Hokule‘a crew members are bracing for strong winds as the traditional Polynesian replica vessel sails for Havana — and there’s a chance that the group’s stay will briefly overlap with U.S. president and Hawaii native Barack Obama’s own historic trip to the Caribbean island.
Prior to Friday’s departure for Cuba from the British Virgin Islands, the crew enjoyed a two-day visit with Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson on Moskito Island, a refuge that the billionaire mogul and philanthropist owns in the islands.
Hokule‘a left Hawaii nearly two years ago on a round-the-world journey dubbed Malama Honua (“Care for the Earth”) to raise awareness for better conservation of natural resources. It arrived March 5 at Moskito Island, according to a news release from the Oahu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society.
Branson and PVS President Nainoa Thompson discussed their respective efforts to promote ocean conservation, the release stated. The crew also invited community college students interested in environmental issues from the neighboring island of Virgin Gorda to sail on the double-hulled canoe, the release added.
Branson and Thompson are members of the “Ocean Elders” — a collective of prominent scientists, artists and activists formed in 2010 to advocate for ocean conservation. Other members — musician Jackson Browne, marine biologist Sylvia Earle and oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau — have participated on other legs in the first two years of Malama Honua.
After the canoe’s visit to Moskito, Branson helped raise visibility for Malama Honua by tweeting images of Hokule‘a’s Caribbean sail and a blog post to his nearly 7.4 million followers.
“Thanks to awareness drivers like the Hokule‘a voyage, people and leaders from Arctic to the Antarctic, and everywhere in between, have begun to recognize the importance of the ocean as a planetary life system,” Branson wrote in the blog, which was posted on the Virgin.com website.
As part of an effort to thaw relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are slated to arrive in Cuba on March 21 — the same day that Hokule‘a and escort boat Gershon II are tentatively scheduled to leave. Thompson’s fellow pwo (master) navigator, Kalepa Baybayan, is serving as captain and navigating the canoe to the island.
During the visit with Branson, Thompson dubbed him “one of the world’s great navigators” — something he’s also called South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama since the worldwide sail started.
It’s a theme that Thompson has touched on occasionally during the voyage.
“We needed to seek out and find the world’s great navigators that are not on the deck of the canoe, but those that would be defined by their courage and their commitment and their legacy and their journey,” Thompson told Tutu when the Hokule‘a crew visited the renowned human rights advocate in November in Cape Town.