The Blessing

By Sam Low

All of life’s voyages must begin with a blessing…

Gossamer clouds slide over Kulepemoa ridge and descend into Niu valley on Oahu’s leeward coast. There is the sound of crickets and the wind and surf on a nearby beach. A few generations ago, Niu was a quiet place of chicken farms, a handful of bungalows and a dairy. Before that, Hawaii’s first king, Kamehameha, often rested here from matters of state. Now it’s a suburb of neat houses and trim lawns.

On March 30th, 1998, Nainoa Thompson climbs into a battered Ford station wagon, drives through the valley and takes the H1 Highway toward Honolulu. The slanting light of street lamps plays over his face, revealing strong Polynesian features. His hair is dark and curly. He is forty-three years old. When he was twenty, Nainoa began learning an arcane and almost extinct art. He studied to be ho’okele – a traditional Hawaiian navigator. He has now sailed over eighty thousand sea miles, guiding his craft from one distant island to another without instruments or charts, following a map that exists only in his mind.

Driving west on the H1, Nainoa passes streets with lyric names – Kalananaole, Wailupe, Anali’i, Laukahi. He passes small shopping malls anchored by MacDonalds and Burger Kings. Behind this man-made tangle, ridges rise up to define valleys deeply eroded by a million years of rain. Each valley was once a land division called an ahupua’a, the territory of Hawaiian noble families. Only a hundred years ago, water cascaded from the valleys’ peaks in spectacular falls, gathered in deep pools and abraded its way through lava to form streams that Hawaiian commoners channeled into their lowland taro fields. Villages dotted the coast where fish were plentiful and canoes could be easily drawn up. Now, lights can be seen in houses cantilevered over the highest ridges in a giddy display of western engineering.

As the sun rises over Waikiki’s skyscrapers, Nainoa turns off the H1 and zigzags through the industrial sprawl of the port of Honolulu. A few feet beyond a sign which says “pier 60,” the battered Ford passes through a gate and parks near two large freight containers with the name “Matson” stenciled on them. Against this gritty industrial backdrop, about twenty people mill around a sailing vessel cradled in a trailer large enough to suggest that a diesel tractor would be required to pull it. The vessel gleams after eight months of refitting.

There is the murmur of conversation; the men and women gathered here know each other well. Nainoa shakes hands with each. He approaches a man taller than most – muscular but not showy, slim waisted and dark complexioned. Bruce Blankenfeld.

“Awesome job,” Nainoa says.

“Thanks,” Bruce says. Then he nods to the group, “it’s these guys who did it.”

Giving credit to others is one of Bruce’s gifts. It’s why he has only to make a call on a cell phone in his truck to find volunteers willing to drop what they’re doing and come lend a hand. Many of these volunteers know Bruce not only as boss, but as coach. During three afternoons a week, Bruce is an instructor for the Hui Nalu canoe club. His specialty is the fine points of paddling “Tahitian style” with powerful strokes that do not upset the canoe’s delicate balance and leave sensuous swirls in its wake. On a rotating schedule, often in the wee hours, Bruce earns a living by operating a huge crane to offload thirty ton containers from merchant ships docked in Honolulu.

The vessel around which they gather is the double-hulled canoe Hokule’a, a replica of ancient sailing craft that once carried Polynesian sailors on long ocean voyages. Among the people of the Polynesian Triangle Hokule’a is well known but most “mainlanders” (those who live in the continental United States) may never have heard of her. Tourists who see Hokule’a under sail reach for binoculars.

“Good God,” they say to companions, “what the hell is that?”

Their attention is attracted by the shape of Hokule’a’s twin sails which defy aerodynamic logic. The wide part is hoisted high and the sails taper toward the base of the mast – an inverted triangle. At the top, the sails belly in the wind, producing a deep concavity – the shape of a crab’s claw. Such shapes are found in petroglyphs carved into lava hundreds of years ago.

Up close, Hokule’a appears stranger still. Her twin hulls, each about sixty feet long, are joined by laminated wooden cross-beams called iakos. Hulls and iakos are united by rope lashings woven into complex patterns reminiscent of the art of M.C. Eisher. A deck is laid over the iakos to provide a place for the crew to work during the day. At night they sleep in tiny compartments inside the hulls, sometimes lulled by the slap of waves, sometimes alarmed by them. The hulls rise sharply fore and aft to terminate in a graceful arc, called a manu, adorned with wooden figures with high foreheads and protruding eyes, the akua or guardian spirits. Viewed from above, the canoe’s strangeness is dispelled. She looks like a catamaran.

Hokule’a’s shape is ancient but her construction is not. A hundred years ago, her sails would have been woven from Pandanus frond, but no-one knows how to do that today so they are made of canvas. Her hulls are fiberglass because no trees large enough could be found in Hawaii, and the art of carving such canoes from live wood has vanished with the ancient canoe makers, the kahuna kalai wa’a. Nainoa calls her a “performance replica.”

“We wanted to test the theory that such canoes could have carried Polynesian navigators on long voyages of exploration. We wanted to see how she sailed into the wind, off the wind, how much cargo she could carry, how she stood up to storms. Could we navigate her without instruments? Could we endure the rigors of long voyages ourselves? Frankly, that was enough of a challenge. It didn’t matter if the canoe wasn’t made of wood, as long as she performed like an ancient vessel.”

The canoe has now voyaged more than 80,000 miles throughout the Pacific. Before her refitting her hulls displayed deep gouges as if they have banged over coral reefs or been dragged up on remote Polynesian beaches. And so they had. During her long career, she has sailed to the Society Islands, the Marquesas, the Cooks, the Australs and to Samoa and New Zealand. Finally, on this last Monday in March, the work of renewing the canoe is finished.

Blessing a ship. Almost everywhere in the world ships go through a similar birthing ceremony. There are those who build her and those who sail her. Rarely are they the same people, and so in the transfer of stewardship from one group to the other, there’s a pause in which the creators are recognized by the sailors; in which the builders convey the work of their hands to those who will depend upon it. Hokule’a was built in 1975 and so this particular blessing recognizes, strictly speaking, a rebirth.

Like the rituals of all nations, those practiced by Hawaiians can be elaborate, but they are often small and informal and, to the uninitiated eye, almost invisible. The priest for Hokule’a’s blessing, or Kahuna as Hawaiians call such practitioners, is dressed in a tee shirt and shorts. He wears the kind of sandals you may buy in a drug store for a few dollars. He appears about forty years old. His skin is light although he is a native Hawaiian of almost pure blood. His name is Keone Nunes.

Keone was born on the island of Niihau which some consider the last stronghold of Hawaiian culture. Niihau is a privately owned place where no-one may visit without invitation. Two hundred or so native Hawaiians live there in much the same way as their ancestors have for thousands of years. The koko, or blood, of most Niihau Hawaiians is pure – a condition which is so rare that anthropologists are constantly seeking permission to study them. But none are invited to do so.

Keone begins the blessing by gathering the canoe’s crew. They stand in a semi-circle, hands joined. The ceremony itself will take only about ten minutes, but without it none of the men and women who have labored over Hokule’a will feel their task is complete.

“This is a cleansing ritual,” Keone tells them. “It’s a ceremony to remove any bad feelings or harsh words which may linger and be a curse upon the canoe when she sets to sea. Now we will purify the canoe and join all of you in aloha.”

Keone chants quietly in Hawaiian. He searches the eyes of each crew member. Then he blesses them by dipping a bundle of green tee leaves into a calabash containing salt mixed with water from a sacred spring. He makes sharp cutting movements with his bundle first to the left, then the right, then above, then below. An exorcism.

The ceremony is simple but its meaning is huge. Hokule’a has voyaged some eighty thousand miles, a statistic which encapsulates the canoe’s meaning for Hawaiians but doesn’t encompass it. Also involved are thousands of hours donated by men and women laboring as shipfitters and carpenters, captains and go-fers, fundraisers and administrators – gifts of labor seemingly without end.

Keone’s simple ceremony marks the beginning of a new voyage that will take the canoe and her crew to the furthest reaches of the eastern Pacific – to one of the most difficult landfalls that can be sought by the primitive yet elegant technology of non-instrumental navigation. In a year, after extensive crew training, Hokule’a will set off for Rapa Nui – Easter Island – a tiny speck in a vast ocean.

Nainoa has planned this trip many times, both in his mind (often just before drifting off to sleep) and on a chart with a sharp pencil and a navigator’s protractor. Late one evening in February, bending over his kitchen table, he drew his course on a chart of the South Pacific Ocean. The line went southeast from Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas past the islands of Ua-po, Hiva Oa and Fatu hiva. There it turned east for about 220 miles, then southeast again 700 nautical miles to Mangareva, keeping a safe distance from the dangerously low coral atolls of the Tuamotus. From here, Nainoa laid out his course due south. It entered the horse latitudes where the canoe would experience a narrow belt of sinking air which abates the normal southeast trade winds. Continuing on to about 35 degrees south latitude, the line turns abruptly east. Here the canoe should intersect a band of prevailing westerlies and, if all goes right, she will be sailing free with the wind behind it. But things often do not go right. One textbook describes this latitude as a place where the winds are “frequently gusty and boisterous, even violent on occasion,” where they are “capricious and likely at any given moment to blow strongly from directions other than west.” This a place where fate will play a strong role. Nainoa will count on the westerlies to carry Hokule’a rapidly 500 miles to the east where he will once more change direction, this time north 300 miles to intersect the latitude of Rapa Nui.

Approaching Rapa Nui from the west, Nainoa’s course takes on a jerky zigzag motion across the last 300 miles to landfall. This is a search pattern. Rapa Nui is only 2000 feet high so a navigator, staring out from the deck of a canoe low to the ocean, cannot see the island until it is only 15 miles away. This “distance of sighting” determines the angle of each zig and zag in Nainoa’s course. If the angle is too wide, the canoe may sail past the island into the empty ocean beyond where the next landfall is Chile, 2000 miles distant. If it is too narrow, it will dangerously increase the sailing time to Rapa Nui, perhaps pushing navigator and crew beyond their limits of endurance.

Other factors are woven into the calculus of Nainoa’s course line. The optical qualities of the atmosphere, for example. If the canoe arrives in the latitude of Rapa Nui during October, as Nainoa hopes it will, he should encounter cool dry air flowing from southern polar regions. Cool air cannot carry moisture and so it is clear air which should extend Rapa Nui’s “distance of sighting.” Nainoa has also considered the phases of the moon. On October 23rd, a full moon will rise to the east of Rapa Nui, so from the deck of a canoe approaching from the west, the island will be silhouetted against the horizon.

This voyage to Rapa Nui begins as so many others – with passion and desire. For twenty-three years this has been sufficient. Somehow volunteers showed up when they were needed. Money was found. The logistics of moving relief crews across oceans and against a snarl of airline timetables were solved. Food was provided, sails were patched, broken spars repaired. But as Keone proceeds with the traditional dictates of ancient protocol a new problem looms. It is born in the success of the previous voyages, in their comprehensiveness, in the vision of Hawaiian rebirth itself. Hokule’a has brought home its message of pride. Now more Hawaiians want to participate; they want to learn the skills of their forefathers. It’s also a goal of the organizers of the voyages – the Polynesian Voyaging Society. For the past two years, Hokule’a has sailed among the Hawaiian islands, from Oahu to Molokai, Molokai to Maui and so on – taking school children on their own abbreviated voyages of discovery. Wrapped around these voyages are courses in history, mathematics, astronomy. Test scores are up. Attitudes have changed. In this charged atmosphere of local achievement, some Hawaiians are questioning whether a new voyage to a distant landfall is a wise expenditure of resources. It may be difficult to raise the half million dollars needed to undertake the deep ocean passage to Rapa Nui.

Accompanied by Bruce and Nainoa, Keone ascends to Hokule’a’s deck where he completes the blessing by splashing her twin hulls with the last of the water from his calabash. Then he turns to Nainoa and Bruce.

“The canoe has been purified,” he says. “Do you now accept responsibility for her and for the crew who will sail aboard on the voyages to come?”

With their assent, Keone hands Nainoa and Bruce two small bundles of bananas, a symbol of Kanaloa, god of the sea, into whose keeping they are now once more committed.