Images Copyright of Polynesian Voyaging Society and ‘Ōiwi TV (2014)
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Wisdom of the Sands, the writer advised a man who wished to build a boat: “Don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Since the day my dad first took my brother and me into the crashing waves of O‘ahu’s south shore, I have been an ocean person. Over time, my curiosity to explore beyond the shoreline grew, along with my interest in my Native Hawaiian heritage. I learned in school that the Polynesians, my ancestors, were the greatest explorers of Oceania, based on their ability to survive epic ocean voyages and to skillfully navigate routes to distant lands using only their knowledge of nature’s patterns.
It was in my final year of high school at Kamehameha Schools when a friend invited me for an evening sail on Hawai‘i’s most famous voyaging canoe, Hōkūle‘a. Stepping onto the deck, I felt like I had crossed a symbolic threshold. No longer was the history of my ancestors a thing to read about in my schoolbook or a sight to see in pretty paintings, but rather, it was alive. I knew then that I wanted to be a part of the Hōkūle‘a ‘ohana. I volunteered to help with the constant maintenance that a sailing canoe requires and met generations of crewmembers who treat the famed wa‘a, or canoe, not as a vessel, but as an extension of one’s own family.
Advancing from a volunteer on land to a voyager aboard Hōkūle‘a is never guaranteed. Considering the level of danger out at sea, knowing how to sail safely is the number one priority, and each individual is trained by doing. As someone who is a slow learner, I had to grow tough skin before I could start growing my sea legs. Getting accustomed to the bilingual nomenclature on a voyaging canoe was a vexing task. When asked to “huki” (pull) the jib halyard to raise Hōkūle‘a’s sails, or “alu,”(slack) the mizzen sheet, I realized that it takes but a second to identify the amateurs from the crewmembers, the pollywogs among the shellbacks. I clung to my peers as I joined a cohort of other young Hōkūle‘a sailors who were beginning to study celestial navigation, our training consisting of everything from learning meteorology and Earth and space science to spending many hours on or in the sea in order to gather our own observations of nature’s cycles.
In 2013, I was asked to be a part of the team of apprentice navigators who would crew Hōkūle‘a’s first leg—a voyage from Hawai‘i to Tahiti—that was to kick off a three-year journey around the world. I vividly remember one evening on that trip to Tahiti, eight days in, and approximately 1,000 miles away from Hawai’i Island. I was lying on the deck of the canoe as she surfed through the Pacific Ocean, while the winds howled at 20 knots, and overhead swells rocked the vessel. In the midst of the tremors, I looked up to the stars, and felt a great peace wash over me. For the first time, I realized what a great adventure I had embarked upon. I felt more connected to my ancestors, who once gazed at these very same stars, than ever before.
The Hōkūle‘a has since sailed with dozens of crews across vast oceans, finding port throughout the Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, and numerous other countries. It is now in its final year of the worldwide voyage that seeks to mālama honua, or “care for our Island Earth.” Over the course of this journey, Hōkūle‘a will travel more than 46,000 nautical miles to reach 26 countries, 85 ports, and 12 World Heritage marine sites.
Captain Billy Richards, a crewman of Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976, is one of many passing on knowledge to a new generation. “People ask me how much it takes to build a voyaging canoe,” Richards said at a recent training class at the Sand Island port in Honolulu. “I tell them, ‘Your life.’ People see these canoes, and don’t realize the maintenance, the hours, the time invested in them, the relationships necessary to sail—almost all of it completely voluntary. These canoes have taken and given us so much more.”
The opportunity to learn celestial navigation has defined the majority of my adult life. Being recognized as an apprentice navigator has given me a seat at the table, and the chance to glean wisdom from world-renowned practitioners. In each journey that I’ve been fortunate to take part in, my goal has remained the same: honor my teachers, care for my community, and do what is necessary to protect the wa‘a that has given me a window to the world.