Lessons – from the voyage to Rapa Nui

Lessons – from the voyage to Rapa Nui

By Sam Low

 At about 10 AM, local time, a few hours after having seen Rapa Nui ahead off our port bow, Nainoa called us all aft to share some thoughts about the voyage. Bruce, Chad and Nainoa spoke – here are their words:

Nainoa: The voyage is pau and this gives me almost an empty feeling. But everyone should be proud of this accomplishment. We have traveled to the last corner of the Polynesian triangle and that achievement is not just ours – it belongs to everyone who has donated a portion of the millions of man hours spent taking care of the canoe over the almost 25 years since her creation.

We worked hard to prepare for this voyage but it was not just academic preparation and physical training that got us here. It was my plan to continue sailing southeast and tack back northeast at sunset – but the wind shifted northeast and if we tacked we would have been going back the way we had come. So instead I decided to follow the wind around and in the morning the island was off our port bow. The wind brought the canoe here. It’s about mana. Hokule’a has latent, quiet, sleeping mana when she is tied up at the pier in Honolulu. But when the canoe is sailed by people with deep values and serious intent the mana comes alive – she takes us to our destination.

The mana is inside all of us. It’s tied to our ancestry and our heritage. Sometime, in the press of daily life, we neglect it. But when we come aboard this canoe and commit our spirits and souls and lives to a voyage like this one, I think we all feel it. I know I do. This is a very privileged moment for all of us – we have stepped inside that realization of mana on this voyage.

When we go back to our special island home, we need to remember this moment. Mana comes from caring and commitment and values. We malama our canoe and she takes care of us. When we return to Hawaii we need to remember to malama our islands just as we do this canoe. We need to commit ourselves to the values that give life meaning. This canoe is so special – and our island home is also very special – if we learn to care for our land and our ocean they will also take care of us.

Bruce: A lot of things have happened on this voyage that gave me chicken skin. The port hull of the canoe is the wahine hull and the starboard hull is the Kane hull. The symbolism is that the male and the female forces give us life. The symbolism is that they also balance each other – they help each other survive in the ocean.

The mana in this canoe comes from all the people in the past who have sailed aboard Hokule’a and cared for her. I think of the literally thousands of people who have come down and given to the canoe when she was in dry dock. I think of Bruno Schmidt in Mangareva who showed up with his truck every morning to take us wherever we needed to go. I think of the people in Tautira and Aotearoa and the Marquesas who did the same. The list is endless. All of this malama – this caring – adds to the mana of the canoe. It is intangible but it is alive and well. We can all feel it. I just want to acknowledge it.

In this crew we have shown a nice respectful balance. We have shown that we all know how to work hard and how to treat each other well and that was one of the most memorable parts of the voyage for me. The work ethic among this crew was fabulous. There was not one negative word. This kind of caring for each other is part of the on-going rediscovery of what voyaging is all about.

Chad: What made this voyage so special for me was that I felt so comfortable because I knew I was among people who had earned their spot on the crew. You guys are my heroes because you all showed such a dedicated professionalism. I am proud to have sailed with you. Now we have another special journey ahead of us – to return the canoe home to our own special part of the Polynesian triangle and by doing that we honor not only our ancestors but all those people at home who have supported us at home.

October 10, 1999 – Landfall Rapa Nui

October 10, 1999 – Landfall Rapa Nui

By Sam Low

Sam Low Photo – Max Yarawamai points to Rapa Nui, Aaron Young is not fully awake…

“Garlic Eggs for Breakfast!” Says Terry Hee, carrying the last two dozen eggs past a group of smiling crew members lining the rail. Terry had planned to ration the eggs for another day at least, but now there is no reason. We have seen land–and the land is definitely Rapa Nui!

Yesterday at sunrise we set our course SSE, beginning the first real leg of our zigzag search pattern. Nainoa intended to tack back N at sunset but the wind curved NE making that impossible. So instead of tacking, he decided to follow the wind around and steer ESE. This was a risky strategy. Although the Navigator’s dead reckoning placed us well W of Rapa Nui, what if they were wrong and we were S of it or even to the E? We would sail by the island in the night.

To make matters worse, we had not seen the stars for two nights and our latitude was therefore based on dead reckoning from star sights that were 48 hours old. And without either sun or stars to steer by, the navigators had been relying on an unexpected blessing–a steady swell from the SW. But had the swell changed direction?

“This wind is a gift to us to go E,” Nainoa explained to us last night. “So I say let’s go. It’s scary, but it’s exciting. If our dead reckoning is good, and I think it is, we should take the chance.”

Last night and on into the morning the winds continued to blow strong from the NE and Hokule`a responded by speeding ESE–6 to 7 knots at times–slicing through the waves, producing long tendrils of spray from her bow.

Near dawn, Max Yarawamai spotted two holes in the clouds ahead low on the horizon. Born and raised on the low Micronesian atoll of Ulipi, Max’s ability to see islands at great distance is almost legend aboard Hokule`a.

“I looked carefully at the two holes on the horizon,” Max explained later, “Checking first the one on the starboard side. I saw nothing there so I switched to the puka on the port. I saw a hard flat surface there and I watched it carefully. Was it an island? The shape didn’t change! It was an island alright. We had found the dot on the ocean.”

“I didn’t expect to see the island this soon,” Nainoa told us later. “But we knew it was near. We were following the wind around–steering more E as time went by–and the wind drew us to the island. That’s a fact–you make of it what you want. In the end all we did was follow the wind, Hokule`a found the land.”

Hokule`a is now tacking toward Rapa Nui which is about 25 miles away, but upwind, so it is uncertain whether she will make landfall late this afternoon or early tomorrow morning.


A Challenge to Learn

A Challenge to Learn
Interview with Nainoa Thompson
day of departure for Rapa Nui

“Learning is all about taking on a challenge, no matter what the outcome may be. When we accept the challenge we open ourselves to new insight and knowledge.”–Thoughts of Navigator Nainoa Thompson on the Mission of the Quest for Rapa Nui, Just Before Departing from Mangareva (09/20/99).

In the last few days, I have just tried to get quiet, calm and to study–that is how I prepare. I am thinking all the time about home, about the voyage, the weather, the crew, about what we have to do to make this work.

I think about home a lot because that’s why we do this. We love our homes, we love our people, we love our culture and our history, and we want to strengthen them–this is our opportunity, our chance to do something to support all those who care about these things. I want to thank all the people who gave so much to allow this voyage to take place, but who are not here now. They allowed us to take the risk, to do all of this.
I want to thank all the families and children involved for giving us the chance to go. This voyage is about people–it’s about all our people.

When I think back on my life, it’s clear that I had no way of knowing that I would be here now doing what I am doing. When I began studying in school and gaining knowledge, sometimes I doubted the importance of that effort. But it’s the knowledge that I gained with the help of so many teacher that is allowing me to do what we are about to do. So I just hope that all our children will keep on pursuing knowledge because none of us know where we are going, but at some point in our lives, that knowledge will allow us to jump off into the unknown, to take on new challenges, and that’s what I consider before every one of these voyage…the challenge. Learning is all about taking on a challenge, no matter what the outcome may be. When we accept the challenge we open ourselves to new insight and knowledge.

When we voyage, and I mean voyage anywhere, not just in canoes, but in our mind, new doors of knowledge will open. and that’s what this voyage is all about..it’s about taking on a challenge to learn. If we inspire even one of our children to do the same, then we will have succeeded.



Makana – a story from the voyage to Rapa Nu

a story from the voyage to Rapa Nui
by Sam Low

Makanani Attwood is one of Hokulea’s kupuna. He has voyaged aboard her – or on the escort vessel (it makes no difference to him how he serves the mission) – always providing his gift of support. Everywhere he goes, he brings gifts’s that he fashions by hand.

A few hours before our departure from Mangareva, I am riding in the back of our host Bruno Schmitt’s Land Rover with Makanani Attwood, a crew member of the first leg from Hawai’i to Nukuhiva who has continued on as a crew member of the escort boat. We carry a two foot by three foot sandstone slab, with strange symbols etched into its surface. Makanani is an elfin man in his forties, with a pointed beard and a gleam in his eyes, which seem to explode with mirth when he speaks, which he does now in non-stop commentary on the meaning of life, the voyage to Rapa Nui, his ancestors, and the significance of the slab we are conveying to a garden in front of Bruno’s house.

“This is a traditional way of recording of a historic event,” Maka explains. “It’s a petroglyph which I carved to give to Bruno in return to his hospitality in Mangareva. It’s a mo’olelo, a story, which could easily be oral, in an oli or chant, but in this case, it’s carved in stone.”

As the truck bumps along Rikitea’s main road past the gendarmerie and the post office, Maka runs his finger over the design he has etched into the stone. “Here is a representation of Hokule’a , and this is Kama Hele . Here is a mano, a shark, which represents one of our ancestral guardian spirits, an ‘aumakua. I chose the mano because it is an ‘aumakua that is common to many of the families of crew members sailing on the two vessels. The mano was chosen for another reason: when Hokule’a passed through the reef surrounding Mangareva, a number of crew members saw a shark swim directly in front of the canoe…Timmy Gilliom saw it clearly. The shark seemed to be guiding us through the reef and as soon as we got through safely, it disappeared.”

The Land Rover now bumps over the final dirt road leading to Bruno’s house. We pass by the technical school created by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and arrive at Bruno’s bungalow which is set on an ample lot bordering the ocean . We unload the petroglyph, and the three of us struggle to lug it to its space in Bruno’s garden. With Bruno and his wife present, Maka continues his explanation of its significance: “I also carved a mo’o, a lizard, which is a land ‘aumakua. The mo’o lives in freshwater streams on land, so now we have here both a land and an ocean ‘aumakua, a lizard and a shark which represent the fact that all life depends on the land and ocean, which is a typical way that all island people think.”

Now maka points to a checkerboard of depressions, sixty-four of them. “This is a konane board. Konane is an ancient game of kings, which is equivalent to chess. Konane is symbolic of wisdom; it makes me thinks of the need for our leaders to plan carefully to care for our land and our ocean, to malama our natural resources. One goal of our voyage to Rapa Nui to encourage all of us to respect our natural world, the sea we sail over, the islands that we sail to.”

For a time we all sit quietly, admiring the petroglyph and the garden, and listening to the chickens in a nearby henhouse and Bruno’s sheep bleating in a pasture a short distance away. Maka, a man who is usually in constant motion, seems serene. The petroglyph is the last of many gifts he has presented to our Mangarevan hosts. Since his arrival on the island, he has carved about three dozen nose flutes which he has given away to children all over Rikitea. He also made a konane board for Bianca and Benoir, a couple who hosted a reception for the crew. From the crooked branches of trees he made and gave away a lomi stick–a traditional implement to massage the body.

“I don’t have money for tee-shirts to give away, so I make things on every island we visit. These gifts are what we call makana, an exchange from one seafaring family to another, meant to memorialize and enhance our cultural integrity. They are given in simple appreciation for the hospitality we have received. They are a part of our ancestral protocol of meeting and greeting one another as a family of seafaring people. Our voyages are also what we from Hawai’i offer as our gift to the islands we visit. Voyaging is about the spirit of exploration and the renewal of our culture. The people we meet say we have not forgotten our Polynesian heritage; they say onipa’a stand fast.”

I recall these words now as I sit quietly in Bruno’s garden, sharing a moment that transcends time. Maka’s petroglyph memorialize both the heritage from our past and the hope for our future as island people united by an ocean we all share and a common urge to sail upon it. In about an hour, we will rejoin as a crew, offer a prayer for the success of our voyage and go aboard the vessels and head out to find Rapa Nui .


Preparations – A story from the voyage to Rapa Nui


A story from the voyage to Rapa Nui

By Sam Low

“Success is ninety-five percent in the preparation,” said Pinky Thompson when he took over as president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, “it’s what will ensure that we arrive at the island we are seeking.”

September 11, 1999: On the Hawaiian Air flight to Tahiti, Captain Nainoa Thompson is leaning over his seat, talking with crewmembers Shantell Ching and Mike Tongg. They discuss the weather-a series of low and high pressure systems are migrating from west to east along the track they will take from Mangareva to Rapa Nui – and they assess the possibility of riding one of the lows to the east.

“It takes about 40 hours for a low to pass and it will bring winds from the west,” Nainoa says, “so if we jump off and sail with it, we can extend our time in the low to about 60 hours. At six knots that gives us 360 miles. Getting east may not be as much of a problem as we think, but finding the island, that will be a problem. Rapa Nui is tiny and there will be few if any birds to help us find it. This is going to be a very mentally demanding trip.”

Everyone in the crew knows the voyage will be unlike any they have made before and they have all prepared themselves for it in unique ways. Aaron Young, for example, stays awake for 20 hours at a time, sleeping three or four, then practices what he calls “keeping busy.” “One thing you don’t want to do is let yourself get in a rut on the canoe,” he says. ” You have to find something to do, be helpful, vigilant, look around to see what needs to be done. And to prepare mentally for that, I don’t allow myself any sloppy land habits, putting things off, for example. So before I leave on a voyage I get real busy doing chores-it gets my mind in shape for the discipline needed to be on the canoe.”

Aaron also takes cold showers and increases his already strenuous level of physical exercise. “It’s hard to go from a comfortable life on land where you sleep in a warm bed to being aboard the canoe where you are often cold and wet and you take baths in seawater and go to the bathroom over the side,” he says.

Farther back in the aircraft’s cabin, Doctor Ben Tamura, the medical officer, is reading an article entitled, “Preventive and Empiric Treatment of Traveler’s Diarrhea,” which was written by a colleague, Dr. Vernon Ansdell of Kaiser Hospital, a specialist in travel medicine. How has he prepared himself personally for the voyage? “I tend to get tendinitis when hauling on lines,” he explains, “so a few months before leaving I carry a tennis bail in my car. On the way to the hospital in the morning, I squeeze it with my left hand and coming back home at night, I squeeze it with my right to strengthen my arm and wrist muscles.”

He also spends a lot more time than normal in the sun and he changes his toilet routine. “It’s not so easy to go to the bathroom in public,” he explains, “so I get myself used to it by changing my routine. I began to use the lavatory at the hospital rather than the private one in my home. You know, on the canoe when you go to the bathroom the navigator is sitting just sixteen inches above you.”

As on his last two voyages, Ben rewrote his will and spent a lot of time, even though on vacation, cleaning house as he puts it-tidying up his office work, sweeping out the garage, mowing the lawn-so he can focus totally on the voyage when its time to leave. He also conducted mental dry-runs of what each day aboard Hokule’a might be like-counting up the number of tee shirts, shorts, towels and underwear he might need.

“That helped me pack just what was really necessary,” he says, “and allowed me to simplify, to lighten up on what I brought.”

The result? Instead of four shorts, he brought two; three towels were replaced by one; and five tee shirts became two. But perhaps the most important preparation was what Aaron calls “tolerance training”- getting his mind ready for the kind of caring-of aloha-that the voyage will require. Tolerance training is partly a matter of daily meditation in which Ben visualizes life on the canoe, and partly a matter of daily “anger control exercises.”

“I took the last ten days off from work,” he explains, “and spent a lot of time surfing. I practiced letting other surfers take a wave, even though I was in position for it, and not getting pissed off when a surfer dropped in on me. Another thing I did,” he continues, “was even more difficult-practicing tolerance in commuter traffic.”

Sitting next to Ben on the Hawaiian Airlines flight to Tahiti is Mike Tongg. He says: “I began to prepare about three months before going to Mangareva,” he says. “Every voyage is special. I feel like I am a servant of the canoe and, given my age (55 years old) I need to get in shape to handle the sails, the steering, and being in a difficult environment for so long. I also get ready mentally. I need to disassociate myself from the land and prepare my mind for the ocean and I do that by spending more time on boats. I begin to study the clouds and pay attention to the tides, be aware of sunrise and sunset, I try to get back in tune with nature.”

Mike also reads his old diaries, written on the voyages he took in 1980, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1992, and 1995. He exercises physically and he gets in touch with members of the crew to rekindle, as he puts it, “that bond of ‘ohana with the family I will sail with.”

“This voyage will test us,” says Nainoa. “There is no question about it. Each person aboard Hokule’a and Kama Hele is totally committed to this voyage spiritually, mentally and physically.” Pausing for a moment, Nainoa peers out the window. He sees empty ocean below, a route he has sailed perhaps a dozen times. But the voyage to Rapa Nui will be across another part of this ocean that is totally new for him and his crew.

The Family of the Canoe

The Family of the Canoe
Voyage to Rapa Nui
by Sam Low


Voyaging is more than finding a destination – it is a process of refining one’s values, of seeking balance – pono – in life.

The crew for the voyage to Rapa Nui has been chosen from the most experienced of more than two thousand men and women who have voyaged aboard the canoe. There is, for example, Mike Tongg, 55, lawyer – a veteran of a dozen voyages; Shantell Ching, apprentice navigator, teacher – with more than 25,000 sea miles and Aaron Young, rescue team leader Honolulu Fire Department who has made six voyages. “Experience is important in how I select a crew,” says captain and head navigator Nainoa Thompson, “ but the most important thing I look for is values – do the men and women I sail with share the kind of values that will allow them to blend with each other and deal with the rigors of the voyage?”

Confronting the sea on long voyages, Nainoa has had time to integrate what he has learned into a general philosophy that he calls “wayfinding” which he distinguishes from navigation – the technical art of finding land without instruments or charts. He has told me that wayfinding is “a way of organizing the world.” He also says that it’s “a way of leading,” “of finding a vision,” “a set of values,” and, in general, “a model for living my life.” Nainoa’s vision of wayfinding contains principals that appear astonishingly universal and timeless, while also rooted in values that are deep in Hawaiian culture.

“Our ancestors began all of their voyages with a vision,” Nainoa explains. “They envisioned another island over the horizon and they set out to find these islands for a thousand years, eventually moving from one island stepping stone to another across a space that is larger than all of the continents of Europe combined.”

“Once you have the vision of a landfall over the horizon, you need to plan how to get there, how to navigate, how much food you need. You must evaluate the skills you need to carry out the plan and then you must train yourself to get those skills. You need discipline to train. Then, when you leave land, you must have a cohesive crew – a team – and that requires aloha – a deep respect for each other. The key to wayfinding is to employ all these values. You are talking about running a ship, getting everybody on board to support the intent of the voyage, and getting everybody to work together. So it’s all there – vision, planning, training, discipline and aloha for others. After a while, if you apply all those values, it becomes a way of life.”

Nainoa’s concept of wayfinding is not exclusive to him. It is, in fact, a voyaging subculture shared by everyone aboard.

“Voyaging aboard Hokule’a has really taught me a lot about the word aloha – love,” says doctor Ben Tamura, “it’s a word that is really misunderstood. People think it’s about sex or that you can only have real love between a man and a woman. That’s not what I’m talking about. My other trips have given me a feeling of what love is in an altruistic sense that I can’t put into words easily. It’s different than the media or even in classic literature portrays the way love. It’s like the word “aloha.” How can you define that? There are so many different meanings.”

Mike Tongg prepares for each voyage by getting in touch with members of the crew to rekindle, as he puts it, “that bond of ‘ohana (of family) with the people I will sail with.”

“The spiritual side of life is real important to me,” Mike continues. “The Lord has given me this opportunity for a purpose. In the past voyages, He has taught me that the strength to deal with hardships comes from within. I also look to the leaders of the voyage to learn from them. I see what I call a spiritual intellect in Bruce and Nainoa, for
example. They are dedicated and focused so that is one ethic that I try to emulate. In the past, in order to survive, the navigators had to focus and they needed inner strength. I need the same thing as a crew member, so I try to work hard on that.”

“When I was younger,” says Mike Tong, “voyaging was an adventure-a test-I just wanted to go, I didn’t think about much else, just getting on the canoe. But now I think about my family and being sure they are comfortable with my sailing. I think about my larger ‘ohana, my community, and that all of us on the canoe represent our islands and our people-maybe hopefully even the aspirations of all people on planet earth. I think about what values the voyage has for all of us-both those aboard the canoe and those at home-the values of aloha, malama, of team work, self discipline, and of always having a larger vision of why we sail which will carry us through the hardships ahead.”

“The concept of malama,” explains Tongg, “may have evolved from our heritage of long distance voyaging. Our ancestors learned they had to take care of the canoe and that if they did, the canoe would take care of them; they also learned that they had to take care of each other.”

In the last decade or so, the philosophy of wayfinding has “moved ashore” so to speak. New words have entered the wayfinding vocabulary, “stewardship” for example, or “sustainable environments.” The ancient philosophy of wayfinding is now merging with the modern concepts of environmentalism, as Navigator Chad Baybayan explains:

“To be a wayfinder, you need certain skills – a strong background in ocean sciences, oceanography, meteorology, environmental sciences – so that you have a strong grounding in how the environment works. When you voyage, you become much more attuned to nature. You begin to see the canoe as nothing more than a tiny island surrounded by the sea. We have everything aboard the canoe that we need to survive as long as we marshal those resources well. We have learned to do that. Now we have to look at our islands, and eventually the planet, in the same way. We need to learn to be good stewards.”



“A Sea of Islands”

“A Sea of Islands”
by Sam Low

Where land people see a barrier – island people see a road.

Seeing the Pacific as ancient Polynesians once did is a bit like the problem of perceiving solids and voids in the art of M.C. Escher. When you first look at Escher’s work you see only the solid figures in his composition. Then, blinking, the voids between the solids pop into view – a different perception of his work, crafted by the artist as a clinical psychologist might conjure optical illusions to test human perception – the perplexing difference between foreground and background.

Continental people, looking down on Hawaii from an airplane, see tiny islands in an immense ocean. When they deplane and travel around, the landscape often seems tinier still. Some visitors to Hawaii who come with plans to settle are so afflicted with this perception they get a malady called “island fever” and depart hastily. Of the total island world constructed by land and ocean, they see merely the land. But perhaps the ancient Polynesians perceived not the limits of tierra firma, not the foreground in the parlance of scholars of perception, but rather the boundless space of the ocean around them, the background. From this mental vantage point Polynesia is huge – larger than all the continents of Europe combined – and it is composed of islands joined, not separated, by ocean.

Thoughts like these have come to Nainoa Thompson unbidden during his lifetime of sailing and thinking about the process that he calls wayfinding – a concept that includes navigation but also embodies, as he once said simply, “a way of conducting yourself, a way of life.” Which is to say a way of looking at the world – what anthropologists call “culture” and philosophers call “cosmology.”

“I think that how people make a living, how they survive, and how their culture evolves are all interrelated,” Nainoa once said. “Pacific Islanders are ocean people. They know how to live and survive within the ocean environment. I think that people who for generations almost without end have evolved in an ocean world evolved a much different culture compared to people who lived in large land masses like continents.”

Pondering the difference between the perceptions of continental people (or mainlanders as they are sometimes called in Hawaii) and Pacific islanders, Nainoa’s reasoning goes something like this: survival is the engine of world view; Pacific people had to sail to survive because they needed to find new land to accommodate their expanding populations; whenever they sailed out from their home islands, they found new ones; therefore the world view of Pacific islanders must been one of almost infinite space. Even though the individual islands they lived on may have been small, Nainoa reasons, to his ancestors of long ago the sea and the many islands it contained must have seemed infinite.

“Maybe,” He says, “our ancestors didn’t think of the ocean as having boundaries. We simply don’t know. If we look at their oral histories and study their genealogies, we find evidence of long ocean voyages and we find connections between different families living on islands a great distance apart. That tells me that my ancestors considered their world to be very large, an immense undefined ocean world. I think that’s a much different view of the world than the one I imagine a continental people might have. I think that people who lived on large land masses saw their world as much more finite and bounded.”

This is a thought that is interesting enough in itself (it’s always edifying to journey around in the minds of people from distinct cultures) but it’s also a thought that has political implications among scholars who are rethinking the future role of Pacific peoples – Professor Epeli Hau’ofa, for example, a sociologist at the University of the South Pacific.

For years, Hau’ofa had accepted the view that most of today’s Pacific islands are, as he puts it, “much too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated from the centers of economic growth for their inhabitants ever to rise above their present condition of dependence on the largesse of wealthy nations.” But being a Pacific Islander himself, this view of the world that did not please him.

As a teacher, Hau’ofa became more and more disillusioned the more he propagated this dark vision to his students: “…the faces of my students continued to haunt me mercilessly,” he wrote in an article published in The Contemporary Pacific – A Journal of Island Affairs. “I began asking questions of myself. What kind of teaching is it to stand in front of young people from your own region… who have come to the university with high hopes for the future, and you tell them that our countries are hopeless?”

Hau’ofa began to think he might be a part of the problem rather than the part of the solution and this thought caused him to rummage around in the history of his people. Doing so, he came to conclusions similar to the ones that Nainoa was pondering a few thousand miles away in Hawaii.

Hau’ofa reasoned that Pacific peoples today consider themselves inhabitants of tiny, remote and resource poor islands largely because of recent boundaries drawn around them by European colonizers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The French and English, for example, created an arbitrary border between French Polynesia (Tahiti and her sister islands) and the Cooks and New Zealand – alienating a Pacific people who had for centuries exchanged goods and genes with one another. The Marshall Islands; Easter Island; Tonga, Samoa and Fiji were likewise partitioned into tiny colonial states and eventually all of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia suffered the same fate. Dominated by continental nations, islanders began to think of their once infinite watery world as did their colonial masters. “When those who hail from continents… see a Polynesian or Micronesia island,” Hau’ofa wrote, “they naturally pronounce it small or tiny. Their calculation is based entirely on the extent of the land surfaces they see.”

“But if we look at the myths, legends, and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania,” Hau’ofa continued, “it becomes evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions.”

“Smallness,” Hau’ofa later wrote, “is a state of mind.”

It’s a powerful state of mind, though. One that continues to give people from the “mainlands” of the world difficulty when confronting the “big thoughts” now reforming in the imagination of Pacific peoples. Thoughts, for example, of sovereignty in Hawaii and other islands that were once nations or confederacies of nations, thoughts, even, that the oceanic “sea of nations” might provide a model for the rest of the world.

“There are no people on earth,” Hau’ofa writes, “more suited to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom in has been home for generations.”


Kama Hele – The Ultimate Escort Vessel

Kama Hele-The Ultimate Escort Vessel
by Sam Low

Elsa and Alex Jakubenko have provided a life-time of service, protecting the crews of Hokule’a on many of her voyages. To accomplish this mission, Alex created a special vessel with his own hands…

Hokule’a’s escort boat is a 45-foot steel sloop called Kama Hele-the floating home of Elsa and Alex Jakubenko. Kama Hele was built by Alex, who first began constructing sailing yachts and fishing boats in Australia in 1949. “Kama Hele” means “Traveler” as well as “A strong branch off of the trunk of a tree.” The Kama Hele has accompanied Hokule’a on all of her voyages since 1992. Alex and Elsa’s first encounter with The Polynesian Voyaging Society began in a roundabout way in 1972, when they moved to Taiwan to build a 65-foot ketch, Meotai. Meotai was launched in 1974 and eventually purchased from the original owner by Honolulu business man Bob Burke who would use her as Hokule’a’s escort vessel on the first historic voyage to Tahiti in 1976.

When Hokule’a arrived in Tahiti, Alex and Elsa were there aboard an earlier Jakubenko built sloop called Ishka. “I saw the tremendous reception that the Tahitians gave the canoe,” Alex remembers, “you would have to be there to believe it. Within twenty-four hours there were at least twenty new songs about the canoe. The voyage gave the people so much pride and excitement that both Elsa and I wanted to do something to help. But at the time, we had no idea what.”

Later that year, the couple returned to Hawaii where Alex worked at Kehi Dry dock where Hokule’a was brought for overhaul after the 1976 voyage and for repair after she capsized on her 1978 trip to Tahiti. In 1980, Alex and Elsa began to escort Hokule’a with Ishka. While towing the canoe to Hilo for her departure to Tahiti, Ishka and Hokule’a were struck by a terrible storm. Even with Ishka’s engines going at full speed, she could not make headway and, for a time, the two vessels were in danger of being wrecked off the Hamakua coast of the Big Island. Fortunately, good seamanship on both escort and canoe saved the day.

“If it were not for Ishka and Alex, Hokule’a might not be here today,” says navigator Bruce Blankenfeld. This near disaster would provide valuable experience once Alex began to build Kama Hele.

Sailing aboard Ishka, Alex and Elsa were with Hokule’a all the way on the 1980 voyage to Tahiti and back during which Nainoa, under the watchful eyes of Mau Piailug, navigated the canoe for the first time.

During the next ten years, while other escort vessels followed in the wake of Hokule’a Alex turned his attention to building steel trawlers. But he kept thinking about his experiences and the unique needs of the escort mission. In 1991, When Nainoa asked him if he would escort Hokule’a on the voyage to Rarotonga for the Arts Festival there in 1992, Alex said yes. But he would do so with a completely new vessel, one custom built for escort duty.

In 1991, Alex laid the keel for what he hoped would be the “ultimate escort vessel” – Kama Hele. Working with a basic design by marine architect Bruce Roberts, Alex made many changes to adapt the vessel for her duties with Hokule’a. “When I thought about the design of this vessel,” Alex says, “I tried to remember everything that we did right with the earlier vessels and ways to improve on our mistakes. The vessel had to meet all the requirements of escorting the canoe so that it would never fail in her mission, and that meant being able to take a tow in all kinds of weather.” In addition, the escort had to be small enough so that she would not overshadow the canoe yet large enough to carry sufficient fuel for the duration of the trip.”

“She should also,” Alex explained, “have plenty of room for her crew and, if necessary, for the crew of the Hokule’a. And she must be fast enough so as to never slow down the canoe.”

The vessel that took shape in Alex’s yard – Hawaiian Steel Boatbuilding – was a 45-foot sloop with a graceful sheer line from bow to stern. She was equipped with fuel tanks that could carry 1700 gallons of diesel, enough to allow her to steam up to 5000 miles without refueling. She is powered by a Detroit 371 diesel engine that Alex describes as “old fashioned, the kind they use in tanks or landing craft. But it will go forever and it is simple to maintain.” The engine turns a propeller that is 28 inches in diameter, at least three times the normal size, one that Alex took from a 44-foot tugboat. Kama Hele carries a desalinator that is capable of producing 40 gallons of fresh water a day, more than enough for the crew of the canoe and escort combined. She is fully equipped with the latest radio and navigational gear. “The wiring was a difficult job and I needed help for that,” Alex explains, “so Jerry Ongias came down and spent a lot of time making sure that everything was done just right.” Also assisting Alex to meet his launch deadline were Paul Fukunaga and Jeff Merrik.

In 1992, on schedule, the new 45-foot sloop Kama Hele departed with Hokuel’a and set her course south to the Cook Islands, returning to Hawaii after a successful voyage. In 1995, Kama Hele once again headed south, this time in the company of two canoes, Hokule’a and Hawai’iloa, on yet another voyage to Tahiti where they would join up with a fleet of canoes from the Cook Islands, Aoteroa (New Zealand) and Tahiti, as well as one other canoe, Makali’i, from Hawaii. Departing Tahiti on the return trip, Kama Hele proved her mettle as a mini tug by towing two canoes simultaneously, Hawai’iloa and Te Aurere, the Måori canoe, from Tahiti to the Marquesas – all the way into strong headwinds. From the Marquesas to Hawaii, Kama Hele escorted Hawai’iloa and shortly after reaching port, she turned around and escorted the Cook Island canoe,
Takitumu back to Rarotonga.

“Elsa and Alex are at sea more than any of us,” says Nainoa Thompson. “They have both proven over and over again that they are totally committed to the mission of our voyages.”

“You might be able to find someone to go on escort duty who had a good boat,” says Bruce Blankenfeld, “but you would not find a captain like Alex. When he says he will do something, you can be absolutely certain that it will be done.”

In 1998, when Nainoa once again asked Alex and Elsa if they would agree to serve one last time, the couple could be forgiven if they had demurred. Alex and Elsa were then both in their late 70s. But, after due consideration, they agreed to take on the challenge of sailing to Rapa Nui.

“Well, you know, even at my age a person looks for a little adventure. It can get pretty boring sometimes in Honolulu,” Elsa says when explaining why she decided to come on what may be the most difficult voyage of all.


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.


Memories of Mau Piailug

Memories of Mau

Hokule’a crew talk story about their great teacher

…just his way of sensing things.

Dennis Chun: “I asked Mau, ‘How long it took you to learn to navigate?’ He said, ‘How long? One hundred fifty years.’ I looked at him and…. no way? He knew that I was puzzled. He looked at me seriously. ‘I learned from my great grandfather, my grandfather and my father, all of them teach me.’ He’s right, he’s the culmination of everything that came down to him. It made me think about it in another way.

And just his way of sensing things. He would be sitting down in his hole (compartment), writing in a notebook, or making one net or something, and I remember one time I was steering and I think I am doing okay and I feel this tug on my leg, and he goes, ‘Dennis, too high.’ I’m thinking, ‘how does he know?’ He just senses things.

We were sailing below the equator. It was weird. In 1985 we kind of hit two kinds of doldrum-like conditions, one in the normal place for it. We were stuck I think seven or ten days in the ITCZ area – we just got pounded and Nainoa got really tired. And we got out of that and – hey it’s downwind, downhill from there and then we hit this other section, a whole bunch of calms and the wind came out of all kinds of directions. It was between those two doldrums. It was really nice one evening, the whole day was nice, real mild but still fast, so we busted out the guitars. We were jamming, good fun. We were styling. Mau comes out of his hole and puts on his raincoat, a vinyl kind of raincoat, and pants the kind you buy at Costco. He puts this on and rubber bands on his ankles. We’re all having a good time. Good weather – and he puts on this stuff. Maybe a half an hour later the sky comes black and here we are, woah, put away our guitars, scramble to get on our foul weather gear. Rain for the next three days. How did he know? From there on – whatever he does – we follow him. That’s the time we came in on the tail end of a hurricane, Ignacio, three days. Within twenty-four hours we changed sails three or four times – busted ass – but we did it. He puts on his raincoat, doesn’t say anything. He feels these things even before we see them. Clay Bertelmann says, ‘Hey Mau, why you no tell us?’ He says, ‘you should know.’ It was a good lesson.”

…one hundred and one ways to use a coconut.

Billy Richards: “Mau is an incredible person. We were fortunate back then in learning from him. It was more than navigation. He taught us one hundred and one ways to use a coconut. Down at Snug Harbor he would teach us dances – in 1975 – because we were all living in the containers. Mau worked with us all day and at night we would have this star course – he would make you a star and then he would teach you this dance and as you move, the choreography of the dance is such that you understand the movement of the stars. Me – this star – in relation to you – your star – how we move together. He taught John (Kruse) how to make this Jew’s harp out of bamboo. He was our doctor. He was our mother. I went surfing at Queens one time and I crunched my knee. It got really huge. I came back to the container and he saw it. ‘You come.’ And he poured coconut oil on it and did this massage and the bruising went away. He was holistic. Navigation is just one part of him. There are so many others. For those of us who lived with him, or stayed with him down at the container we saw glimpses of it. And it is in my heart.”

…Plenty sons I have here.

Mau Piailug stepped out of his culture when he decided to pass on his navigational arts to Polynesians. He endured criticism at home. But no-one on Satawal came to ask him about navigation, and he was afraid his art would be lost….

Harry Ho: “Mau said to me, ‘But you know, Harry, I no like to lose sail. I no like to lose the stars. So I like to come to Hawaii because people like to learn about the stars. That’s why I come. More people come. We go to New Zealand – same thing – people come. No matter where we go, people come to ask me for help.’

That was his whole thing. He wanted to help. He wanted to keep navigation alive.

‘My sons they have families,’ Mau told me. ‘They have problems. My youngest son Seasario may be the only one that will follow me. Seasario – for me, my last hope. But I got many sons here. Plenty sons I have here. So I no worry now – I have more sons. I have sons in Cook Islands. I have sons in New Zealand. I have sons in Marquesas. For me I feel good inside. I feel happy.’

He talked about Honolulu. ‘Too many people busy. I go Big Island where people stay all the time.’ There were more people who focused on navigation there. On Oahu, people are all over the place. He was more comfortable there than he was here.

His whole idea was to expand his horizons by trying to teach more people so his art would not get lost. He said he didn’t care what happened when he went back to Satawal. ‘The chiefs want to take away this or that. It doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘they no can take away what happened over here (in Polynesia). They no can take away this. Everybody that comes inside here – in my heart – no can take. No can. It stays here with me (in my heart) – no can take.’”




…he talked to the stars…

Kimo Lyman: “Mau went to sea with an ancient wisdom that has been largely lost in modern Hawaii. In Hawaii today it is like the spirit and religion is separate from daily life and for him it is not. I remember that Mau, every morning before the sun came up he would be out there chanting. The 1986 voyage. I enjoyed the way he talked to the stars, talked to the winds, talked to the gods. Then he would say, ‘oh yeah, we get into this situation and I am going to make magic.’ I just loved it. Western man may call him a charlatan but he is not. He lived a life and he knew how to communicate. Inspiring.”