HONOLULU (CN) — The Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokulea completed the last leg of a historic three-year, round-the-world voyage on Saturday, pulling into port at Oahu’s Magic Island under full sail. Kayaks, paddleboards, surfers and jet skis trailed in its wake—along with the spirits and names of those dreamers who first conceived of the canoe as a champion of Polynesian history.
Tens of thousands of people cheered as the vaka’s (main hull’s) earth-red “crab claw” sails passed. The crowd then fell silent, briefly incredulous, as if the canoe had indeed sailed out of some ancient ocean. It was not, however, the ancestors who debarked the craft, nor the slightly less-grizzled veterans of Hokulea’s maiden voyage down to Tahiti in 1985. The crew that emerged was young, beaming, swaggering and exhausted—carrying with them the torch of indigenous knowledge.
Hokulea had come full circle, conquering both the perils of the sea and of self-doubt. On the first leg of the journey, the canoe had slid down the face of 20- to 30-foot waves, with seven of 13 crew members down with motion sickness. But the canoe went on to sail to Tahiti and across the south Pacific and Indian Oceans. Tethered to escort ship the Gershon, at anchor in a storm near Cape Hope, Hokulea came about as the wind shifted and crashed into the side of the steel-hulled escort, breaking a hole in its own hull.
Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson says, “Voyaging will put you on your knees, take you to the bone.”
But there were bright spots, too. After patching Hokulea’s hull, the crew met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil and up the Eastern Seaboard, where Penobscot Indians in traditional birchbark canoes greeted them in Maine.
“In their canoes with them are their ancestors,” said Captain Bruce Blankenfeld. “Everywhere we went, it’s still alive, still strong. I saw that today with our own children … The Wampanoag of Martha’s Vineyard sent us a quahog necklace as permission to visit, and built a canoe they hadn’t built in 300 years to come out and greet us.”
The Story of Hokulea
The story of Hokulea begins with artist Herb Kane poring over illustrations of canoes made by early European explorers, redrawing them along more seaworthy lines. This ultimately led him to the conceptual design for Hokulea. Later, Kane met anthropologist Ben Finney. Finney’s professors at the University of Hawaii had introduced him to theories that Polynesia had been settled accidentally by voyagers in canoes blown off course.
Kane and Finney, along with sailor Tommy Holmes, founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973, raising the money within two years to build Hokulea in a traditional style with modern materials. Hokulea was completed in 1975 and launched into Kaneohe Bay.
Kane would introduce current PVS president Nainoa Thompson to the constellations, and Thompson was hooked.
After some “shakedown” cruises around Hawaii, the society began to search for a navigator. But a deep-sea voyaging canoe had not been sailed in Hawaii for 600 years. The society members crossed paths with a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia who told them about a navigator “just down the road” in Satawal. The youngest of six remaining navigators in the world, Mao Piailug would accompany the crew on that first voyage down to Tahiti, navigating the unfamiliar constellations of the Northern Hemisphere, and later formally training Thompson and others in the use of the star compass.
On Hokulea’s second voyage to Tahiti, the canoe capsized in heavy seas off of Molokai. The crew spent a night in cold water clinging to the upside-down hull, blinded by sea spray and yelling to make themselves heard above the wind. In the morning, surf champion and lifeguard Eddie Aikau slipped away on his surf board to get help, never to be seen again.
This event seemed to galvanize Thompson, who successfully sailed the canoe a third time to Tahiti and back. But it was his conversations with Hawaiian astronaut, Colonel Lacy Veech, that gave him the idea of circumnavigating the earth.
“You can’t protect what you don’t understand,” Veech told Thompson in 1993. “Take Hokulea around the world.”
This seemed too risky, too unrealistic to Thompson at first. But over time the question became, “What’s more dangerous – hurricanes, pirates, disease or staying tied to the dock because you believe you can’t go? Rogue waves, or remaining ignorant and apathetic?”
Thompson attributes his resolve to his father, Myron “Pinky” Thompson, a veteran wounded in World War II, who early on asked him, “What are you going to stand up for?”
In April of 2008, the PVS voted “yes” to the voyage not once, but four times. Afterward, a senior leader confronted Thompson with tears in his eyes, grabbing him by the lapels. “You don’t have the right to take our children’s canoe,” he said. But the society had voted.
Thompson admitted he was later beset by doubts and bad dreams. “Do I have the children’s permission?” he wondered.
Thompson cancelled the voyage, and in 2013 sailed Hokulea around the islands instead, collecting signatures in a log book of those he met along the way. He was aiming to collect 5,000 signatures, but he ended up with 22,000—and that was just a fraction of those who actually boarded the boat as it anchored in shallows around the islands, ferrying kids and families out to hang about the shrouds and dive over the side.
But Thompson’s misgivings about the voyage were just precursors to his larger, existential doubts. “I was struck by the nagging question,” Thompson said at a ceremony after the Hokulea landing. “Has the racing of the 21st century outpaced old things? Is Hokulea still relevant?”
And the answers to his questions about the canoe’s relevance were answered by the thousands of kids who lined the breakwater outside Magic Island, taking photos and splashing in the water when the canoe returned.
“This is legendary,” one boy in a University of Hawaii baseball cap proclaimed to his friend.
The question was answered by the Kamalus – Darren and Noe – whose four daughters sailed to Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, the Indian Ocean, and Brazil. Their daughter, Lehua, a navigator, went to ports in advance to make sure they had accurate charts. For Noe, whose own mother was beaten for speaking her native Hawaiian language in school, Hokulea is relevant because her daughters’ cultural inheritance is relevant.
“We’re all connected by the ocean,” Noe said.
The Hokulea’s relevance is made evident by the ocean elders and their sons and daughters who gathered at the Malama Honua (Help the Earth) Summit at the Hawaii convention center two days after the boat’s return to discuss stories of inspiration. Present were former chief officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and oceanographer Sylvia Earle; environmentalist and film producer Jean-Michel Cousteau; President Tommy Remengesau of Palau; Reverend Mpho Tutu; and Dieter Paulmann, whose Okeanos Foundation built Hokulea’s hi-tech sister ship, Hikianalia. Currently, the foundation is building vakas that run on palm oil as supply ships for impoverished Pacific islands.
The Hokulea, as an emblem of traditional indigenous stewardship, is relevant to President Remengesau, whose disappearing island nation is leading the way in ocean conservation by setting aside 80 percent of its waters as a protected marine sanctuary. Remengesau is fond of joking that when America can say that, they can take their place with the big boys.
The key to the future, according to Sylvia Earl, is to apply traditional knowledge in the framework of new technology. “There is no waste in traditional cultures,” she said. “We have to take care of the natural world that takes care of us. The ocean is our life support system. As Jean-Michel said, ‘Every glass of water you drink, every breath you take is from the ocean.’”
“We’re at a sweet spot in time,” she added. “We now know the changes we’ve wrought and still have time to act.”