How does Lehua Kamalu, the captain and lead navigator of Hikianalia’s voyage from Hawaii to California, feel now that she and her crew have completed one of the most challenging voyages of their lives?
“We’re ready to go right back in,” she said.
It’s a testament to how well the 13-person crew worked together as they traveled some 2,800 miles over 23 days from Honolulu to Half Moon Bay. The journey was the first leg of the Alahula Kai o Maleka Hikianalia California Voyage, timed to coincide with the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in mid- September.
Kamalu, 32, is the first woman to serve as captain and lead navigator of a long-distance ocean crossing for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, according to the society. She was in charge of the canoe and all its systems as well as guiding it on the right path to their destination.
She said she was only able to do it because of the support she received from her crew and because of the example set by other women who have been voyaging and navigating before her, including Pomai Bertelmann, Ka‘iulani Murphy and others.
Hikianalia, Hokule‘a’s sister canoe, was launched in 2012 as an escort. The vessel is outfitted with two solar-powered electric motors and satellite technology for communications, but is otherwise designed in the spirit of a traditional canoe.
Instead of relying on GPS, the crew used traditional Polynesian wayfinding techniques, taking cues from the sun, stars, waves and birds. It is a combination of modern technology and an ancient, almost lost, art form, said Kamalu. The most important instruments were the crew members themselves.
“Your eyes, your ears, your body, being able to measure the stars,” she said.
Kamalu’s diverse crew for the California journey was made up of navigators-in-training as well as experienced captains, ranging in age from 19 to 69.
Among the younger members were Tamiko Fernelius of Japan, HyeJung Kim of Korea, Arii-Matatini Tamaehu of Tahiti, and Kalani Asano of Hawaii, while senior crew members included veterans such as rescue swimmer Archie Kalepa, watch captain Kimo Lyman, Keala Kimura, Timi Gilliom, Kalau Spencer, Keli Takenaga, Gary Yuen, and Dr. Seren Tokumura, the canoe’s medical officer.
Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson, who did not accompany them, said he was extremely proud of the crew for completing one of the most difficult ocean voyages and for their demonstration of leadership, skill and teamwork.
In addition to reaching out to those in California, the journey is an opportunity to train the next generation of leaders for another three-year voyage the society is planning in the Pacific in 2020, during which it will need 16 captains.
The Pacific Voyage is expected to go clockwise around the Pacific, starting from Alaska, then making its way to Canada, the Americas, down to Micronesia, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Russia.
Whether male or female, Thompson said he looks for crew members who are committed to learning, hard work, serving the community and taking care of one another. Kamalu, who speaks fluent Hawaiian, represented those value as well as the renaissance of Hawaiian culture.
“Our young people need to believe they can do anything in the world, and the world will allow them that opportunity,” he said.
Thompson said in his last conversation with his mentor, Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug, he was given the blessing to go against tradition and train women to be pwo, which graduates navigators to be in command on the deep sea.
“He said to me, your pwo is up to you,” said Thompson. “So there’s a beautiful statement, where he couldn’t cross the boundaries of teaching women navigators, but he allowed me to do it.”
If he had not done that, Thompson said many journeys, including the most recent one, would not have happened as they did.
The greatest challenge was the waiting, according to Kamalu, with Hikianalia’s departure delayed for more than two weeks as various storms passed through the isles. It was also cold and visibility was low as Hikianalia sailed 1,500 miles north of Hawaii to get around a high pressure system before turning east toward California.
Neither the winds nor the waves behaved as expected, further complicating the journey.
Kamalu felt a mix of relief and joy when they made it to Half Moon Bay the morning of Sept. 10, especially because the last night at sea had been the roughest, with hopping waves and high winds. First, they were greeted by a California sea lion, and then by paddlers who had come to escort Hikianalia into the bay.
The following Sunday, Hikianalia sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and made a formal entrance into San Francisco’s Aquatic Bay for a welcoming ceremony by the Muwekma Ohlone tribe of California, dignitaries, music and hula.
“Going under the Golden Gate itself was very special,” said Kamalu. “It’s an iconic landmark and here you are in this place, it represents a lot of the energy there. … It was thrilling.”
Hooked by Hokule‘a
Kamalu, the second eldest of six sisters, was born in New York, but grew up in Hawaii, having attended Hawaiian immersion school Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Puohala in Kaneohe since she was in kindergarten. She eventually attended Kamehameha Schools and holds a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Hokule‘a made a vivid impression on her as a first-grader. Once she was introduced to the Polynesian Voyaging Society by her sister while studying at UH Manoa, she was hooked.
Before she knew it, she went from lashing and sweeping to helping the society map out the sail plans for various legs of the worldwide voyage and became an apprentice navigator. She was on the first leg of the voyage from Hilo to Tahiti — as well as numerous others, including Auckland to Aurere, Galapagos Islands to Rapa Nui and the Virgin Islands to Cuba and Florida.
Her first experience as solo lead navigator was aboard the Tahitian canoe, Fa‘afaite, on a trip from Tahiti to Hilo in 2017.
Besides spreading a message about the need to address climate change, crew members participated in several science projects during the journey. They collected half a liter of water a day for testing, tagged a few pieces of marine debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with tracking devices, and also checked the stomach contents of fish consumed during the voyage.
Encountering the garbage patch was eye opening, according to Kamalu, who estimated seeing marine debris — fishing lines, nets, buoys and other trash — once about every 15 minutes within 150 yards of the canoe. It is not a giant, mountain island, she said, but dispersed on the surface and beneath the water.
At the climate action summit, Kamalu said it was important to share Hawaii’s legacy of voyaging and the vital relationship with the ocean and all its resources that become clear during a journey.
“As soon as you get on a canoe and move a little distance away, you realize how tiny this island is in this vast ocean,” she said. “The ocean is so much a dominating part of what creates our weather and where our fish and our livelihoods come from. I’d say each journey you take you become a little more aware of the message that you’re giving.”
Hikianalia will continue down the California coast to San Diego, offering dockside tours and reaching out to schools and communities along the way. The canoe is set to return to Honolulu, led by another crew, in December.