Nainoa Thompson and fellow crew members aboard the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a are slated to reunite with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today in New York — a meeting they consider crucial to their three-year Malama Honua (“Care for Earth”) worldwide journey.
During a ceremony that’s part of the U.N.’s annual World Oceans Day, Thompson plans to return a special “message in a bottle” that Ban gave him while aboard the Hokule‘a two years ago in Apia, Samoa. Ban’s message assured the Hawaii voyagers that as they sailed he would work with world leaders toward a “more sustainable future, and a life of dignity for all.”
Along with the bottle, Thompson will also deliver to Ban declarations from various community groups and local governments the crew has met with on the voyage so far who have pledged to better protect marine resources. The invitation-only event will take place at Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens.
“It’s about keeping our promises, and the promise goes back to the summer of 2014,” said Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, during an interview Tuesday. “If you’re going to protect the world’s oceans, it’s got to be international … it’s having the head of the U.N. to help believe in the voyage, support the voyage and make the promise” to help, he said.
Hokule‘a’s previous encounter with Ban in Apia helped make today’s event in New York possible — but that first encounter almost didn’t happen.
In late August 2014 bad weather placed the Hokule‘a and its former escort vessel Hikianalia in a race against time to rendezvous with Ban before he left the South Pacific. Crews on the double-hulled canoes planned to meet Ban in Apia on Sept. 1 for a U.N. conference devoted to small islands, but unusually strong wind and ocean swells as high as 18 feet kept them an island away in Pago Pago Harbor, part of American Samoa.
“The weather was so bad. The wind was blowing into the harbor, and we couldn’t get out,” Thompson recalled Tuesday.
The crews anxiously waited four days for the weather to change. On the fifth day, their last chance to sail and still make it to Apia in time to catch Ban, the weather eased and gave them a window to depart.
At the time, Thompson told the crew they at least had to try.
“We had that one break, so we took it,” Thompson recalled Tuesday. When the two canoes departed Pago Pago, the crews still weren’t sure whether the wind would compel them to return to the harbor. Once the canoes were outside the harbor, Thompson determined they could safely clear the island and sail to Apia.
The two canoes then sailed about 80 miles through the night with a strong wind at their back that made it difficult to steer. Aboard the Hokule‘a, crews battled with rear steering sweep, or hoe uli, throughout the sail to keep the canoe on a course for the island of Upolu, where Apia is located.
They arrived early the next morning tired and relieved. Several hours later they kept their appointment with Ban, who boarded the Hokule‘a and toured the traditional Polynesian sailing canoe replica.
Thompson recalled that he was surprised during that visit when the head of the U.N. gave the voyagers from Hawaii a message in a bottle pledging his support.
“We were going to Samoa to be in the conference. But when he gave us the bottle, everything changed,” Thompson said. “The bottle is really the promise — the promise of understanding and believing and supporting” the goals of the Hokule‘a’s Malama Honua voyage.
The declarations that Hokule‘a crews plan to present to Ban today along with the bottle “are a mirror of many people around the world doing things for their own communities,” he added.
Weather has been one of the “great challenges” during the first two years and approximately 30,000 miles of the Hokule‘a’s worldwide voyage, Thompson said. “It’s about making connections. But at the same time, Mother Nature will make the decision for you.”
Last weekend, strong wind and a strong current prompted the Hokule‘a to dock in Manhattan a day earlier than its official welcoming ceremony. The weather could also be a factor in how much the canoe will directly participate in the U.N. World Oceans Day events, Thompson said. The theme of this year’s event happens to be “Healthy oceans, healthy planet,” according to the U.N. website.
The Gantry Plaza event will also include traditional Hawaiian chants and dances, as well as servings of awa, according to the Hokule‘a website.
“What’s important is here we get to say that we kept our promise” to work for improved marine protections, Thompson said Tuesday. “The promise is not so much to Ban Ki-moon. It’s to the earth and it’s to our children.”