Sailing around the world gave up-and-coming navigators an invaluable chance to “pull islands from the sea,” as Pacific voyagers often describe it.
This ancestral art of navigating vast ocean distances using only the stars, swells and other natural cues was on the verge of extinction four decades ago. By the time the Hokule‘a left Hilo in 2014, more than two dozen aspiring and established navigators were poised to carry the practice into the future.
Most hailed from Hawaii. Others came from Japan, Samoa, New Zealand and other nations to learn how to navigate without modern instruments. A core group of about a dozen haumana (students) apprenticed during the voyage under four of Hawaii’s five “pwo” (master) navigators — teachers who have pledged to pass the knowledge they hold sacred to the next generation.
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“We’ve all grown tremendously,” apprentice navigator Jason Patterson said. He, along with apprentices Haunani Kane and sisters Lehua and Noelani Kamalu, guided the Hokule‘a in February to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), one of the most isolated specks on the planet.
Patterson said he’s now better able to discern the swells and winds as they cross the canoe to keep course — those cues “that aren’t going to leave you” when the clouds obscure the stars. While aboard deep-sea legs, he “start(ed) to transition off of the science, the cold hard math and … more into the art of navigation,” he added.
Similarly, Kaleo Wong, who apprenticed under pwo navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, guided the Hokule‘a on its longest sail ever, a trans-Atlantic haul from Cape Town, South Africa, to Natal, Brazil. Halfway across the Atlantic, Wong pulled tiny St. Helena island from the sea despite foggy conditions.
More experienced navigators such as Ka‘iulani Murphy and Catherine Fuller also honed their skills. With no pwo navigators aboard, Fuller led a team of three apprentices, including Patterson, on the Hikianalia’s 2015 sail home from Tahiti to Oahu.
“I was literally up 25 days, one hour of sleeping per day,” recalled Fuller, an ‘Iolani School teacher. “Your brain’s like oatmeal at that point.”
“It’s weird that it’s not as hard as you think it is,” she added. Navigating helps her overcome the challenges she faces back on land — and to encourage her students to overcome their challenges, too, she said.
Having the Hikianalia on many of the Pacific legs opened up more opportunities for more students.
“The navigation was tough. The winds weren’t the best,” apprentice navigator Kekaimalu Lee said when the Hikianalia docked at Sand Island in 2015. “But we found home. We pulled Hawaii out of the sea.”
An apprentice graduation is slated to occur at Kualoa after the voyage’s conclusion.