Hōkūle'a: The Story of Hawaiian Voyaging Canoes
One morning in September of 2013, I woke up to the pleasant view of the Hōkūleʻa resting in calm waters across the street from my home. How, I wondered, could a canoe so small have carried my ancestors over thousands of miles of ocean hundreds of years ago? To be in the presence of such a humble seacraft, modeled after the traditional double-hulled canoes or waʻa kaulua, is inspiring to those of us who know its story.
Over the centuries, the Hawaiians and other Polynesians had all but lost the art (and science) of navigating the Pacific Ocean using traditional methods commonly called “sailing by the stars” or wayfinding. Until the 1970′s when a man named Mau Piailug arrived on the scene. Mau was an elder and master navigator who had all the knowledge needed for deep ocean voyaging. He had been entrusted with this knowledge and skill by his ancestors, but no one on his tiny island of Satawal in Yap, Micronesia in the western Pacific seemed to want to carry on the sailing traditions. And Mau was getting older...
As serendipity would have it, what is now called the Hawaiian Renaissance was just dawning in the decade of the 1970′s. Native Hawaiians were reclaiming their culture and language that had gone underground after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. New laws were passed in Hawaiʻi allowing the language to once again be taught in public schools. Hula and traditional chants resurfaced; traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts flourished again. And Mau Piailug decided to see if the Hawaiians were ready to venture forth onto the oceans. The rest is history...they were.
The Hōkūleʻa′s successful 1976 maiden voyage to Tahiti seemed to prove that ancient Polynesians had used the ocean currents as their highway between the different Pacific islands. Mau taught a handful of men everything he knew and navigated the canoe without instruments. The Hōkūleʻa landed in Papeete, Tahiti only 33 days after leaving Hawaiʻi. The crew was greeted by a jubilant crowd of 17,000 Tahitians.
Four decades later, the men that Mau trained are called master navigators. Chief among them is Nainoa Thompson, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
Mau Piailug died in 2010 at the age of 78. His legacy of traditional ocean navigation re-awakened the voyaging spirit in men and women whose very existence is due to their ancestors leaving land and trusting their senses.
Sailing without instruments uses every sense known to man and probably a few most of us are unfamiliar with. A navigator must have an understanding of:
- The seasonal movement of the heavens, the stars and planets,
- How to read clouds and know what type linger over land,
- How to smell the wind and recognize its direction,
- The fish and visible sea creatures,
- The effect of the length and speed of waves,
- The ocean currents.
- And most of all, a navigator must understand that there is a Creator who made it all, because gratitude to the gods is always paramount to a successful voyage.
The afterglow of the Tahitian voyage didnʻt last long. In 1978, following the fervor of the successful maiden voyage to Tahiti, Hōkūleʻa once again set sail for Tahiti. It capsized between Oʻahu and Lanaʻi without radio or modern instruments.
Eddie Aikau, one of Hawaiʻi′s best-known ocean men, left on a surfboard on a dark night to get help for the crew and was never seen again. Eddieʻs death caused Mau and the Hawaiians to re-examine their long-term goals for navigation. They set careful standards for safety and preparation going forward.
It is unknown, after all, how many Polynesians lost their lives during ancient voyages. Only the oceans know... Since Eddieʻs death in 1978, no one else has died during Hōkūleʻa′s travels over thousands of miles of open ocean.
Alaska Natives' Link to the Hawai'iloa
In 1980, the Hōkūleʻa successfully sailed roundtrip from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti again, closing the loop on the ill-fated attempt in 1978. In the 1980′s, Hōkūleʻa′s crew logged more than 16,000 nautical miles sailing to Tahiti, Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Tonga, Samoa and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
In 1990 after more than a decade of successful voyages, it was decided that the Polynesian Voyaging Society would build Hōkūleʻa′s sister canoe entirely from natural materials. Sadly, Hawaiʻi′s native forests had declined so much that there was not a large enough or healthy enough koa (native wood) log found in the entire state. In an unprecedented gesture, the native people of Southeast Alaska gave two 400-year old spruce logs to the Hawaiians to build their second voyaging canoe. The Hawaiʻiloa was launched in 1993 and spurred new efforts to protect Hawaiʻi′s fragile environment and forests, along with a cultural link to Alaskaʻs indigenous people.
The 1990′s saw the spread of Hōkūleʻa′s influence on Hawaiian education and the rest of Polynesia. In 1992, Space Shuttle astronaut Lacy Veach participated in conversations with Hōkūleʻa and Hawaiʻi classrooms during Hōkūleʻa′s voyage to Rarotonga. Other distance education courses have been developed since then.
In 1995, six Polynesian canoes set sail on a successful journey from the Marquesas Islands to Hawaiʻi; five of the six used traditional voyaging without instruments. By that time, other Polynesians had built their own canoes and been trained for ocean navigation.
The six canoes were the Hōkūleʻa, Hawaiʻiloa, and Makaliʻi from Hawaiʻi, Te ʻAurere from Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Te ʻAu Tonga from Rarotonga (Cook Islands). The Polynesian Voyaging Society began classes on navigation and sailing at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and at Windward Community College
Hōkūleʻa′s Worldwide Journey
In 2013, Hōkūleʻa began its most ambitious journey yet – a 47,000 nautical mile voyage around the world. The name of the voyage was Mālama Honua – Caring for Island Earth. Hōkūleʻa carried the message of sustainability and valuable lessons learned from island communities that are often overlooked in the great technological age of the 21st century. The voyage was navigated without instruments, a feat that had never been done before.
During the first year, Hōkūleʻa sailed to points within the Hawaiian Islands. This is where I was privileged to awake to the view of her at Pōkaʻi Bay in Waiʻanae, Oʻahu. Acknowledging the fact that every voyage begins from home, Hōkūle’a’s crew anchored in 33 communities, worked with 175 schools, and interacted with over 20,000 people to embark on their grand voyage with the blessing of Hawaiʻi′s residents.
In May 2014, Hōkūleʻa set sail for the deep, open oceans far beyond those sailed by the ancestors. Her circumnavigation of the globe took three years with visits to 150 ports in 18 nations. The 245 participating crew members rotated in three-month shifts and engaged local communities in Native Hawaiian practices of sustainability. The Hōkūleʻa crew met with more than 100,000 people worldwide in communities across the South Pacific, Tasman Sea, Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea. Locations visited included Samoa, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, Indonesia, Mauritius, South Africa, Brazil, U.S. Virgin Islands, Cuba, the U.S. East Coast, Canada, Panama, and the Galapagos Islands.
In June of 2017, 50,000 people welcomed Hōkūleʻa home to Honolulu Harbor. She and her stalwart crew had succeeded in carrying the spirit of the Native Hawaiian ancestors and traditional wayfinding to the far corners of the earth.
© 2014 Stephanie Launiu