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.