Images by John Hook and Courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society
Weeks had passed since Hōkūleʻa had departed from Tahiti, and the weather had not been kind. Swaths of clouds, heavy with the promise of rain, blocked Hōkūpaʻa (the North Star) and Hānaiakamalama (the Southern Cross), star formations that would indicate their coordinates. Kaʻiulani Murphy sat atop the vessel’s koli hōkū, the navigator’s seat, straining her arm toward the night sky. Despite the currents, her hand was steady and sure as she lined it up with the horizon in search of the path home.
Murphy was navigating the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe to Hawai‘i Island for the last leg of its Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage—no small feat when you only have nature as your guide. Without the use of modern instruments, Murphy relied on traditional wayfinding methods, using her hands and eyes as her compass, and the sky as her map. On cloudy nights like this, when no moon or stars revealed the path, and not even the ocean’s surface was visible, she turned to her instincts, and to what she felt was happening. “It’s just a waiting game,” Murphy says. “Be patient for the clues to reaffirm what you already know.”
The young navigator was chosen for this leg of the trip for a reason, namely, her confidence and composure that’s able to transcend any storm of situations. The inclusion of female crewmembers, like Murphy, on this trip is significant—in the years past, it was difficult for women to earn spots on voyages. She follows in the footsteps of Shantell De Silva, who was the first female navigator to lead Hōkūleʻa’s journey from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi. “One of the things that young girls can take from Hōkūleʻa,” Murphy says, “is that you really can be anything you want to be.”
The navigator first encountered the vessel as a child, on an elementary school field trip. Their paths crossed again while she was a freshman at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, when a then 19-year-old Murphy attended a lecture by Nainoa Thompson, who, back in the 1970s, was taught the art of traditional navigation by one of its last remaining practitioners, Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug. Inspired by the stories Thompson told of the people he met and the experiences he had, Murphy set out to earn her own adventures. The next semester, she declared a major in Hawaiian Studies, and registered for a course on navigation. Within a year, she was interning at the Polynesian Voyaging Society, assisting Thompson in his preparations for Hōkūleʻa’s 1999 voyage to Rapa Nui.
Hōkūleʻa has long been a symbol for social movements. In the 1970s, the canoe’s successful inaugural voyage to Tahiti helped to restore pride within the Native Hawaiian community. The trip, accomplished without the aid of Western instruments, demonstrated the capabilities of traditional Polynesian navigational techniques. “From the first time that the first missionaries came to Hawai‘i, our culture was devalued, we almost lost our language, and practices like hula were banned,” Murphy says. “The voyaging canoe was one key part of flipping that over, making us aware how intelligent our ancestors really were. That wasn’t in our consciousness until Hōkūleʻa showed us how it could be done.”
After its first trip, the Polynesian Voyaging Society continued Hōkūleʻa’s travels in order to spread knowledge and pride to communities throughout the Pacific. In 1985, during its two-year Voyage of Rediscovery, the vessel sailed to destinations throughout Polynesia. In the 1990s, No Nā Mamo and Nā ʻOhana Holo Moana took the Hōkūleʻa beyond Polynesia, to islands throughout the Pacific and to ports on the mainland of the United States. The Polynesian Voyaging Society set its sights on the grandest voyage yet in 2014, setting off on the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, a three-year journey circumnavigating the world as a response to today’s threats of climate change.
In the last days of this voyage, the crew set their eyes on the horizon. They were on course for Hawaiʻi, as determined by Murphy, having turned toward their final destination at Hānaiakamalama some nights earlier. Within days, the faint horizon line had grown, and Murphy recognized it as Hawaiʻi Island. “It felt good to finally bring her home,” Murphy says.
Hōkūleʻa arrived on Oʻahu on June 17, 2017, welcomed by a crowd so large that Kālia, Magic Island, was standing-room only. The homecoming signaled the end of the canoe’s epic voyage. But for Murphy, the journey aboard Hōkūleʻa is far from over. “It’s just one continuous cycle, yeah?” she says. “This is the end to one journey, but the start of the next.” Until then, Murphy will be standing on the docks, looking for her next adventure.