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Dispatch from Hokule‘a: escort vessel’s engine troubles turn up intensity

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    Hokule’a and Hikianalia were welcomed by local dignitaries, spiritual elders and community members at Taputapuatea this week. The marae, or the focal meeting ground, is located on the southeastern coast of Raiatea in French Polynesia.

TRAVELING ABOARD HOKULE‘A >> It’s been an eventful 40 hours for the 12-member crew aboard this replica of a traditional Polynesian long distance sailing canoe, currently heading east on a return course to Tahiti from the leeward island of Raiatea.

What was supposed to be a pretty easy return crossing entirely under tow turned into some intensive sailing and tacking (turning) all of last night and into the morning, when one of the Hokule’a’s escort vessels, the Gershon II, ran into engine trouble about 20 miles south of Huahine and had to stop tow.

Capt. Billy Richards, who’s had to deal with a few curve balls this week, made the call. Even though the Hokule‘a is notoriously hard to tack or to sail close to the wind, and sailing to Tahiti would take many days few on board had available — we would open her traditional “crab-claw” sails, with their distinctive curved wooden booms that reach to the sky, and inch toward Papeete until voyage organizers on land devised a solution.

Pomai Bertelmann, who will soon captain Hokule‘a back to Hawaii, confided that she relishes these moments: when the weather is good for sailing and the stakes are high. It’s a chance to improve your seamanship. Ideally, no one should finish a leg of the Malama Honua at the same skill level as when they started, she said.

During our 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. watch, Bertelmann and I alternated every 45 minutes or so steering the canoe’s large central sweep, or hoe, to keep the canoe’s course. We did this until about 5:20 a.m., when I inadvertently passed out on the navigation cot as dawn broke — and Bertelmann kept steering in my stead. I’m fairly certain she’ll make a great captain for the soon-approaching trip up.

Today the Hokule‘a and Gershon II sailed to rendezvous about halfway to Tahiti with a local tow craft that’s been chartered and is now towing both vessels directly into the wind to Papeete.

We’re about 60 miles out, with the sun descending over our port stern. Richards is catching some elusive rest on the starboard navigator cot across from me. John Kruse and Bertelmann, veteran crew members of these voyages, are chopping vegetables and helping to prepare for this evening’s meal of chicken curry. It’s fixed in a galley box mid-deck as the canoe rolls over blue Pacific swells. The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor and other classic rock artists play.

It’s always a bit of a shock getting re-acclimated to the routines and rhythms aboard the canoe: living in cramped space as you bob along on the ocean, being constantly mindful of your crew mates and the space you share, making sure you contribute to the success of the sail, often fighting off fatigue and stitching together sleep where you can find it, etc.

But it’s an experience that’s kept drawing me back. This week’s voyage aboard the Hokule’a to the temple ruins of Taputapuatea has been mind blowing and a good, worthwhile challenge. Huge mahalos to this crew for helping me, through their constant example, to leave with better skills than when I started.

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