Crew Profile – Tava Taupu

Crew Profile – Tava Taupu
2000 – Tahiti to Hawaii
by Sam Low

 On April 6, 1945,Tava was born in Taiohae on Nukuhiva, Marquesas Islands. His father worked on a sailboat that made interisland trips carrying passengers. As a young man, Tava went to Tahiti to learn to carve wooden tikis from his uncle Joseph Kimitete. Pape’ete, the capital, was a place where young Tahitians like to rough up boys from the outlying islands, so Tava learned to box.

“When I went boxing, I got proud,” he recalls. “I was amateur, six rounds. I won’t drink anymore. I exercise, forget kid stuff, no more smoking cigarettes.” What Tava doesn’t tell you is that he boxed so well he earned the title of lightweight champion of French Polynesia.

“I first learned about Tava’s boxing when I was on a voyage with him in 1980,” recalls Chad Baybayan. “We were going to go out on the town and Tava began to get dressed up. Then he stood in front of the mirror and began shadowboxing. It was scary. I always knew him as an extremely gentle person, and now I was seeing his wild side. When we went into the bars, he would walk in the door like a superstar. People came up to talk to him. I was surprised how many people knew him in Pape’ete.”

In 1970 Tava came to Hawai’i on a visa arranged by Kimitete’s son. He worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie building traditional houses and carving tikis – in general carrying on the traditional arts of the Marquesas. In 1975, he saw Hokule’a for the first time.

“When I saw Hokule’a, I think ‘what is this big canoe?’ I never see big canoe like this in the Marquesas. We have 30-foot canoes with outriggers, single canoe, not double canoes. I am excited. It all comes back to me – my ancestors. I feel my ancestors all around me. I wonder how they sail this canoe? how they survive on the ocean? Right after seeing her, I began to work on her. I work at my job all week and go spend weekends working on the canoe.”

In 1975 Tava sailed on Hokule’a interisland. Later he learned from Mau Piailug how to build canoes in the traditional Pacific Island way, with sennit for lashing and coconut husk and breadfruit sap for caulking. At about the same time, he met Nainoa, who was just beginning to study the stars.

“I met Nainoa at Ala Wai. He is a very quiet guy because there is something he is learning by himself – the stars. I see him looking at the sky. I never know what he is looking at. ‘What you looking?’ I ask. He say, ‘I looking at stars. I learning navigation, to be a navigator.’ I try speaking Tahitian to him but he no understand me. He look at me and say, ‘Sorry I can’t understand.’ He was really quiet, and I very quiet too. I ask him what he looking at and he point to the sky. ‘You see that star over there?’ he says. He tells me navigator star. I don’t know which one. I say to myself, ‘What’s that ‘navigator star?’ I keep quiet but I thinking, what’s that navigator star?’”

Since meeting Nainoa and beginning to voyage aboard Hokule’a, Tava has sailed at least one leg on each major voyage. “I always ask Tava to come with me,” Nainoa says. “Tava loves the canoe and what it stands for. He gives the canoe his life, and the canoe gives him her life. Tava takes care of me while I am at sea and he provides a net of security around the entire crew. He makes it comfortable for me to concentrate on navigation.”

During one voyage, an important piece of equipment went overboard, and Nainoa impulsively went in after it. When he finally got back on board, he was shivering uncontrollably – near hypothermia. “I was just sitting there on deck unable to get warm and Tava came up from behind me and hugged me; he shared his warmth so his friend would not be cold.”

Tava’s personality emerges from what others say about him:

“First impressions of Tava can be off-putting – his head is shaven and he is clearly a strong man. If you saw him in a dark alley, you would surely turn around and walk the other way. That impression is rapidly dispelled when you meet him. There is a firm welcoming hand shake and a smile so genuine that it warms the room.”

“He’s genuinely kind. He lives by the standards he learned as a child growing up in the Marquesas.”

“He bridges the gap between the old and the new, between traditional and modern society. If you see him being greeted by the older people throughout Polynesia, you see the respect he is given.”

“He is powerfully intelligent, yet clear and direct in his thoughts and expression. He is clear about his role on this canoe.”

“He has a pure spirit and puts me at ease when I’m with him.”

“He sees what needs to be done and does it. He makes himself an integral part of doing any task. There is no work too hard for him.”

“He is a quiet, caring and gentle person, always there when you need him.”

“One of the most loving human beings I have ever met.”

“To look at him, you would be scared. Who is this guy – bald headed and mean looking? But he is a kind, kind man.”

It was surely the warm, loving side of Tava that his wife Cheryl saw in 1980 when they first met. Tava and Cheryl have two children – Rio, 18, and Helena, 6. Today when Tava is not sailing, he works for the National Park Service at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, as a cultural expert, demonstrating wood carving and canoe making.

“I like working there. Sometimes I work in the halau, sometimes I work on the roof, sometimes carving, or building a stone wall.”

Over the last 25 years Tava has become so integral to Hokule’a that to see her without him standing on her deck at the forward manu, dressed in his bright red malo would be like seeing the canoe with only one mast – or with some other key part of her missing. Yet this trip back from Tahiti may be his last.

“It’s time for retirement. I am 55 years old. I like see my wife on the land. I like build my house now. I am excited.”

Even so, in conversation with him on this voyage, it is clear that what Nainoa says of Tava is true – that he gives life to the canoe and receives life from her. When he leaves Hokule’a he will leave an important part of his life behind. “I will be sad because I am used to voyaging. But better for me to stay on land. I feel like crying, but I no cry. That is my rule – always show a smile to the canoe.”

It’s not that he will ever leave the canoe or her family completely, because he plans to make interisland voyages aboard her and because he knows he has left a part of himself behind with the new younger crew members.

“I come on the canoe when I am young, and now I am looking. Maybe some of the young people are like me. It’s time to leave the canoe, so the young people can learn. You have to learn to sail by hand – how to steer, how to trice, how to look at other people, how to behave. The canoe’s mana means all the crew take care of the canoe and the canoe take care of the crew. The canoe take you all the way home.”

“When I don’t sail, I don’t feel bad if I have trained other people. It is for you now, like Chad, like Bruce, like Shantell, like other young people. It’s your turn.”