By Lynn Cook
Hawaiian men and women and others who love the sea and these beautiful islands, anchored in the Tropic of Cancer, sail on great Polynesian voyaging canoes. They dream great dreams. They accomplish heroic feats, not just for themselves but also for the generations to come. They sail by the ancient ways with non-instrument navigation. Their compass is a rising and setting star. They voyage in all our names.
In the 1970s historic accounts of ancient voyages fired the imaginations of Hawaiian sailors and surfers, artists and anthropologists. Their theory was that in a time when Europeans had not ventured from the sight of their own shores, Polynesians were making voyages of discovery and then returning to settle far-off islands.
Ancient rock carvings of canoe sails were discovered on Hawai‘i Island. They were studied and copied. Canoe designs were created and considered. Epic voyages were planned. Those with the navigator’s heart did not question the possibility of success.
Referred to as the ‘Hawaiian Renaissance,’ the ’70s and ’80s were a time of realization that Hawai‘i had to malama, care for, its treasures of music, language, arts and voyaging, before they were lost. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was organized, a 61-foot, double-hulled voyaging canoe, Hokule‘a, was designed and built, and the theory of Polynesian wayfinding was proven when the canoe was successfully sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti and beyond with only the stars, wind and waves as a navigational guide.
The canoe carried a captain, a navigator, a crew and the dreams of thousands in Hawai‘i, then hundreds of thousands of people, worldwide. Hokule‘a was soon joined by two more canoes—the Makali‘i and Hawai‘iloa—to explore all the Pacific Islands, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., allowing new dreams for young crews, training for the epic adventure of their lives. These canoes broke the historic barrier between the ancient celestial navigation skills of Polynesians and the oil-powered world of modern travel.
Back in the day, Billy Richards worked a musician and an underwater survey diver. He didn’t belong to a canoe paddling team. What he knew of the voyaging canoes came mostly from the evening news. “I drove by Kualoa one day when Hokule‘a was anchored there,” he says. “I saw it was fiberglass with dacron lines. I thought, ‘this isn’t real.’” But, the thought of voyaging didn’t leave his mind. He heard that they were taking crew who paddled in canoe clubs. “That wasn’t me,” he says.
As Billy tells the story: “One day on the Big Island, outrigger canoes were racing out and back, around the Hokule‘a, anchored off shore. They said the canoe was about to sail, would we paddle the crew out? I jumped in and helped. We stayed for their prayer circle, asking for a safe voyage. Just as we started to pull our canoe away a hand came out to me. A crewmember said, ‘I think you belong on this boat.’ I knew he was right.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Richards has been voyaging ever since, across oceans, accepting challenges. Richards is president of the Friends of Hokule‘a & Hawai‘iloa, charged with restoring the canoe Hawai‘iloa, made of native woods, so it can voyage Hawaiian waters as the Hokule‘a voyages around the world. He is also the president of the ‘Ohana Wa‘a, the statewide organization and alliance of canoes, canoe builders, friends and fundraisers who recently welcomed Vaka Moana, the five new canoes from the South Pacific. Voyaging may be one of the world’s most costly endeavors. Young crewmembers have been heard to say, “it isn’t technically a sport or a career, it is a way of being.”
“In the late ’80s”, Richards says, “We did a tree search in the koa forests of the Big Island for a koa tree tall enough and big enough around to carve into a canoe. We found it but had no way to get it off the mountain.” He laughs as he recalls, “I called the U.S. Marines to see if they could air-lift something that was five to six tons. They said ‘no problem’ until they heard it was up where the air was too thin to operate.”
The Tlingit tribe, owners of the SeAlaska Corporation, offered two Sitka spruce logs, 200 feet tall, seven feet in diameter and over 400 years old. In the journals of Captain George Vancouver, he described the largest canoe ever seen in the islands, somewhere between 60 and 100 feet long, carved from the trunk of a pine tree. To those who doubt, Richards says, “visit Ka Lae, South Point on the Big Island even today and you can see drift logs from Alaska.”
The canoes called Hokule‘a and Hawai‘iloa voyaged to destinations that were instinctively recognized, charted by stars but not written down. Hawaiian navigators were trained by the late Mau Pialug, a Micronesian from Satawal Island. He was the only master who still knew the art of wayfinding.
Hokule‘a navigator, Nainoa Thompson, Mau’s first student navigator, says that, “Mau passed on his closely-guarded knowledge of blue water voyaging so it could be taught to future generations, and that’s our plan, to enlist the next generation of voyagers. Without them voyaging won’t continue.”
To fire the imagination of young adventurers, Hokule‘a is cruising toward their monumental plan for a 2013 voyage around the world. “Our mandate is that 40% of the crew will be under thirty,” Richards says. Thirty-two legs for the trip will allow the new crews to make their own history. “We are training now on Maui, Kaua‘i, the Leeward Coast of O‘ahu and Hawai‘i Island.” The trainees have logged 16,000 miles since April of ’08 and it’s only 21,000 miles all the way around the earth. Meanwhile, Richards and his team will bring life back to the Hawai‘iloa, the first deep ocean canoe in centuries to be built totally from native materials, so that it can be the touchstone for Hawai‘i as the voyagers circumnavigate the globe.
Soon Hawai‘iloa will join Makali‘i and Hokule‘a—the three giants, restored and revitalized will be sailing against the wind, rising up to meet the dreams of people who may never voyage across an ocean but believe, because of these brave navigators in the great canoes, that they can.