Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 26, 2003

Hokule'a crew shares sea duty, contentment

By Jan TenBruggencate

Hokule'a cruised off the south shore of Oah'u last month on its way to Kaua'i, and then Nihoa, with a crew of 18.

Advertiser library photo

The questions roll in when people find you've been sailing aboard Hokule'a: What was it like? How do you eat? How do you bathe and what do you do for a toilet? Was it spectacular? ...

For the people who sail on the canoe, such details are not as important as the sense of community among crew members, star-lighted seas, images of people moving silently on deck in the moonlight, and the utterly amazing sight of an island rising up over the horizon at dawn.

"I've never experienced anything as spiritual and as special as this journey," said Cindy Macfarlane, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Epiphany School. She was one of 18 people — the largest crew Hokule'a ever has taken on a major voyage — who sailed in early September from Kaua'i to Nihoa, a small, unpopulated Hawaiian island 150 miles northwest of Kaua'i and Ni'ihau.

The crew was a diverse one. It was from 21 to 55 years old, included men and women, and had a wide array of occupations, from a shipwright to a college professor, from ocean veterans to people who had never been aboard a canoe before this summer.

The crew quickly melded into a unit that seemed to work effectively. There was no yelling aboard. Watch captains often spoke in voices that were barely above whispers. Sails got set, anchors hoisted, hulls bailed out, meals cooked, dishes washed. Everybody volunteered. If you noticed something needing attention and didn't respond immediately, it was done before you got back to it.

Some crew members saw this as almost a mystical thing.

Hokule'a crew members Russell Amimoto and elementary schoolteacher Cindy Macfarlane look at Nihoa from the south. A total of 18 people — the largest crew Hokule'a has ever taken on a major voyage — sailed in September from Kaua'i to Nihoa, an uninhabited island.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Life aboard Hokule'a was saturated with 'ohana, sharing, and returning to a time in history with our kupuna, and living the extended 'ohana values of malama, aloha, lokahi, and most valuable, a complete Hawaiian cultural way of life by navigating with the stars and moon," said Noelani Tachera, an education and cultural specialist at the Bishop Museum, and also a member of the cultural protocol group that went to conduct ceremonies on Nihoa.

Watch captain Mel Paoa said he was impressed that the protocol group so easily fit into the canoe's patterns, "not only with their own kuleana, but becoming crew members and taking on the task to make sure that the canoe and the crew was safe."

New crew members expressed awe at the seamanship and navigation of the canoe's officers.

"Nainoa Thompson was up all night studying the ocean, sky and winds. Watching him in action was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen a human do," Macfarlane said.

Amid all of that, we lived the specific things people ask about.

The crew sleeps in the canoe's hulls along the sides of the deck, under a canvas cover, on a foam pad. There are 10 bunks. With 18 people on board, the ship was divided into six-hour watches—you're on watch for six, then off for six, and while you're on watch, someone else is sleeping in your bunk.

The canoe has all its food packed in plastic containers and hundreds of gallons of water kept in compartments in the hulls, except for two jugs kept on deck for refilling personal water bottles.

Cooking is done over a two-burner propane camp stove in a deep box. Food is served in saimin bowls.

After a couple of days, the only fresh food is fresh-caught fish.

Navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, right, views the horizon from the stern of the voyaging canoe Hoku-le'a with veteran Hoku-le'a crewman Jerry Muller.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Dishes are washed in salt water hauled up in a plastic bucket. It's wet, uncomfortable work — and yet people competed to be each meal's dishwasher, such was the camaraderie. The dishes are dried with a cloth to minimize the buildup of salt.

At the stern of each hull, there is a compartment with a curtain. To bathe, a crew member can pull the curtain for privacy, haul up bucket of seawater and wash using special soap that creates suds in salt water.

You rinse with more buckets of seawater. If you use a towel or pareu (a strip of patterned cotton) to dry off, there's not too much salt crystallization on your skin. Ultimately, you hope for rain to give you a good rinse.

For the toilet, you put on a nylon harness, clip it onto the canoe, and hang your 'okole over the side of the canoe behind the privacy curtain. It is perhaps the toughest part of canoe life to get accustomed to.

But nobody remembers that part.

"As each day came and went, I found that each day brought beautiful weather, calm seas, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises, and a full moon lighting our entire path. Sea birds abounded, monk seals and dolphins frolicked around each island, and fresh fish kept us all full and happy," Macfarlane said.

We had satellite phones, VHF radio, shortwave radio and other electronic gear. And someone did fire up Israel Kamakawiwo'ole on a CD player as we ghosted up to Nihoa Island. But our entertainment was talking with one another, chanting and listening to Hawaiian chants, reveling in the open sea, and enjoying the sublime harmonies of crew members Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole and Kainani Kahaunaele, both of whom have music CDs out.

The wrenching thing, ultimately, was not the privations of being exposed to the weather, jerking and rolling on the seas. It was returning to civilization.

Navigator Nainoa Thompson stands next to the Hokule'a's photovoltaic panels, attached at the stern of the canoe and used to charge batteries for lights and satellite phones.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Navigator Thompson said he turned onto the jammed freeway and was impressed by the symbolism of too many people in too small an area, and the sense that Hawai'i's people are not addressing effectively the questions about how to live on islands.

"On the freeway, I had two images in mind. One was approaching the south side of Nihoa, seeing the green hills. The other was being at anchor (off Nihoa's western cliffs) seeing the moon rise above a place not polluted with light," he said.

"In my mind is imprinted this extraordinary place that's out there in the sea. I went there — it was wild and free — knowing that we can go back in a way that's caring and not hurtful to the place."

MacFarlane had somewhat similar experiences:

"I have to admit, it was strange to come back to our civilization of lights, people, cars, cement, litter, noise and deadlines. For the past four nights, I have dreamt of the ocean and of sailing. Sometimes I feel that I am still bobbing, and often I have held back tears of longing. Longing for the friendships I made; longing for peaceful sounds of the wind and the sea rapping at the canoe; longing for that chance to see an unlittered ocean full of life."

And Tachera: "It was strange to see lights and cars upon our arrival to Nawiliwili, but the experience on Hokule'a is forever tattooed in my na'au. I'm still trying to get my feet used to land. I'll miss the lulling of the oceans and the deep sense of 'ohana and lifelong friends as I return to the world awaiting on land for me."

Advertiser science writer Jan TenBruggencate sailed from O'ahu to Kaua'i, and then on to Nihoa, aboard the Hokule'a. Reach him at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.