It’s a typical bucolic Saturday afternoon at Kualoa Beach Park fronting Kaneohe Bay during the annual Kualoa Canoe Festival. Polynesian Voyaging Society lead navigator Kaiulani Murphy, a woman in peak physical shape, watches the Keaulana O Kalihi, a gorgeous, blonde nearshore sailing canoe a hundred meters from shore through a break in the ironwood trees. “It’s about to catch the wind,” she says, as it prepares to come about, tacking into the trades. “We couldn’t have asked for an easier day to sail.” The canoe is a traditional Hawaiian design, devoid of ornamentation and designed for turbulence. Framed by the trees, it could convince the deepest skeptic of the romance of Polynesian seafaring.
The canoe is one of three traditionally designed nearshore Polynesian canoes giving short tours during the festival, which could more easily be described as a family gathering, with canoes. Like others built in recent years, the Keaulana O Kalihi is part of the ohana waa (family of the canoe) and the fruition of a renaissance in Pacific sailing tradition which will culminate this June with the conclusion of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Malama Honua (“Care for Our Island Earth”) Worldwide Voyage.
The canoe festival marks a seminal date in the Pacific. At this bay in March 1975, the Polynesian Voyaging Society first launched the Hokulea (“the star of gladness”), the first replica of an ancient waa kaulua, or deep-sea voyaging canoe. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was created in the early 1970s, in part, to test the theories of transoceanic voyages made by Polynesians prior to Western contact. In the 18th century, Capt. James Cook observed canoes sailing against the wind and current, running circles around British ships. In the intervening centuries since then, many traditional forms of canoe building were lost. Whereas Hawaiian waa kaulua were made from the koa tree, Hokulea was crafted using fiberglass, wood and resin with the certainty of 20th-century technology. What remained uncertain, however, were the traditional forms of knowledge to navigate the beloved canoe.
What the crew had was a craft, but no captain. Its builders realized no living person in Hawaii had the complicated skills necessary to guide it. The story that unfolded next, of adventure, tragedy and community resilience, continues to inspire. Mau Piailug, a navigator from the tiny island of Satawal in Micronesia—the last man on his island to be initiated in the secrets of sailing without instruments from his grandfather—taught the intrepid first crews of Hokulea how to sail to Tahiti and further across the Pacific as their ancestors had, and the Hawaiian Renaissance found its metaphor in the skills necessary to sail.
Hokulea has now sailed with hundreds of crewmen and women across the seven seas. Mau Piailug, who passed away in 2010, was replaced as lead navigator in the 1980s by Nainoa Thompson, whose father, Myron “Pinky” Thompson, was instrumental in rearticulating the mission of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and managing the complex administration of scores of funders, volunteers and projects. Following the example of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Hokulea, other waa kaulua have been built in the past two decades in Tahiti, Micronesia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga and on all major Hawaiian Islands, symbolizing the stories of Pacific communal ideology and ecological connection.
“I heard Nainoa Thompson speak when I was at the university in the fall of ’97, and signed up for the class he was instructing,” remembers Murphy. “At the conclusion of that class, I was one of the few that didn’t get seasick. I guess you’d call it luck.” Wind, swell, weather conditions, the rising and setting sun, human factors, and the seaworthiness of the vessel are all considered when navigating a waa kaulua in the manner that Piailug and Thompson codified. Murphy’s work requires a multifactored thought process in a constantly changing environment. A navigator is ordinarily left to his or her work, often in 48 hour shifts, or watches, unbothered by small talk or sea shanties. At the highest level, long-distance deep-sea navigation requires the mental permutations of rocket science.
To capitalize on the traditional seafaring renaissance and bring attention to the necessity of oceanic stewardship, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, under the direction of Thompson, spent over a decade planning the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage. In May 2014, the Hokulea and its crew left Hawaii with hundreds gathered in Honolulu and Hilo to sing and see them off on their journey around the world. It’s a scene that has been repeated over the years, in populated cities and isolated communities across the vast Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. As envisioned by Pinky Thompson, the canoe has been boarded by politicians, environmental activists, children and sailors the world over.
Murphy sailed and navigated Hokulea on legs from Hawaii to Tahiti, Tonga to Aotearoa (North Island, New Zealand), and Massachusetts to Maine as part of the Worldwide Voyage. At times, she shared navigating duties with Thompson, though often she fulfilled the role alone. Crewmembers from the early days of the Polynesian Voyaging Society joined a crew largely made up of students in their 30s to take part in the voyage, flying to ports around the world, readying their famous vessel, and sailing her to the next destination. Murphy was chosen to lead the final leg of the Worldwide Voyage from Tahiti back to Hawaii.
To prepare in the traditional manner, she headed to the small Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe. Situated at the piko (center, or naval) of the archipelago, Kahoolawe was historically important as a site from which to memorize the patterns of celestial bodies aligned with the Islands’ latitude. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the island was a bombing target of the U.S. Navy, where pilots based on Oahu trained to strafe and deliver ordnance as they would in similar terrain throughout the Cold War. In 2004, under management of the island by a Native Hawaiian community organization, an observation platform on the west side of the island was rededicated as Lae O Kealaikahiki, or Point of the Pathway to Tahiti. On Kahoolawe, Murphy will do as navigators have done for centuries, awake through the night as she is during a voyage, tracing the circular path of the cluster of stars known as the Southern Cross, training her body and mind to observe its behavior in relation to other celestial bodies and the sea. In addition to myriad signals from nature, Murphy will align the Southern Cross with her perspective on the kilo, or navigator’s seat, located near the stern of the canoe. She must track this faint cluster of stars for a voyage that may last as long as four weeks. Unlike modern western sailing, the traditional Pacific navigating process involves a significant degree of finding, or perpetual discovery, what navigators call “pulling up” the land.
“She’s got the discipline,” says Billy Richards, one of the first crewmembers to sail aboard Hokulea from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1975, regarding Murphy’s capacity. “All of us who sail and lead voyages, we all trust that she’ll get us to where we want to go. She’s good at it—calm and focused. She doesn’t let things bother her too much and I really like her style.” Richards knows something about style. He’s sailed adventurous and ambitious legs of the journey, including the sail from the west African nation of Mozambique to Richards Bay in Cape Town, South Africa, and from the coast of Chile to Rapa Nui, Easter Island. In pictures from these places, at cultural gatherings and aboard the canoe, he sports a Vandyke beard in the style of Malcolm X as he did as a young Vietnam veteran when he first sailed, and projects the impossibly masculine cool of seafaring. Since his first sail, Richards has become a pillar of the Hawaiian community, working for several nonprofit organizations as an advocate for sustainable aquaculture and culturally appropriate education models. “The only way for people to assume the role is to give them the room to do so, and a lot of these kids deserve it,” Richards says. “They work hard. They have good hearts. They’ve got the hearts of voyagers.”
When Hokulea docks in Papeete, after traveling around the world since 2014, Murphy will board her once again as lead navigator for the voyage home. “It’s been 20 years now,” Murphy remarks, looking up to note that the Keaulana O Kalihi is making its way out to sea. “Being on canoes has certainly guided my life, become my profession as a college instructor and taught me most of what I know. I’m almost as ready as I’ll ever be,” she says. “We’ve selected our crew, and are awaiting the final call.”
On Hawaii Island, recent Polynesian Voyaging Society crewmember Hana Yoshihata similarly waits and trains. Last year, Yoshihata graduated summa cum laude from the University of Hawaii with a degree in art and art history. In lieu of full-time employment, graduate school or major exhibitions of her work, she has donated her time on and around canoes. In 2015, Yoshihata spent over a year training at the Marine Educational Training Center at Sand Island on the island of Oahu, where the Polynesian Voyaging Society docks its canoes. Years earlier, Murphy was her instructor. In the summer of 2016, when Hokulea’s sister vessel, Hikianalia, was in drydock, she volunteered with others for countless hours.
“I could paint, so that’s what I did,” Yoshihata says. “I get to say that every donut, plank and railing was varnished by me, multiple times. I spent big chunks of time learning everything I could while waiting for things to dry. If you don’t build that relationship with the canoe, developing skills, knowing and trusting it, you won’t be able to trust it out on the water.”
When Hokulea was making its way through the American East Coast in the fall of 2016, Yoshihata got the call for Malama Honua, and sailed from Haverstraw, New York, across Delaware and into Virginian waterways. “We were there as the leaves were turning along the banks of the river, which was beautiful,” she remembers. “But it was also unreasonably cold on that canoe at night.” Back home in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii Island, she continues to volunteer with administrative work, and has been notified that she will join Murphy’s crew for the final leg of the voyage.
“This is a bucket list thing,” Yoshihata says. “My first goal was to just get to sail, then to voyage, and maybe on the worldwide voyage. I’m making myself mentally and physically prepared for this, for whatever happens. I’ll get to see my island, my home, rise up from the sea. And it’s more than a visual narrative—it’s a dream. That this reality will occur, that after leaving Tahiti the first land I’ll see after weeks in the deep ocean is something I have been imagining for years.”
In Tahiti, sister vessel Hikianalia and canoes from the island nations of Samoa and New Zealand will meet with Hokulea and join her in the voyage to Hawaii. As per tradition, they will likely race, testing the respective skills of their navigators and the mettle of their crews. “I realize that voyaging back in the ’70s was mostly done by beefy, burly men. And sometimes we need those guys, but not as much as you’d think,” Yoshihata says. Once off of South Point, Hawaii Island, the fleet of Polynesian voyaging canoes will likely meet with Hawaiian nearshore canoes like the Keaulana O Kalihi as well as the recently launched deep-sea voyaging canoes, Mookiha O Piilani of Maui and Namahoe of Kauai.
This resurgence of traditional voyaging seen across Polynesia has inspired books, animated movies, and curriculum at every level of education and academic discourse. It has been argued that generations are fictions, created to aggregate humans into convenient categories. But, in Polynesian seafaring, the first generation, begun at Kaneohe Bay with the launch of Hokulea and its navigation by Mau Piailug, has resulted in the creation of dozens of progeny in canoes, and hundreds of young men and women from across the Pacific who have turned their interest into a committed lifestyle on the sea, and pointed their yet undiscovered lives in the direction of canoe building, sailing, navigating and preservation of the environment. As Kaiulani Murphy guides the famous vessel home, the official conclusion of the Malama Honua voyage will be more than a metaphoric transition from one generation’s leadership to the next. When Hokulea returns to Hawaii with a fleet, it will be the beginning of an ongoing voyage of perpetual discovery.