but on the Hokule‘a as well, which suffered some damage. In mid-October the Hokule‘a and the Gershon II fled north of South Africa to the port of Maputo, Mozambique, to take shelter from what was described as a massive storm system.

“We ran to Mozambique to hide in a port that we weren’t going to go. They didn’t know we were coming,” Thompson recounted to Hokule‘a donors at a recent Bishop Museum reception.

In Maputo the crew had what was described as a “gut-check” moment where they were pushed to their physical and mental limits. They had made it to port, but the storm caught up to them there the night they arrived.

“The weather is … terrifyingly beautiful, and somewhat sinister to behold,” “pwo” (master) navigator Kalepa Baybayan wrote in an Oct. 17 blog, posted on the website. “Here, we are trapped by lightning, thunder and gusting winds throughout the night, our crew huddled under our awning, which we have dropped low to the deck to protect us from the sideways-blowing wind.”

Archie Kalepa recalled thinking during the storm, “Thank God we’re not at sea right now.”

While anchored in port the crew also had to deal with sudden, extreme changes to the wind and current. The Hokule‘a was tethered to the Gershon II, which was anchored, and Kalepa said that he and his watch worked to keep the canoe downwind of the Gershon to try to prevent a collision.

Eventually, though, that collision happened.

“It was kind of like a miniature perfect storm. The current, it just pushed us into the Gershon. It was a big bang, smash. (Filmographer) Sam Kapoi was the hero,” Kalepa recalled. Kapoi jumped off the Hokule‘a’s bow and onto the Gershon to help push the vessels apart, he said. Then “it was a moment of silence” amid the driving rain and gale-force wind. Some of the crew wept.

“This moment will break your crew. It’ll break it,” Thompson recalled at the Bishop Museum. “And we said, ‘This moment where Hokule‘a was damaged will not define the mana (spirit) of this crew. What will define it is because we took care of it.’”

The crew regrouped. The next day they assessed that the Hokule‘a had a softball-size hole in its starboard bow, and determined they could make the two-day journey to Richards Bay, South Africa, where they would make the repairs, Kalepa said.

“‘I want a plan — repair this canoe in two days. We’re going to South Africa,’” Thompson recalled saying. “‘I don’t want to hear anything else. Give me a plan of success.’ And that was the moment where this crew came together.”

Crew member Timi Gilliom led the repairs, using fiberglass, sandpaper, paint and other materials. Kalepa called the hardship in Maputo a blessing.

“People were scared, but the crew became a lot stronger. It set the stage for the rest of the voyage,” he said. “It was sort of a wake-up call. It sort of defined the crew as a solid team to work together.”

The Hokule‘a has since left South Africa. Led by captain Bruce Blankenfeld, who relieved Thompson for the next leg, the canoe is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in its 40-year history, heading for Brazil.

Hokulea arrives in South Africa

Hokulea crew visit Desmond Tutu

Hokulea crew and students visit Pinnacle Point

Hokulea crew interacts with Hawaii students in South Africa

Hokulea crew and students visit Robben Island

Hawaiian students clean up the beach in South Africa

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