The wind is quiet. The waters, still. The only ripples are those following children on paddleboards making large, awestruck circles around the double-hulled sailing canoe Hōkūleʻa. Ti-leaf garlands drape the bows. Sails remain wrapped and tied around the masts. In full wind, those sails will billow into a 50-foot spray of crimson, the color of a Hawaiian king’s cloak.
Hōkūleʻa has been harbored here in Palekai, a spring-fed cove near Hilo, for nearly a week now. Merchant ships, cargo containers and petroleum tanks surround this lava rock-girded bay. Hōkūleʻa seems like an island unto herself—undaunted, anchored, awaiting the winds to sail.
It has been a big-sun day, with a sharp horizon and no sight of clouds. Her captain is barefoot in blue jeans, adjusting the lines that swing the boom. His name is Charles Nainoa Thompson. He’s known as Nainoa. He has been navigating Hōkūleʻa for 35 years now, more than half his lifetime.
“You do not tell the winds what to do,” Nainoa has told his crew. “The winds tell you what to do.”
Right now, the winds say, wait.
The wait is teaching patience. Patience is key when you are about to launch on a three-year global voyage. First stop: Tuamotu, French Polynesia—two wind systems and 2,500 nautical miles away. Nainoa will trace the same path Polynesians sailed centuries ago when they explored and settled these islands. Like his forefathers, Nainoa will rely on the wind, moon, swells, birds, fish and stars as guides.
Using traditional wayfinding skills, Hōkūleʻa will be sailed through and eventually beyond Polynesia, crossing the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans, to connect with communities who care for the health of the oceans and our shared island, Earth. The mission is aptly called Mālama Honua—to care for the earth.
“Caring for the earth is in the traditions of Hawaiian ancestors for the world to use,” Nainoa says of his homelands. “Hōkūleʻa is the needle that collects the flowers that get sewn into a lei by Hawai‘i and gives it to the earth as an act of peace.”
Bruce Mealoha Blankenfeld will captain and navigate Hikianalia—just behind Hōkūleʻa—to Tahiti. Hōkūleʻa is the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the star that sits at the zenith above Hawai‘i; Hikianalia is the Hawaiian name for Spica, the star that rises alongside Hōkūleʻa. Hikianalia is a hybrid canoe, half-traditional, half-modern, sailed in the ancient navigational way but with 16 solar panels that can run motors in case Hōkūleʻa needs a tow.
Hōkūleʻa was originally built with the clear desire to help Hawaiians find their path. By the 1970s, the culture of sailing canoes had “been asleep,” as Bruce likes to say, for over 400 years.
But in 1973, three men founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society—artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kāne, expert waterman Charles Tommy Holmes and anthropologist Ben Finney. They wanted to prove that Polynesians were once master ocean navigators who purposely found and settled the Hawaiian Islands. They wanted to dispel the myth that Polynesians had happened onto Hawai‘i by drifting aimlessly along currents. They wanted to resurrect navigational knowledge and to revive the culture that had been diluted by colonization. Hula was forbidden in schools. Songs of the sea had been translated to suit tourists in Waikīkī. The native language was a whisper. When people lose their dance, songs and language, they risk losing their history and narratives—a part of their collective soul. The Polynesian Voyaging Society wanted to help Hawaiians rediscover their strength, wisdom and spirit.
The plan was to build a replica of a voyaging canoe and sail her across the trades to Tahiti. They researched the massive double-hulled sailing canoes of eastern Polynesia, designed to transport several thousand pounds of people and goods. They looked to oral, written and drawn historical records in Hawai‘i—including petroglyphs—to study the shape of the canoe and its sails. From this, they built Hōkūleʻa, a 62-foot-long wa‘a kaulua, double-hulled canoe, using plywood, fiberglass and resin, with twin masts, claw sails, no motor, a sweep as a rudder and a 20-foot broad deck, all held together by eight cross beams and five miles of lashings. But to make the passage authentic, they needed to sail without modern navigational instruments. They needed someone to lead them, someone who could, as Bruce explains it, “pull us through the curtain of time” so that Hawaiians could relearn what had been known centuries ago.
Opening that curtain of time meant traveling to a coral atoll in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, Satawal. There lived Pius “Mau” Piailug, a Pwo master navigator. Only a handful of Micronesians still knew the art of wayfinding, and none, other than Mau, were willing to share it outside their community.
Mau knew a navigational system that modern sailors had never before seen. It was something that Nainoa, then a 23-year-old crewman, yearned to understand. “If you can read the ocean,” Mau would say, “you will never be lost.”
Mau could read and discern eight separate patterns of ocean swells. Lying inside the hull, feeling the various waves hitting it, he could know the direction of the winds and the direction to steer the canoe. At dawn, he would study the horizon and predict the weather for the day to come. At dusk, he would predict the weather for dawn. And in the midst of a gale-swept, stormy night, days away from any safe harbor or land, Mau could steady the mind of a novice navigator—he could look the man in the eye and, with an unflinching gaze, tell him, “You are the light, you have the light within you to guide your family home.”
Some called it magic.
Bruce calls it being maka‘ala—vigilant, observant, awake.
In May of 1976, Mau safely guided Hōkūleʻa to Tahiti in 31 days. Upon entering the bay of Pape‘ete, the canoe was greeted by more than 17,000 Tahitians, over half the population, welcoming her and her crew home.
The clouds have come, lowering the sky. With them, a soft breeze blows, like a whisper over a bare shoulder.
Today was the day the canoes were scheduled to launch out of Hilo. But that date was set by man many moons ago.
Nainoa has let everyone here know that the canoes will not be sailing today, or tomorrow, or the day after.
When someone suggests that the winds are “ bad” for sailing, Nainoa is quick to correct. “The winds are never bad,” he says. “The winds are allowing us time …” The time to “deepen your understanding of why [you are] going on this voyage,” Nainoa explains. “The winds are allowing you that time.”
When Nainoa says “you,” you feel he means everyone gathered here at Palekai is being allowed this time to deepen the understanding. Bruce has echoed this to the hundreds who have come to bear witness to the sacred blessings of crew and canoes.
The ritual began in the starlit dawn, with the crew wading in the warm shallow waters of Mokuola, a small, sheltered island known as the “healing island” where King Kamehameha would go to be cleansed, strengthened and healed before and after his battles. There, the crew shared and drank the medicinal ‘awa.
The crew marked their bodies with turmeric and octopus ink. They listened to the complete genealogy of Hōkūleʻa, an incantation of all the places she has ever sailed. They then sailed to Palekai, where they received a procession of the Royal Order of King Kamehameha I, native Hawaiians with royal red velvet capes, who sang a hallowed song as they bowed, offering lei for protection.
“Now is the time, ultimately, to be very clear about who you serve,” Nainoa explains.
Several days pass. The flag of Hawai‘i has been raised on the mast. The winds are here, sending waves through the flag and shivers across the waters of Palekai.
It is time.
Hundreds line the rocks of the bay and even more along the shores, where crates of fruits and vegetables are being passed, arm to arm, in a long line to the crew making its final load onto the canoes.
A small dinghy carries the last of the crew to the canoes.
Someone calls out, “Enjoy the ride!”
Someone else calls, “A hui hou!”
In the coming days, the apprentice navigators will practice, alongside Nainoa and Bruce, guiding the canoes the ancient way.
The canoes will be hit by relentless squalls.
There will be shouts of “All hands on deck!”
There will be seasickness.
They will learn, as one crewmember says, the things that teach you where you came from, what you are made of and who you are.
And they will reach the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia in 16 days.
The pū (conch shells) are blown; the sound is steady and strong. You can hear them long after the sails of Hōkūleʻa have been unfurled, freed in the breath of the winds.
Excerpted from the book Mālama Honua: Hokule‘a—A Voyage of Hope, published by Patagonia Books.
This beautiful hardcover book chronicles Hōkūleʻa’s epic mission to nurture worldwide sustainability. Interwoven with descriptions of Hōkūleʻa’s experiences in port are the voices of the master navigators and crew members, who guide the ship along the ocean’s trackless path, and the local pioneers—scientists, teachers, and children touched by Hōkūleʻa—who work tirelessly to weather the many environmental challenges of our modern lives. 320 pages, with full-color photographs throughout.