For master navigator Chad Kalepa Baybayan, there is a special seat among traditional navigators.
He was one of 10 non-Micronesians inducted into Pwo, a 2,000- year-old society of deep-sea navigators, by his teacher, master navigator Mau Piailug of Satawal, Micronesia. It was Piailug who helped guide the Hokule‘a in 1976 on its inaugural voyage to Tahiti.
“Mau said you only become master when the day you die, there is somebody you taught,” said Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society president and Pwo master navigator.
“From that definition of navigator, you have to hold Kalepa as one of the greatest navigators of all time,” he said. “His influence, his inspiration, his touching thousands of young people around the world, yes, navigate voyaging canoes, but finding ways to navigate their lives so they contribute to a better world. So he was teaching the art of navigation, but he was teaching the core values of kindness, compassion and service.”
Baybayan died suddenly Thursday at age 64 in Seattle of unknown causes, said his mother, Lillian Suter. Baybayan and his wife, Audrey, had accompanied two grandchildren to help support their 6-year-old brother, who is undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor, Suter said.
“This was a shock,” she said. “We never thought this would happen. We were concerned about the little boy being sick,” who is unable to walk or talk.
Suter said the couple left about two weeks ago from their Kailua-Kona home, and her son seemed fine earlier in the day when he went shopping and launched little boats onto Lake Washington. His wife found him collapsed after participating in a Zoom conference call, in which he was the last speaker.
Kaiu Kimura, director of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, was among those on the call among a group of deep-sea voyaging canoe participants.
“He was just really telling the younger generation of crew members how proud he is” of them taking up leadership and encouraging them to pick up the call “to lead our community,” said Kimura, who sailed with him on a Japan trip.
Baybayan was “an excellent storyteller, who loved to work and share and engage with people of all ages, from keiki to kupuna, through communities throughout the world,” she said of Baybayan, who served as navigator in residence at ‘Imiloa.
“He could be very animated,” was fluent in Hawaiian, loved to read and learn about other cultures and often made comparisons with other cultures to the Hawaiian culture, she said. “Language didn’t seem to be a barrier for him. He was able to transcend that.”
Although Baybayan didn’t sail the historic 1976 voyage, he provided support, giving awa (kava) to crew members and using his four-man canoe to load the voyaging vessel, Thompson said.
In 1980 he became the youngest crew member to sail the Hokule‘a on a deep-sea voyage to Tahiti and back, “logging in 6,000 miles as the youngest voyager,” Thompson said.
“He was heavily mentored by those who saw so much promise in his leadership,” including captain Gordon Piianaia, he said. “He was competent, brought skills to leadership and was extraordinarily loyal.”
Baybayan was on the first sail to New Zealand in 1987, was the youngest among a pool of young navigators from 1990-92, and sailed more legs and more miles as captain and officer than anyone else during the “Malama Honua” worldwide voyage, Thompson said.
In 1995 Baybayan navigated the Hokule‘a to the Marquesas Islands and back, and was on the hard voyage to find Rapa Nui.
In 2007 he was among five Hawaiians and 11 Micronesians inducted into Pwo, the ninth of 15 degrees in the Weriyeng School of Navigation of Micronesia.
He, along with Thompson, Bruce Blankenfeld, Shortly Bertelmann and Onohi Paishon, were “given the honor and responsibility of carrying on Mau’s teachings” of Pwo, the Polynesian Voyaging Society says on its website.
(Five more Polynesians were inducted into Pwo in 2008.)
Pwo is “light, love, kindness and compassion,” qualities a navigator must develop to resolve conflicts. The navigator must heal if there is sickness, repair if there is damage and sail and bring back gifts to his home island.
Baybayan’s students and his best friends sailed two canoes at sunset Friday to honor and support the navigator on his final solo journey to Kahiki Nui, the homeland to where the spirits of navigators return, according to Polynesian tradition, Thompson said.
But on Thursday night Thompson grieved Baybayan’s death alone in a highly personal way, bunking down on the Hokule‘a in what was Baybayan’s compartment: “Mau’s compartment, Port 6.”
Thompson said, “For me, he’s always loyal, and you can count on him when things go bad. He was the support system for me.”
Thompson recalled one of many instances. On the 2014 Hawaii-to-Tahiti leg of the worldwide voyage, the Hokule‘a carried a crew of 13 mostly inexperienced, young people.
“It was a rough trip, very windy the whole trip; the ocean was hard,” he said. With strong winter squalls, he sent Baybayan to get the head sail down at the bow, where it’s rough and dangerous.
“In the end it really comes down to someone you can trust. He was that backbone for me that I could send him up there in the hard conditions and he would take care of it,” Thompson said.
Born Aug. 15, 1956, in Lahaina, Baybayan was the second born, but after losing his older brother to leukemia, he took the lead.
“He was well respected by all his nephews and nieces and younger brothers, too,” said his mother.
“Chad was always a thinker,” Suter said. “He never rushed into things. He could read book after book. … He had a passion for education. He always wanted to teach the kids to study hard, to have good values.”
His brother, Clayton, recalled that in 1975 the Hokule‘a sailed into Honolua Bay. “They took me and Chad out there,” he said. “I guess they were looking for new crew members. Chad got so intrigued with that. That’s how it all started.”
Baybayan had a master’s degree in education and was captain and navigator of the Hawaiian voyaging canoes Hawai‘iloa and Hokualaka‘i, in addition to the Hokule‘a, PVS says on its website. He served as site director of Honuakai, the Exploration Sciences Division of ‘Aha Punana Leo, which teaches Hawaiian language to crews aboard Hokualaka‘i.
After Baybayan married, he settled in Kailua-Kona.
There he worked closely with Kimura on ‘Imiloa since 2001, before it opened in 2006. That likely helped shape Baybayan’s views on the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea.
“Understanding the heavens and celestial bodies is an integral part of navigation and wayfinding,” Kimura said. “He had a very strong conviction and passion for continued astronomical pursuit as well as bringing together modern astronomical research with knowledge and expertise in traditional navigation.”
The family will take part in May in a sail on Honolua Bay, not far from his hometown and where he first sailed on the Hokule‘a as a teen.
He is also survived by daughters Kala Tanaka and Pukanala Llanes; son Aukai; brothers Lyle Baybayan and Ted Suter; and his sister, Sister Anne Marie.