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.”